The best scholarly books on jazz

Why am I passionate about this?

As a scholar as well as performer of the African American creative improvised music usually called jazz, my attunement to this art form resonates with its historico-cultural matrix as much as with the sounds themselves.  These books distinguish themselves for being well-researched and rigorous.  They are the real deal, doing justice to the heart as well as the intellect of this  art form.  



I wrote...

Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity

By Paul Austerlitz,

Book cover of Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity

What is my book about?

Drawing on his background as an ethnomusicologist as well as years of experience as an accomplished jazz musician, Paul Austerlitz argues that jazz-and the world-view or consciousness that surrounds it-embodies an aesthetic of inclusiveness, reaching out from its African American base to embrace all of humanity. Fans and musicians have made this claim before, but Austerlitz is the first to provide a scholarly basis for it. He examines jazz in relation to race and national identity in the U.S. and then broadens his scope to consider jazz within the African diaspora and in very different transnational scenes, from the Dominican Republic to Finland. Based on extensive fieldwork, the book explores jazz in an extraordinary range of contexts. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction

Paul Austerlitz Why did I love this book?

Based on extensive personal interviews with some of the most impactful musicians in jazz, Dr. Monson demonstrates how the supremely interactive nature of jazz improvisation is based on the oral and aural traditions of African American vernacular speech. It therefore demonstrates the way that music, language, and other aspects of culture intrinsically form a unified complex whole.

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 John Coltrane: His Life and Music

Paul Austerlitz Why did I love this book?

To me, due to the rigor of its scholarship, this is the best book written about Coltrane. It combines meticulous attention to Coltrane’s life story with in-depth musical analysis of his oeuvre. A must-read for anyone who wants to really delve into the music of this monumental musical master. 

By Lewis Porter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is a definitive assessment of the life and work of jazz musician John Coltrane, based on new interviews with his colleagues and never-before-published material. John Coltrane was a key figure in jazz, a pioneer in world music, and an intensely emotional force whose following continues to grow. This new biography, the first by a professional jazz scholar and performer, presents a huge amount of never-before-published material, including interviews with Coltrane, photos, genealogical documents, and innovative musical analysis that offers a fresh view of Coltrane's genius. Compiled from scratch with the assistance of dozens of Coltrane's colleagues, friends, and family,…


Book cover of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Paul Austerlitz Why did I love this book?

This scrupulous 624-page tome elucidates the life and work of the High Priest of Bebop, Saint Thelonious Monk, in amazing detail and exactitude, while remaining supremely engaging and easy to read. The fact that the author developed the book with members of Monk’s family comes through in the authenticity of the narrative.  


By Robin D. G. Kelley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The image of Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982), with his trademark goatee, dark glasses, and hat, is today a poster-image of coolness just as Che Guevara's face once was an image of rebellion. Jazz fans revere Monk for his ground-breaking compositions and piano playing from the 1950s and 1960s, but to a wider audience he stands for something much bigger: the very idea of native genius; a quirky, absent-minded, unalloyed originality that is the perfect symbol of the indefinable essence of jazz. Monk's creations from the 1950s and 1960s rank among jazz's most beloved classics, yet Kelley shows that the life…


Book cover of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

Paul Austerlitz Why did I love this book?

This book is remarkable for Lewis’s unique profile, which combines status as a major contributor to, as well as a critic of, creative improvised African-American music. It tells of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), an organization focused on freely improvised music, which is unique for having wedded aesthetic innovation with the struggle for social justice.

By George E. Lewis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Power Stronger Than Itself as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Founded in 1965 and still active today, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is an American institution with an international reputation. George E. Lewis, who joined the collective as a teenager in 1971, establishes the full importance and vitality of the AACM with this communal history, written with a symphonic sweep that draws on a cross-generational chorus of voices and a rich collection of rare images. Moving from Chicago to New York to Paris, and from founding member Steve McCall's kitchen table to Carnegie Hall, "A Power Stronger Than Itself" uncovers a vibrant, multicultural universe and brings…


Book cover of Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes

Paul Austerlitz Why did I love this book?

Pianist Hawes is an under-sung master of the early bebop period. This supremely readable narrative tells the story of how he met and played with Charlie Parker already in his teen years, painting a picture of how jazz musicians lived in the heyday of the bebop revolution. A fun and informative book.  

By Hampton Hawes, Don Asher,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Raise Up Off Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hampton Hawes [1928–1977] was one of jazz's greatest pianists. Among his peers from California the self-taught Hawes was second only to Oscar Peterson. At the time of his celebration as New Star of the Year by downbeat magazine (1956), Hawes was already struggling with a heroin addiction that would lead to his arrest and imprisonment, and the interruption of a brilliant career. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy granted Hawes an Executive Pardon. In eloquent and humorous language Hampton Hawes tells of a life of suffering and redemption that reads like an improbable novel. Gary Giddins has called it "a…


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We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

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What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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Interested in jazz musicians, jazz, and Illinois?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about jazz musicians, jazz, and Illinois.

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