The best books about jazz

18 authors have picked their favorite books about jazz and why they recommend each book.

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Considering Genius

By Stanley Crouch,

Book cover of Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz

Crouch (1945-2020) was many things: jazz drummer, poet, philosopher, novelist, biographer, critic. In that last role he was, as the publisher’s notes to this indispensable book of essays on jazz and related matters puts it, “the perennial bull in the china shop of African-American intelligentsia.” Crouch relished controversy — he hated fusion, the popular blend of jazz and rock that came along in the 1970s; he abhorred rap; he even had unkind words to say about Toni Morrison’s Beloved. He was passionately contrarian on racial matters, refusing to hew to any politically correct line. He detested simplistic thinking in any form. Calling Bird, Clint Eastwood’s widely praised 1988 biopic of Charlie Parker “very bad,” Crouch wrote of the “stack of glowing reviews… that reveal the extent to which many who would be sympathetic to Negroes are prone to an unintentional, liberal racism. That racism reduces the complexities of…


Who am I?

Now it can be said: three decades ago, when Vanity Fair assigned me to write a profile of Miles Davis to accompany an excerpt of his about-to-be-published memoir, I presented myself as a jazz expert — when in fact my enthusiasm for the music far outweighed my knowledge. But in the years since I’ve learned a lot about America’s great art form, in part through researching my Frank Sinatra biography — Sinatra worked with many important jazz musicians — and now in working on my latest book, about Miles and two of the geniuses who collaborated with him on his historic album Kind of Blue, the saxophonist John Coltrane and the pianist Bill Evans.


I wrote...

Sinatra: The Chairman

By James Kaplan,

Book cover of Sinatra: The Chairman

What is my book about?

James Kaplan goes behind the legend to give us the man in full, in his many guises and aspects: peerless singer, (sometimes) powerful actor, business mogul, tireless lover, and associate of the powerful and infamous.

The story of 'Ol' Blue Eyes" continues the day after Frank claimed his Academy Award in 1954 and was beginning to reestablish himself as the top recording artist in music. Frank's life post-Oscar was incredibly dense: in between recording albums and singles, he often shot four or five movies a year; did TV show and nightclub appearances; started his own label, Reprise; and juggled his considerable commercial ventures (movie production, the restaurant business, even prizefighter management) alongside his famous and sometimes notorious social activities and commitments.

The Birth of Bebop

By Scott DeVeaux,

Book cover of The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

When I began my book I’d been out of graduate school for 25 years. I read deeply to see what I’d missed and discovered what is now called cultural history. It seems to me that a great deal of it is written to a template rather than directly from the facts as discovered. Even though DeVeaux comes out of the academic world, I get no such sense from Bop. It’s brilliant. Immaculately researched and nicely written, it addresses the extraordinary transition of Black music from entertainment-driven (however artful) to art (however entertaining). It’s an important story, and DeVeaux tells it beautifully.

Who am I?

I have a sophisticated education, including a Ph.D. in History from the University of Massachusetts. I have had a career, if that’s precisely the word, in the music business as the publicist for the Grateful Dead. I spent ten years researching what became On Highway 61. I have been a close observer of America’s racial politics at least since 1962, when the head of the Hollywood NAACP, James Tolbert, and his family, moved in next door to my family’s home in the white working-class neighborhood of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Mr. Tolbert instructed me in music among other things, and I’ve been studying ever since.


I wrote...

On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom

By Dennis McNally,

Book cover of On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom

What is my book about?

61 traces the relationship of African American culture, generally music, from the 1850s to the 1960s. It begins with Henry David Thoreau, whose thinking on government was profoundly influenced by slavery and his role in supporting abolition. Mark Twain grew from a conventional racist to a writer who could write the powerfully liberating satire of Huckleberry Finn, in considerable part due to the influence of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Ragtime was an essential element in bringing the modern to mainstream America. Jazz in various forms each influenced white youth, from the Austin High Gang to Jack Kerouac. And Bob Dylan synthesized black form (rock and roll) with literature to make rock and roll high art.

Wail

By Peter Pullman,

Book cover of Wail: The Life of Bud Powell

By the time he became a producer of reissues for Verve Records, Pullman had been immersed in Bud Powell's life and recordings for decades, and produced the best life we have of one of the most important and prodigiously talented pianists who ever lived, and who was one of the inventors of modern jazz. Powell led a chaotic life, complicated by what we would now call a bipolar personality as well as addictions and mistreatment by the law, but Pullman captures it almost day by day, including the club gigs and recording sessions, without ever bogging down in pathos.

