The best books on jazz’s connection to democracy

Why am I passionate about this?

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.  

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The books I picked & why

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

Charles Hersch Why did I love 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.  

By Christopher Small,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Music of the Common Tongue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In clear and elegant prose, Music of the Common Tongue, first published in 1987, argues that by any reasonable reckoning of the function of music in human life the African American tradition, that which stems from the collision between African and European ways of doing music which occurred in the Americas and the Caribbean during and after slavery, is the major western music of the twentieth century. In showing why this is so, the author presents not only an account of African American music from its origins but also a more general consideration of the nature of the music act…


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

Charles Hersch Why did I love 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.  

By Sherrie Tucker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Swing Shift as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The forgotten history of the "all-girl" big bands of the World War II era takes center stage in Sherrie Tucker's Swing Shift. American demand for swing skyrocketed with the onslaught of war as millions-isolated from loved ones-sought diversion, comfort, and social contact through music and dance. Although all-female jazz and dance bands had existed since the 1920s, now hundreds of such groups, both African American and white, barnstormed ballrooms, theaters, dance halls, military installations, and makeshift USO stages on the home front and abroad.
Filled with firsthand accounts of more than a hundred women who performed during this era and…


Book cover of Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction

Charles Hersch Why did I love 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.  

By Ingrid Monson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Saying Something as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this work, Ingrid Monson juxtaposes musicians' talk and musical examples to ask how musicians go about "saying something" through music in a way that articulates identity, politics, and race. Through interviews with Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, Sir Roland Hanna, Billy Higgins, Cecil McBee, and others, she develops a perspective on jazz improvisation that has "interactiveness" at its core, in the creation of music through improvisational interaction, in the shaping of social communities and networks through music, and in the development of cultural meanings and ideologies that inform the interpretation of jazz in twentieth-century American cultural life.


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

Charles Hersch Why did I love 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.”

By Paul Gilroy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Black Atlantic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Afrocentrism. Eurocentrism. Caribbean Studies. British Studies. To the forces of cultural nationalism hunkered down in their camps, this bold hook sounds a liberating call. There is, Paul Gilroy tells us, a culture that is not specifically African, American, Caribbean, or British, but all of these at once, a black Atlantic culture whose themes and techniques transcend ethnicity and nationality to produce something new and, until now, unremarked. Challenging the practices and assumptions of cultural studies, The Black Atlantic also complicates and enriches our understanding of modernism.

Debates about postmodernism have cast an unfashionable pall over questions of historical periodization. Gilroy…


Book cover of Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

Charles Hersch Why did I love 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.  

By Mikhail Bakhtin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is not only a major twentieth-century contribution to Dostoevsky's studies, but also one of the most important theories of the novel produced in our century. As a modern reinterpretation of poetics, it bears comparison with Aristotle."Bakhtin's statement on the dialogical nature of artistic creation, and his differentiation of this from a history of monological commentary, is profoundly original and illuminating. This is a classic work on Dostoevsky and a statement of importance to critical theory." Edward Wasiolek"Concentrating on the particular features of 'Dostoevskian discourse,' how Dostoevsky structures a hero and a plot, and what it means to write…


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Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

By Antonieta Contreras,

Book cover of Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

Antonieta Contreras Author Of Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

As a trauma therapist and dedicated researcher, I love uncovering valuable insights within lesser-known books. There are hidden gems, free from the pressure of commercial success, crafted by authors deeply committed to research, understanding, and the art of writing itself. Their dedication resonates with me, as I believe in the profound value of information and the power of critical thinking. Through my own book, Traumatization and Its Aftermath, I aim to emphasize that psychological concepts often lose their depth in translation and my mission is spreading awareness and fostering a deeper understanding of trauma and its intricate facets. With that idea in mind, I chose these five titles. 

Antonieta's book list on uncovering the human experience and exploring the depths of trauma

What is my book about?

A fresh take on the difference between trauma and hardship in order to help accurately spot the difference and avoid over-generalizations.

The book integrates the latest findings in brain science, child development, psycho-social context, theory, and clinical experiences to make the case that trauma is much more than a cluster of symptoms to be tamed, but instead best understood as development gone off course, away from growth and towards (only) survival.

This book prompts a profound shift in perception, inviting to view trauma as an intricate and diverse experience, a point of view that ultimately leads to sharper treatment and, hopefully, more healing. It encourages a transition from asking, "What happened to you?" to the deeper question, "What is your relationship with what happened to you?"

Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

By Antonieta Contreras,

What is this book about?

The book is comprehensive, bold, and practical-a much-needed resource for the assessment and treatment of trauma. Instead of the traditional focus on the overall importance of healing, Traumatization and its Aftermath decodes why some people don't heal as easily as others, analyzes the various failures of diagnosis, and explains how to make therapeutic interventions truly effective.

This book offers a systemic deep dive into traumatization that clarifies myths and misinformation about the entire spectrum of trauma and provides both clinicians and non-clinicians with the right level of validation, preventive measures, conceptualization methodology, assessment tools, and healing facts that have not…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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