The best books on the social history of jazz

Who am I?

I grew up hearing jazz thanks to my dad, a big swing fan who allegedly played Duke Ellington for me in the crib. My father couldn’t believe it when I developed a taste for “modern jazz,” bebop, even Coltrane, but he never threw me out. Fifty years later I still love to play jazz on drums and listen to as much as I can. But along the way, I realized the world might be better served by me writing about the music than trying to make a living performing it. I had the great privilege of studying jazz in graduate school and wrote about big-band jazz for my first book, which helped launch my career.


I wrote...

Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America

By David W. Stowe,

Book cover of Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America

What is my book about?

Bands were playing, people were dancing, the music business was booming. It was the big-band era, and swing was giving a new shape and sound to American culture. Swing Changes looks at New Deal America through its music and shows us how the contradictions and tensions within swing—over race, politics, its own cultural status, the role of women—mirrored those played out in the larger society. Drawing on memoirs, oral histories, newspapers, magazines, recordings, photographs, literature, and films, Swing Changes offers a vibrant picture of American society at a pivotal time and a new perspective on music as a cultural force.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Stomping the Blues

David W. Stowe Why did I love this book?

I came across this book when I decided to focus my graduate study on the history of jazz and was reading everything I could find. It’s a short book, full of incredible vintage photographs, and it taught me so much about what swing is, how music and dance are joined at the hip. How it’s all rooted in the blues. And about the link between the “Saturday Night Function” of celebrating life with music and dance, followed a few hours later by the “Sunday Morning Function,” singing and celebrating God and community in church. The two are not all that far apart. Along with Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray was probably the first author to write about jazz with a real sense of lyricism and poetry. In this book, the writing itself carries the energy and exuberance of jazz.

By Albert Murray,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this classic work of American music writing, renowned critic Albert Murray argues beautifully and authoritatively that "the blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say in high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance."

In Stomping the Blues Murray explores its history, influences, development, and meaning as only he can. More than two hundred vintage photographs capture the ambiance Murray evokes in lyrical prose. Only…


Book cover of Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

David W. Stowe Why did I love this book?

Christopher Hall made a convincing case that we should think of music not as a thing but as a social activity: musicking. No book does a better job getting inside jazz musicking than Thinking in Jazz. Paul Berliner is a veteran musicologist and trumpet player who spent 15 years embedded in the world of jazz, learning to play jazz and carrying out interviews with dozens of musicians, including the likes of Art Farmer, Max Roach, Lee Konitz, James Moody, Tommy Flanagan, Emily Remler, Barry Harris, Doc Cheatham, Carmen Lundy, and Wynton Marsalis. He analyzes musical examples drawn from the first years of jazz to the present. Most impressively, he takes us into the lightning-fast interplay of muscle memory, spontaneous inspiration, and group dialogue that constitutes jazz at its finest. There is so much going on in the moment of creation and it’s incredible how well Berliner captures it all. Your admiration for the art of improvisation will jump a few notches even if you’re already astonished at what your ears are taking in.

By Paul F. Berliner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Thinking in Jazz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This text reveals how musicians, both individually and collectively, learn to improvise. It aims to illuminate the distinctive creative processes that comprise improvisation. Chronicling leading musicians from their first encounters with jazz to the development of a unique improvisatory voice, Paul Berliner demonstrates that a lifetime of preparation lies behind the skilled improviser's every note. Berliner's integration of data concerning musical development, the rigorous practice and thought artists devote to jazz outside performance, and the complexities of composing in the moment leads to a new understanding of jazz improvisation as a language, an aesthetic and a tradition. The product of…


Book cover of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times

David W. Stowe Why did I love this book?

Everyone knows that jazz is intimately and inextricably linked to Africa, but no book does a better job of breaking down just how strong this relationship is. Pianist Randy Weston and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik are pretty well known, but Kelley uncovers lots of fascinating new material on both musicians and their transnational connections. Drummer Guy Warren and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin were new to me and both turned out to have incredible backstories. Kelley is as compelling on the jazz scenes of Cape Town and Lagos as he is on the more familiar haunts of Chicago and New York. It was such an exciting historical moment, with one African nation after another breaking free of their colonial subjugators. The jazz world was bursting with creativity. Anything seemed possible. Kelley knows the jazz world inside and out and writes beautifully.

By Robin D. G. Kelley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Africa Speaks, America Answers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, pianist Randy Weston and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik celebrated with song the revolutions spreading across Africa. In Ghana and South Africa, drummer Guy Warren and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin fused local musical forms with the dizzying innovations of modern jazz. These four were among hundreds of musicians in the 1950s and '60s who forged connections between jazz and Africa that definitively reshaped both their music and the world.