Who am I?

I started buying records 70 years ago. I worked in a car factory for a decade, then landed a job in publishing, having written a couple of magazine articles, and finally got a chance to do what I was born to do: write about my favorite subject. Music has been the most important thing in the world to me ever since I heard the hits of the 1940s on the radio, playing on the kitchen floor while my mother did the ironing. I believe music is a mystery, more important than we can know, in every way: intellectual, psychological, emotional, philosophical. That is why it is such a big business, even if the business itself is often less than salubrious.


I wrote...

Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon

By Donald Clarke,

Book cover of Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon

What is my book about?

Mine was the first book to make full use of a treasure trove of interviews with people who knew Billie Holiday from the time she was a kid in Baltimore. Her real name is Eleanora Harris; I discovered her birth certificate. Her doomy, gloomy so-called autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, was written to sell to the movies; there was much more to her than that. (Her ghostwriter, Bill Dufty, described her as the funniest woman he had ever known.)

I wanted to write about her because after listening to her music for decades, I knew she was not a tragic figure, but a feisty girl who made a lot of money, spent it all, and mostly did as she pleased. Helen Oakley Dance, her close friend, wrote about my book that "We shall probably have to wait a long time for another life of Billie Holiday to supersede Donald Clarke's achievement." The book is about her music as well as her life.

Hear Me Talkin' to Ya

By Nat Shapiro, Nat Hentoff,

Book cover of Hear Me Talkin' to Ya

This is a story of Jazz by the musicians who made it. Hear Me Talkin' to Ya is a wide study of the Jazz at its source (New Orleans) through the era of Big Bands and into Modern Jazz, from Kid Ory to Dave Brubeck. This book doesn’t have a narrative or authors’ opinions. This book features passages quoted by Billie Holiday, Mary Lou Williams, Lil Harden Armstrong, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Othello Tinsley, Dizzy Gillespie, and a hundred other musicians.

We’ve entered a second era of inclusion. Women now play an essential role in creating music. Add Lizzie Miles, Anita O’Day, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Mary Ann McCall, Alberta Hunter, and Leora Henderson and we get a different perspective of the evolution of music culture.  


Who am I?

More has been accomplished by music to wake us up that any marches, speeches, injustice, and/or wealth. In the beginning, music and its many forms I followed were an accident. Now I see that music is vital for social expression, intimacy, solitude. The walls in my writing room are covered with photos, CDs, 78s, and most certainly live recordings and books. I feel sorry for the soul(s) who will have to pick through this history when I’ve gone to that Upper Room.


I wrote...

Sinatra and Me: The Very Good Years

By Franz Douskey,

Book cover of Sinatra and Me: The Very Good Years

What is my book about?

Tony Consiglio started the famous Sally’s Apizza Restaurant in 1938, made famous by Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Johnny Mathis, Sammy Davis, Lyle Lovett, Andre Agassi.  In 1940, Tony and Frank Sinatra hit the road together, very close friends until Frank passed away. Tony was right there.  The stories come directly from Tony, who was Constantly by Frank’s side, on the road, in night clubs, all night gatherings that included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Joe DiMaggio, Pierre Salinger, Buddy Rich, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and these parties usually lasted beyond sunrise.  Tony poured the drinks. He never touched alcohol, but Tony said that he used to get stoned on the fumes.  

Black and Blue

By Barry Singer,

Book cover of Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf

Back when jazz was popular and popular music was jazz, Andy Razaf was born in Washington DC, a member of the royal family of Madagascar: one source says his name was Andriamanantena Paul Rezafinkarefo, his father a nephew of Queen Ranavalona III. Andy became one of the most successful lyricists of his era. By the time he and Fats Waller co-wrote the black broadway show Hot Chocolates in 1929, Louis Armstrong singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" from the pit, he was at the top of his game. He and Waller wrote "Honeysuckle Rose", "Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now", "Blue, Turning Grey Over You", "The Joint Is Jumpin'", and more; in the early years, they would sell their lead sheets to as many publishers as they could, knowing that the publishers were cheats too. But Razaf also wrote with Eubie Blake ("You're Lucky To Me", "Memories Of You"), James P. Johnson ("A Porter's…

Who am I?

