20 Great Books About Jazz

March 20, 2016

There’s only one reason to write about music and musicians, and that’s to encourage people to listen to the music. Every one of these books does just that. They range from the more scholarly end of the spectrum to the passionate and personal. Each one is written with love and affection for jazz, which has often inspired some of the best writing on music.

These are not the 20 “best” books on jazz, but every one is worth seeking out and reading. They will encourage you to listen to more music.

Which great books on jazz would you recommend and why?

satchm2Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (Louis Armstrong) Louis Armstrong’s exuberant first-hand account of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century is irresistible. Sometimes he may stray just a little from the facts, but that’s what also helps to make it so readable. There are other books about Pops, but only this one by the man himself.

Collected Works, A Journal of Jazz (Whitney Balliett) He’s been called “The most elegant of all jazz writers”, and it is hard to argue when you read his well-crafted prose. It is also a living history of half a century of jazz.

Treat It Gentle (Sidney Bechet) A fascinating book about a fascinating man. It takes you back to New Orleans and then takes you on a journey to Europe and back to America. Bechet’s reputation is one that sometimes detracts from just how important he was.

Shining Trumpets – A History of Jazz (Rudi Blesh) Published in 1949 this book quotes W.B. Yeats in the frontispiece, so you know that it is going to be scholarly, which it definitely is, but it’s also very readable. It’s one of the very earliest books to attempt the task and still a fascinating read.

Jazz (Bob Blumenthal) Bob Blumenthal's "Jazz: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America's Music" is a fabulous book. It’s been called “ the single best compact introduction to jazz currently available”. It’s certainly one of the very best.

The song of the hawkThe Song of The Hawk – The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins (John Chilton) English musician, writer, and critic, John Chilton passed away in early 2016 and the world last one of the great advocates for jazz. His perception when writing of Hawk’s music is like no other and his work is important in recognising one of the true greats.

Miles (Miles Davis) Miles Davis’s autobiography gives us an insight to jazz in the middle of the 20th century like no other book. He was on the inside and his insights are therefore very personal and possibly like no one else could have written. A must read.

Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz and American Pop (Gary Giddins) “Nobody writes with greater style and authority about American music than Gary Giddins. The great musicians are all here-from Professor Longhair to Charlie Parker-and it’s a pleasure to enjoy their company with a fine writer.” Says Pete Hamill and that says it best of all

Jam Session (Ralph Gleason) Jazz critic and writer Gleason collected this fascinating anthology of jazz writing and published it 1958. Reading it puts you right back in the moment.

Norman Granz – The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (Tad Hershorn) A detailed and exhaustive biography of the man who was so important to the way we see and hear jazz through his ground breaking ‘Jazz At The Philharmonic’ concerts and his record labels, including Verve, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Trane builtThe House That Trane Built – The Story of impulse Records (Ashley Kahn) One of the giants in terms of the music it recorded, impulse! is a label with a great story and thy albums that were recorded for the label are among the best from the 1960s and early 1970s. Kahn tells in great detail how impulse! went about it and as important tells of the music too.

Mister Jelly Roll (Alan Lomax) By his own admission, Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton was central to the emergence of jazz in the early 20th century, and this book is a wonderful romp through a time that almost no one living can now remember. Folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Morton recorded reminiscences, anecdotes, boasts and songs in 1938 and in 1950, Lomax converted the recordings into this book, graced by David Stone Martin's wonderful line drawings. Just listen to his records and read the back…time machines do exist.

Living With Jazz (Dan Morgenstern). Everyone who knows Dan knows that he is a man that understands jazz better than most anyone on the planet. The former editor of Down Beat offers a collection of writing that covers every nook and cranny of the genre. Seek it out and put it beside your bed.

Why Jazz Happened (Marc Myers) WSJ journalist and brilliant jazz blogger Marc Myers has written the first social history of jazz and it is unputdownable. It’s only a little over 200 pages but every one is crammed with facts and opinions that make it essential.

High Times, Hard Times (Anita O’Day with George Eells) It’s harrowing, and in places horrible, but Anita was there, knew them all and lived to tell the tale. A classic.

Ricky RiccardiWhat A Wonderful World – The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (Ricky Riccardi) Anyone who knows writer, historian, archivist, blogger and the single most exciting advocate of Pops’s music, hears Ricky Riccardi saying every word that’s in this brilliant book. Enthusiasm and insight are important when writing about jazz.

Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, the Story of Jazz As Told By the Men Who Made It (Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff) This is an oral history of jazz published in 1955, in which a vast array of musicians talk about the music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Get it!

Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (John F. Szwed) A fascinating musician and a book to match that offers amazing insights into his life and work

Pops, A Life of Louis Armstrong (Terry Teachout) A wonderful, meticulously researched book that tells us everything that we need to know about Armstrong. And let's face it, everyone needs to know about Satchmo

The Blue Moment (Richard Williams) This exquisitely written meditation on Miles Davis' album, Kind of Blue, is elegant and insightful and tells us all we want to know about this seminal recording. It is also a wonderful evocation into the very meaning and essence of blue. No praise is too high.

Share this story

106 comments

  1. Rachel
    Reply

    A book which should be on this list is But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz by Geoff Dyer. It’s simply perfect. I find it amazing that I found a love for jazz through reading this book. Love, love, love it and the author.

    1. Bernie Hirschbein
      Reply

      Yes, I totally agree. Unfortunately I loved the book so much I lent it out, and when I forgot who I lent it to I bought it again and lent it out. It’s so good!

    2. Nic
      Reply

      I agree Rachel. This is a wounderful book. You can tell that the author is passionate about Jazz. It´s an awesome subject !

  2. Ian
    Reply

    The Baroness: The Search for Nica the Rebellious Rothschild by Hannah Rothschild is an excellent read, documenting Pannonica Rothcshild’s introduction to jazz and her relationship with Thelonius Monk

  3. Ricky Green
    Reply

    A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton and Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz are rhe best books on the music’s history that I have read

    1. T G A Smith
      Reply

      I am envious Sam – I’ve heard it countless times – you still have a wonderful surprise in store. It’s stunning!

  4. Bo Leibowitz
    Reply

    I find Gunther Schuller’s “Early Jazz” and “The Swing Era” to be both definitive and indispensable.

  5. Wayne
    Reply

    There are a few books that should be read
    1. Straight Life by Art Pepper . Lays it out honestly being a junkie in jazz and his eventual return to great acclaim .
    2. The triumph of Charlie Parker by Gary Giddins. A superb book detailing the genius and the tragedy of Parker.
    3.The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance. Interviews with Ellington,band members ,and associates . Gives a unique insight to the wonders of the greatest composer and orchestra that jazz has produced

    1. Robert Ball
      Reply

      Straight life by Art Pepper is amazing. You’re not sure you like him when it’s done but you sure are glad he wrote the book . Few people have the courage to show themselves warts and all.

  6. Mark Fisher
    Reply

    Reading Jazz, A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now

    Edited by Robert Gottlieb

    Encyclopedic and fascinating read

  7. Teagardener
    Reply

    Along with all the books mentioned above, look for “Really The Blues” by Milton “Mezz” Mesirow.

  8. Boaz D Dror
    Reply

    Essential omissions:

    A. B. Spellman’s “Four Lives in The Bebop Business”
    Val Wilmer’s “As serious as your life”
    Mezz Mezzrow “Really The Blues”

  9. Ket
    Reply

    The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP, and Cassette: A Coprehensive, critical guide to recorded jazz — From its beginnings until the Present [1992], Richard Cook and Brian Morton

  10. Pierre
    Reply

    A specialized but highly interesting book is about the development of jazz in Japan: “Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan”, by E. Taylor Atkins. It is well known that jazz is still popular in Japan, as in France and elsewhere. In addition, Japan produced exciting artists: The fantastic pianist virtuoso Hiromi Uehara is doing very well, her last record Spark already produced large sales in Japan, and it will be available soon worldwide. To understand the development of Jazz in that country is fascinating.

  11. angela levey
    Reply

    A new one,just out—“-Stan Levey-Jazz Heavyweight”by Frank Hayde–Informative and a good read.

  12. lilididoomdoom
    Reply

    Duke Elington’s “Music is my Mistress”. Well-rounded curation of Jazz personalities from Ellington’s time; best platform to start a personal research.

  13. Tim
    Reply

    Both ‘A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers’ and ‘Jazz Singing:Americas Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond’ By Will Friedwald.