Each artist identified in particular ways with Africa's struggle for liberation and made music dedicated to, or inspired by, demands for independence and self-determination. That music was the wild, boundary-breaking…


Book cover of Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

David W. Stowe Why did I love this book?

Space Is the Place opened so many windows for me into a world of esoteric spirituality fused with mind-blowing musical and theatrical creativity. John Szwed was a member of my PhD dissertation committee, although it was pretty hard to track him down, and he was wrapping up this book as I finished my own. I’d seen Sun Ra at my college and thought of the Arkestra as a kind of spaced-out novelty act, not knowing anything about Ra’s history: his celestial epiphanies; his long immersion in big-band jazz, including his stint with the great Fletcher Henderson; the cadre of stellar musicians he recruited and molded for the Arkestra; his entrepreneurial streak. When I turned to the study of music and spirituality, Szwed’s biography became an indispensable source. Afrofuturism has become a very hot topic in contemporary cultural studies, and there’s no better way into its arcane mysteries than through this study of an absolutely sui generis jazz genius.

By John Szwed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Space Is the Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Considered by many to be a founder of Afrofuturism, Sun Ra-aka Herman Blount-was a composer, keyboardist, bandleader, philosopher, entrepreneur, poet, and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial from Saturn. He recorded over 200 albums with his Arkestra, which, dressed in Egypto-space costumes, played everything from boogie-woogie and swing to fusion and free jazz. John Szwed's Space is the Place is the definitive biography of this musical polymath, who was one of the twentieth century's greatest avant-garde artists and intellectuals. Charting the whole of Sun Ra's life and career, Szwed outlines how after years in Chicago as a blues and swing band pianist, Sun Ra…


Book cover of Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution

David W. Stowe Why did I love this book?

Michael Denning was my dissertation advisor in grad school and one of the most impressive scholars of American culture that I know. What I like about Noise Uprising is that it gives us a whole new perspective on the beginnings of jazz. No longer is American jazz at the center of the universe. Instead, it’s a small piece of a larger mosaic of popular music that stretched from Havana and Rio to Seville, Cairo, Jakarta, and Honolulu. Before reading this book I had no idea that musical recording even went on in all these far-flung places, beginning in 1925, even before the great wave of recordings appeared from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton. We learn about the origin and first recordings of such major genres as samba, son, tango, flamenco, tarab, kroncong, and hula. All of these styles were deeply embedded in the social and political struggles of colonized people. How Denning got on to all this musical activity and found enough sources to write the book is beyond me, but I’m so glad he did.

By Michael Denning,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In a handful of years between the development of electrical recording in 1925 and the outset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, the soundscape of modern music unfolded in a series of relatively unnoticed recording sessions around the world. These included the recording of tango in Buenos Aires, son in Havana, and samba in Rio; of hula in Honolulu, shidaiqu in Shanghai, and kroncong in Jakarta, and; of taraab in East Africa and marabi in Johannesburg. In this ground-breaking study, Michael Denning draws a global map of a musical revolution that had more profound consequences than the "modern"…


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Book cover of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

Marianne C. Bohr Author Of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

New book alert!

Who am I?

I married my high school sweetheart and travel partner, and followed my own advice to do graduate work, and started my career working for the French National Railroad in New York City, mapping itineraries for travelers to Europe. Travel means the world to me and if I don’t have a trip on the horizon, I feel aimless and untethered. I worked in book publishing for 30 years and dropped out of the corporate rat race to take a gap year abroad. I wrote about our “Senior year abroad” in my first book Gap Year Girl. I returned to the US to teach middle school French and organize student trips to France. 

Marianne's book list on by women about outdoor adventure

What is my book about?

Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica — the GR20, Europe’s toughest long-distance footpath — to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.

From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an “I’ll show them” attitude. But hiking GR20 forces her to transform a lifetime of hard-won achievements into acceptance of her body and its limitations.

The difficult journey across a remote island provides the crucible for exploring what it means to be an aging woman in a youth-focused culture, a physically fit person whose limitations are getting the best of her, and the partner of a husband who is growing old with her. More than a hiking tale, this is a moving story infused with humor about hiking, aging, accepting life’s finite journey, and the intimacy of a long-term marriage—set against the breathtaking beauty of Corsica’s rugged countryside.

By Marianne C. Bohr,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Great for fans of: Suzanne Roberts's Almost Somewhere, Juliana Buhring's This Road I Ride.


Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica-the GR20, Europe's toughest long-distance footpath-to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.


From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an "I'll show them" attitude. But hiking The Twenty forces her to…


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