I started buying records 70 years ago. I worked in a car factory for a decade, then landed a job in publishing, having written a couple of magazine articles, and finally got a chance to do what I was born to do: write about my favorite subject. Music has been the most important thing in the world to me ever since I heard the hits of the 1940s on the radio, playing on the kitchen floor while my mother did the ironing. I believe music is a mystery, more important than we can know, in every way: intellectual, psychological, emotional, philosophical. That is why it is such a big business, even if the business itself is often less than salubrious.


I wrote...

Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon

By Donald Clarke,

Book cover of Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon

What is my book about?

Mine was the first book to make full use of a treasure trove of interviews with people who knew Billie Holiday from the time she was a kid in Baltimore. Her real name is Eleanora Harris; I discovered her birth certificate. Her doomy, gloomy so-called autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, was written to sell to the movies; there was much more to her than that. (Her ghostwriter, Bill Dufty, described her as the funniest woman he had ever known.)

I wanted to write about her because after listening to her music for decades, I knew she was not a tragic figure, but a feisty girl who made a lot of money, spent it all, and mostly did as she pleased. Helen Oakley Dance, her close friend, wrote about my book that "We shall probably have to wait a long time for another life of Billie Holiday to supersede Donald Clarke's achievement." The book is about her music as well as her life.

Jazz Day

By Roxane Orgill, Francis Vallejo (illustrator),

Book cover of Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

Deservedly, this book received 6 starred reviews for a superb pairing of text and artwork recounting the story of a historic photograph. Taken in 1958 for Esquire Magazine, A Great Day in Harlem captured the gathering of outstanding jazz musicians on a city street, and Orgill's book brings the magic of that summer day to life for young readers. How I wish this idea had been mine! ;]


Who am I?

My prime credential for writing these books is my own humanity, as someone who's felt the deep power of music on the human spirit since childhood. The stories I tell in these books are about musicians and artists, people who had a passion for creating something out of thin air with patience and many years of hard work. I highlight their lives to give kids (and adults) examples of passion coupled with persistence because Life is often very challenging.


I wrote...

Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge

By Gary Golio, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Book cover of Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge

What is my book about?

Sonny Rollins loved his saxophone. As a teenager, he was already playing with jazz stars and making a name for himself. But in 1959, at age twenty-nine, he took a break from performing—to work on being a better, not just famous, musician. Practicing in a city apartment didn’t please the neighbors, so Sonny found a surprising alternative—the Williamsburg Bridge. There, with his head in the clouds and foghorns for company, Sonny could play to his heart’s content and perfect his craft. It was a bold choice, for a bold young man and musician.

Sonny’s passion for music comes alive in jazzy text and vivid, evocative paintings of New York City. His story celebrates striving to be your very best self, an inspiration to music lovers young and old.

The Chitlin' Circuit

By Preston Lauterbach,

Book cover of The Chitlin' Circuit: And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll

Want to write about music and musicians? You’ll need to understand the world in which they live. And if you’re writing about jazz and rock ‘n’ roll in the middle of the last century, that means a segregated, ugly world where even the most talented were treated as less than human. This was the world of the Chitlin’ Circuit. A dangerous, exciting, lawless network of nightclubs and juke joints from Memphis to New Orleans, Houston to Indianapolis, this topography spawned the popular music we love today. And nobody brings it to life like Lauterbach, whose reporting and language are as intense and musical as the era itself.


Who am I?

I was born in 1970. From my earliest memory there was music. But it’s never been just about the music, I have a natural curiosity for the people who make that music. The artist on the album cover, but also the side musicians, the producers, engineers, and promoters. I’m also fascinated by the roadmap from blues to rock to Laurel Canyon to disco to punk and on and on. Real music infuses and informs the fiction I write — by reading real-life accounts and listening to the songs, I’m put in the world from which it was all born.


I wrote...

Five Night Stand

By Richard J. Alley,

Book cover of Five Night Stand

What is my book about?

Legendary jazz pianist Oliver Pleasant finds himself alone at the end of his career, playing his last five shows, hoping the music will reunite his estranged family. Journalist Frank Severs, middle-aged, out-of-work, is at a crossroads as hope and marriage grind to a standstill. And piano prodigy Agnes Cassady grasps a dream before a debilitating disease wrenches control from her trembling fingers.

When Frank and Agnes visit New York, the force of Oliver’s music pulls them together. Over the course of five nights, they reflect on their triumphs and sorrows: family, regret, secrets. Their shared search for meaning and direction creates a bond that just might help them make sense of the past, find peace in the present, and muster the courage to face the future.

