The best books on the social history of jazz

David W. Stowe Author Of Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America
By David W. Stowe

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.

The books I picked & why

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Stomping the Blues

By Albert Murray,

Book cover of Stomping the Blues

Why 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.

Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

By Paul F. Berliner,

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

Why 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.

Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times

By Robin D. G. Kelley,

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

Why 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.

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

By John Szwed,

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

Why 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.

Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution

By Michael Denning,

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

Why 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.

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