The best books on jazz’s connection to democracy

Charles Hersch Author Of Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans
By Charles Hersch

Who am I?

Music has always spoken to my innermost being, and coming of age in the late 1960s, I’ve been drawn to the quest for justice and equality in politics.  In my undergraduate studies at Berkeley, the late political theorist Michael Rogin, who interpreted Moby Dick as a parable of 19th Century race relations, taught me that my two interests could be combined.  As a professor of Political Science I’ve written books and articles that explore music’s ability to express ideas about politics, race, and ethnicity in sometimes unappreciated ways. 


I wrote...

Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans

By Charles Hersch,

Book cover of Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans

What is my book about?

Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz tells the story of jazz’s birth in the context of New Orleans’s complex racial history, drawing on oral histories, police reports, newspaper accounts, and vintage recordings. I show how jazz subverted racial segregation through the creation of mixed race venues and by the performances of musicians who drew on different ethnic traditions to entertain a variety of audiences. Out of these encounters came a music that embodies an ongoing dialogue between the African and European musical traditions and thus between America’s ethnic identities.  

The books I picked & why

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Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music

By Christopher Small,

Book cover of Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music

Why this book?

In this utterly unique book, Small contends that music does not consist of “works” but is rather an activity called “musicking” that enacts relationships – between sounds but also among the participants, including the audience. Through musicking we learn about ourselves in relationship to others, and that relationship can be one of submission (sitting quietly listening to an orchestra) or equality (jazz musicians improvising in response to each other while the audience shouts encouragement). In Small’s view, African American music enacts democratic relationships, in which all participate as equals, and individuality is enhanced rather than hindered by group solidarity.  


Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s

By Sherrie Tucker,

Book cover of Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s

Why this book?

This punningly-titled book is an act of historical excavation, uncovering the hundreds of all-female swing bands that have been erased from jazz history. But Tucker goes beyond this, asking how the lenses of gender, race, class, and sexuality affected how these bands were seen and heard and, equally important, how they forged their destinies within those constraints. They had difficulties to overcome – wearing gowns that made it more difficult to play and caused them to be taken less seriously as musicians, and risking arrest by having white members “passing” as Black in the South. But Tucker’s “counternarrative” shows how these bands found creative ways to evade such barriers, by using stereotypes of femininity and masculinity to their advantage or presenting themselves as “international” to push against the color line.  


Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction

By Ingrid Monson,

Book cover of Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction

Why this book?

In this book Monson shows how the best jazz performances, those that flow with a “groove,” are like great conversations: musicians listen carefully to each other and respond, sometimes taking another’s idea and adding to it, so that the result expresses both individuality and a collective sensibility. Through what she calls “intermusicality,” such musical conversations also span across time, because when musicians improvise on “standard” tunes like “All the Things You Are,” they draw on and respond to previous canonical recordings of those compositions, and experienced listeners hear such echoes as well. In these multilevel musical conversations, musicians model ways of being that are conducive to a democratic community.  


The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness

By Paul Gilroy,

Book cover of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness

Why this book?

Gilroy sees in black music a democratic “ethos” embodied in features like “call and response” and improvisation. This ethical sensibility unites disparate parts of the African diaspora, but Gilroy also insists that the music is irrevocably “hybrid” and “Creole,” connecting African-derived cultures with European and other ones as well. Gilroy argues that black music’s connective ability creates an intersubjective, democratic community which he calls an “alternative public sphere.”


Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

By Mikhail Bakhtin,

Book cover of Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

Why this book?

Although not about jazz or even music, this rich text provides a foundation for thinking about jazz democratically and has influenced some of the above-mentioned authors. Bakhtin argues that artworks have the potential to put multiple voices in conversation with one another without resolving them to a single point of view. The epitome of such artworks was what he called, using a musical metaphor, the “polyphonic novel” pioneered by Dostoevsky. Such artworks embody and encourage a “broadening of consciousness,” an openness to the voices of others that is the essence of democracy at its best.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in jazz, African Americans, and music?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about jazz, African Americans, and music.

Jazz Explore 83 books about jazz
African Americans Explore 432 books about African Americans
Music Explore 73 books about music

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Music of Black Americans, Here in Harlem, and Blues People if you like this list.