The best books about jazz musicians

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

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Leader of the Band

By Fay Weldon,

Book cover of Leader of the Band

Fay Weldon’s novels are plotted like my book Secret Lives of Planets: a sequence of chance and disconnected events which nevertheless form a biography. In this novel, Sandra Harris, known to her TV fans as "Starlady Sandra”, an astronomer (famous for her discovery of the new planet Athena), and a “professional searcher after truth”, leaves her inadequate husband and runs off with her jazz-playing lover to the south of France. She is pursued by her husband, her lover’s wife, and paparazzi. “She’s always seeing things“, her friends say: new planets, her Nazi war-criminal eugenicist father, her insane mother, other people. Human lives are a farce, like the accidental events of cosmology. 


Who am I?

Astronomy teaches us that our bodies are quite literally star stuff, chemical elements made inside exploding stars. For much of my life, I studied and researched astronomy in universities, and in observatories on remote and beautiful mountain tops and in space.  I explored the cosmos for its own sake, but I came to realise also that we are literally and metaphorically a part of the Universe, not apart from it. Just as the science of astronomy has done for me, these novels put humanity against the same backdrop: cosmic lives seen through women’s eyes. 


I wrote...

The Secret Lives of Planets: Order, Chaos, and Uniqueness in the Solar System

By Paul Murdin,

Book cover of The Secret Lives of Planets: Order, Chaos, and Uniqueness in the Solar System

What is my book about?

The subtitle of my book is Order, Chaos and Uniqueness in the Solar System.  It contrasts the conventional idea that the planets are locked into a perfect, repetitive, interlocking mechanical machine like a watch with the increasing realisation by astronomers of the strong role that chance and chaos have played in the way planets develop.  

I wrote the book with the thought in mind that the evolution of a planet was akin to someone’s life – a sequence of chance events linked by the progression that, in retrospect, makes the arc of an individual’s biography.  In the solar system, the major chance event was an orbital interference of Jupiter and Saturn.  It threw asteroids all around the solar system, smashing into the Earth and creating our satellite, scarring rocky worlds like Mercury and the Moon with craters, and ejecting countless asteroids, even planets, into the cold, dark depths of interstellar space.  That was a fate that our Earth evidently avoided, but only by chance.     

To Be, or Not... to Bop

By Dizzy Gillespie, Al Fraser,

Book cover of To Be, or Not... to Bop

For the same reason I would recommend attending any musical performance by John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie: Sheer entertainment, surprisingly touching aspects of his personality, instant feelings of friendship shared, and his unbreakable optimism, with which to face and endure whatever life had in store for him. In Italy he was a beloved “Italian,” officially elected honorary citizen of Bassano del Grappa, where we had opened the “Dizzy Gillespie Popular School of Music” that carried an integrated section for blind students. When his memoirs were published he asked me to translate the book into Italian, therefore I had to read it with particular concentration. Many were the moments I would have to shut the book and laugh out loud! Oh yes, Diz the Wiz, or The Joyous Soul of Jazz!     


Who am I?

Lilian Terry’s background is quite out-of-the-ordinary. Born in Egypt in 1930 to Maltese and Italian parents, she undertook academic studies in Cairo and Florence. Terry studied classical piano until age 17, developing an interest in jazz in her early teens. She participated in a variety of ways with jazz in Europe, beginning in the 1950s. As a singer, she was an active performer and recording artist. At the same time, she produced radio and television shows for Italy’s RAI network, and this activity led to some of her encounters with major figures of American jazz. Seven of these interactions (most of which spanned decades) are the subject of Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends.


I wrote...

Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends: On and Off the Record with Jazz Greats

By Lilian Terry,

Book cover of Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends: On and Off the Record with Jazz Greats

What is my book about?

"Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends offers a positive glimpse into the world of beloved jazz artist personalities with amusing anecdotes. From Ellington’s poetry to conversations with Roach, Charles, Silver, and Gillespie, Terry’s shared experiences and interviews present a captivating look into the world of jazz and its private moments." - Kerilie McDowall, Downbeat Magazine, January 2018

Raise Up Off Me

By Hampton Hawes, Don Asher,

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

I’d pair this painfully honest book by an important jazz artist who, like far too many of his peers, happened to be a heroin addict — and also like far too many, died too early — with a similar work, Straight Life, by the saxophonist Art Pepper and his wife, Laurie Pepper; both men did prison time for drug-related offences. Like Miles, Hawes comes alive on the page — but in a kinder and more philosophical way. His addiction is only part of who he is: “Everything you do is important and connected with everything else whether you’re playing piano, harp at St. Peter’s gate, or checkers in the park. The way you get up in the morning, smell the leaves… scratch a dog’s head and say hello to some kids, drive your car, go to the can, feel the sun — that’s where imagination and soul come…


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.

Pops

By Terry Teachout,

Book cover of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

It is not possible to have any serious grasp of America in the 20th century without knowing and understanding Louis Armstrong. His story covers a great deal of the Black experience, from the exodus out of the South to the racism of the North. His life exposes the homogenizing machine that is the entertainment industry. And it shows what happens when a genius refuses to accept tragedy. This is the definitive biography of a great American.