K.D. 30 Compositions

By Kenny Dorham,

Book cover of K.D. 30 Compositions

First of all, the compositions are incredibly beautiful. Kenny Dorham is the ultimate romantic. As an added bonus, Walter Davis arranges these often complex tunes in a way that is accessible for the intermediate pianist. The simple and economical voicings offer insights that you just can’t get from fake books. 


Who am I?

I’ve been the pianist for the Heath Brothers and the Jimmy Heath Quartet for over 20 years. Since moving to NYC in 1996, I’ve had the honor of playing and recording with an assortment of jazz luminaries including Charles McPherson, Roberta Gambarini, Lewis Nash, Winard Harper, Rodney Green, Michael Rodriguez, David Wong, among many others. During that time, I’ve also been actively involved in teaching, arranging, and writing, having three books published by Chuck Sher since 2013, An Approach to Comping Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive.


I wrote...

Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive

By Jeb Patton,

Book cover of Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive

What is my book about?

Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive is a fully immersive course designed to shed light on the inner workings of jazz piano and to help you attain skills necessary for basic comping (accompanying) and soloing. The 60 workouts highlight the importance of playing along with real classic jazz records in real time with accessible exercises that take you inside the rhythm section. You’ll be learning the basics of jazz piano while, at the same time, becoming acquainted with some of the classic jazz canons.

Thelonious Monk - Intermediate Piano Solos

By Ronnie Mathews, Thelonious Monk,

Book cover of Thelonious Monk - Intermediate Piano Solos

I love the way Mr. Mathews retains Monk’s personal and instantly recognizable sound while presenting very playable and economical jazz piano arrangements. I would recommend this to jazz piano students looking for a way to play Monk’s music as solo piano pieces. It's nice to be able to reference how to voice these tunes from a master who actually exchanged ideas with Monk himself. The collection includes some of the most popular Monk compositions along with some lesser-known gems.


Who am I?

I’ve been the pianist for the Heath Brothers and the Jimmy Heath Quartet for over 20 years. Since moving to NYC in 1996, I’ve had the honor of playing and recording with an assortment of jazz luminaries including Charles McPherson, Roberta Gambarini, Lewis Nash, Winard Harper, Rodney Green, Michael Rodriguez, David Wong, among many others. During that time, I’ve also been actively involved in teaching, arranging, and writing, having three books published by Chuck Sher since 2013, An Approach to Comping Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive.


I wrote...

Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive

By Jeb Patton,

Book cover of Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive

What is my book about?

Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive is a fully immersive course designed to shed light on the inner workings of jazz piano and to help you attain skills necessary for basic comping (accompanying) and soloing. The 60 workouts highlight the importance of playing along with real classic jazz records in real time with accessible exercises that take you inside the rhythm section. You’ll be learning the basics of jazz piano while, at the same time, becoming acquainted with some of the classic jazz canons.

The Standards Real Book, C Version

By Chuck Sher,

Book cover of The Standards Real Book, C Version

This resource offers a great selection of standards. Some include verses as well. The lyrics, chords, and melody are crystal clear and professionally copied. The look and style of these real books are legendary and very easy to use. I personally own the version in B-flat. This helps me see these tunes in another key and in turn, makes them slightly easier to transpose in general. Knowledge of standards cannot be underestimated in my opinion. For me, hearing how the great jazz pianists interpreted jazz standards is very illuminating.

Who am I?

I’ve been the pianist for the Heath Brothers and the Jimmy Heath Quartet for over 20 years. Since moving to NYC in 1996, I’ve had the honor of playing and recording with an assortment of jazz luminaries including Charles McPherson, Roberta Gambarini, Lewis Nash, Winard Harper, Rodney Green, Michael Rodriguez, David Wong, among many others. During that time, I’ve also been actively involved in teaching, arranging, and writing, having three books published by Chuck Sher since 2013, An Approach to Comping Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive.


I wrote...

Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive

By Jeb Patton,

Book cover of Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive

What is my book about?

Introduction to Jazz Piano, A Deep Dive is a fully immersive course designed to shed light on the inner workings of jazz piano and to help you attain skills necessary for basic comping (accompanying) and soloing. The 60 workouts highlight the importance of playing along with real classic jazz records in real time with accessible exercises that take you inside the rhythm section. You’ll be learning the basics of jazz piano while, at the same time, becoming acquainted with some of the classic jazz canons.

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