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.

Good Vibes

By Terry Gibbs, Cary Ginell,

Book cover of Good Vibes: A Life in Jazz

Terry Gibbs played vibes (vibraphone) with several of the most famous big bands during the Swing Era, than formed his own small groups, then led big bands himself starting in 1956. Steeped in Swing, he also held his own with the modernists. Perhaps his most amazing accomplishment was putting together his Dream Band, which recorded at least 68 selections, arranged by all the best arrangers in the business, in four different clubs in Hollywood, mostly in 1959. It was a 'dream band' because although the big band era was over, all the best musicians on the West Coast wanted to play in this one because the music was so much fun. Gibbs was in his 90s when his book came out; he knew how lucky he had been, and his book is full of joy and love.

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.

Piano Starts Here

By Robert Andrew Parker,

Book cover of Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum

Winner of the prestigious Schneider Award, Parker's text and artwork celebrate the genius of the great Art Tatum - who just happened to be blind. The words are poignant and effective, but it is Parker's watercolor paintings that glow and amaze with a balance of sophistication and childlike elegance. In short, a master of one medium is being honored by another. 


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.

Coming Through Slaughter

By Michael Ondaatje,

Book cover of Coming Through Slaughter

Another work that is wonderfully and winningly hard to pin down, Coming Through Slaughter is an imaginative and fragmentary collage of monologue, memoir, interviews, lyrics, photographs, archival material, hospital files—and white space—that builds a novelistic portrait of the mythical dark life and hard times of cornet player Buddy Bolden, one of the originators of jazz in New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century. From the little that is known about Bolden and his music, Ondaatje shapes an audacious story that is short, cinematic, dream-like, and devastating, a book that incontrovertibly proved once again to me that there are many, many ways to tell the story of a life. 


Who am I?

I've mostly made my living as a feature writer, covering a broad range of subjects—from 9/11 to the Poker Million tournament, Miles Davis to (a film version of) James Joyce’s Ulysses, British soldiers injured in Afghanistan to the Peace One Day campaign—for numerous UK and Irish newspapers and magazines, including GQ, where I was formerly deputy editor, and Esquire, where I was editor-at-large. I've also written extensively about music, jazz in particular; musicians I've interviewed include Nick Cave, Gil Scott-Heron, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, and Maria Schneider. My first book, a biography of the American guitarist Bill Frisell, was published by Faber in the spring of 2022.


I wrote...

Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music

By Philip Watson,

Book cover of Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music

What is my book about?

Over a period of forty-five years, Bill Frisell established himself as one of the most innovative and influential musicians at work today. A quietly revolutionary guitar hero for our genre-blurring times, he has synthesised many disparate musical elementsfrom jazz to pop, folk to film music, ambient to avant-garde, country to classicalinto one compellingly singular sound.

Described as “the favourite guitarist of many people who agree on little else in music,” Frisell connects to a diverse range of artists and admirers, including Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Vernon/Bon Iver, all of whom feature in the book. Through unprecedented access to the guitarist and interviews with his close family, friends, and associates, Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer tells the legendary guitarist’s story for the first time.

Music is My Mistress

By Edward ‘Duke’ Ellington,

Book cover of Music is My Mistress

I have three main reasons to love this book: a) it is brilliantly written by Ellington himself; with his gentle-ironical sense of humour and his intention to put down on paper his magic musical world for the entertainment of all generations to come. b) I was fortunate to be “adopted” by him during the last nine years of his life, when “Uncle Eddie” would dictate to me any subject that came to his mind and I would make sure he had his copy, for later use in his book. c) to the last days of his life he was a constant inspiration; as a generous human being and as a universal musician.


Who am I?

Lilian Terry’s background is quite out-of-the-ordinary. Born in Egypt in 1930 to Maltese and Italian parents, she undertook academic studies in Cairo and Florence. Terry studied classical piano until age 17, developing an interest in jazz in her early teens. She participated in a variety of ways with jazz in Europe, beginning in the 1950s. As a singer, she was an active performer and recording artist. At the same time, she produced radio and television shows for Italy’s RAI network, and this activity led to some of her encounters with major figures of American jazz. Seven of these interactions (most of which spanned decades) are the subject of Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends.


I wrote...

Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends: On and Off the Record with Jazz Greats

By Lilian Terry,

Book cover of Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends: On and Off the Record with Jazz Greats

What is my book about?

"Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends offers a positive glimpse into the world of beloved jazz artist personalities with amusing anecdotes. From Ellington’s poetry to conversations with Roach, Charles, Silver, and Gillespie, Terry’s shared experiences and interviews present a captivating look into the world of jazz and its private moments." - Kerilie McDowall, Downbeat Magazine, January 2018

Africa Speaks, America Answers

By Robin D. G. Kelley,

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

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.


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.

Space Is the Place

By John Szwed,

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

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…


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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