    Lush Life; A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. By David Hajdu

    Thelonious Monk; Life and Times of an American Original. By Robin D.G. Kelley.

    all essential

  14. Roger Strong
    Reply

    ‘Shining Trumpets’ is very one-eyed view of jazz in my opinion. So many books missing- what about ‘We Called it Music’ by Eddie Condon? Nothing I saw by Whitney Balliet who must be the finest writer in jazz….

  15. Tyler Smith
    Reply

    I would have A.B. Spellman’s “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” on the list. Takes you inside the hard work and commitment required to be a jazz musician, as told by the musicians themselves, including Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor — two who took a huge amount of abuse from critics and other musicians.

  16. Tyler Smith
    Reply

    I would have A.B. Spellman’s “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” on the list. Takes you inside the hard work and commitment required to be a jazz musician, as told by the musicians themselves, including Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor — two who took a huge amount of abuse from critics and other musicians. Jackie McLean and Herbie Nichols are also profiled.

    Also “Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews” by the late great drummer Art Taylor would make mine. Very provocative reflections about music, race, class and other issues in the voices of the musicians.

  17. Norman Shoaf
    Reply

    “The History of Jazz” and “West Coast Jazz,” both by pianist, critic, and music historian Ted Gioia. Thoroughly researched, readable, and compelling. These two books will leave you with a strong overview of jazz in America from Bix Beiderbecke to the present.

  18. Jacquelyn Weinbrenner
    Reply

    I am so very disappointed that none of the TWENTY books listed regard women in jazz. I’m sure there must be some great ones. Last year, I read ‘Billie Holiday’ by John Szwed and ‘Blues Legacies and Black Feminism’ by Angela Davis, both of which were awesome. I’m gonna see if there are any good books on Sarah Vaughn.

    1. Paul Hebert
      Reply

      Thanks for pointing out the glaring omission. I would especially love to read more about female instrumentalists — Mary Lou Williams, Geri Allen, Carla Bley, Alice Coltrane, Mary Osborne, etc….Got any recommendations?

  19. rob
    Reply

    All what jazz by Phillip Larkin..one of the funniest and opinionated books on Jazz.
    Joe harriott fire in his soul by Alan Robertson..great biog of a overlooked pioneer.
    A history of jazz in britain by Jim Godbolt (who also wrote all this and many a dog)
    Red and Hot..the fate of Jazz in the soviet union by S Frederick Starr..
    Hot Jazz,Cold Feet by John Chilton

  20. Tom
    Reply

    How about Gene Lees “Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s” and a spectacular history and comprehensive readers’ guide entitled “Jazz Fiction” by David Rife. The author synopses 700 jazz titles with a “voice” as clever and distinctive as the best jazz soloists.

  21. Andy Whyte
    Reply

    Straight Life (Art Pepper), Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond (Doug Ramsey), How Many of You Are There In The Quartet, Mr Brubeck (Paul Desmond*), Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (Ashley Kahn),
    A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album (Ashley Kahn), Cats of Any Color (Gene Lees), Facebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz (Richard Terrill)
    * Unfortunately Desmond never got around to writing it.

  22. Ron Weinstock
    Reply

    Art Hodes – Selections from the Gutter: Portraits from the “Jazz Record”; Kelley’s magnificent Monk biography; Peter Pullman’s Wail: The Life of Bud Powell (only available for Kindle I believe).

  23. Adam Engelhardt
    Reply

    Also strongly suggest “Straight Life” by Art Pepper. Excellent read about the dark side of addiction and an outstanding musician’s career.

  24. ABDULKARIM M. AHMAD
    Reply

    Info very informative. Most of the Books were unfamiliar to me but the performers were not. It took me back to a close friend, Horace Silver and the times spent in Upper Manhattan, NY. “The Good Olde Days”. Abou

  25. Bob Taylor
    Reply

    It’s beyond depressing that Richard Sudhalter’s “Lost Chords” is omitted yet again. This magnificent book is one of the greatest contributions to the scholarship of America’s music in the history of the nation. It should have won all sorts of awards besides the Deems Taylor ASCAP award it did get. Only a completely unjustified political correctness has kept this fascinating book unknown to most jazz lovers but thank God for freedom of the press and the genuinely thoughtful minds who have kept it in print.

  26. Greg Thomas
    Reply

    Two important books that encounter and explain, with different emphases, the relation of blues to jazz is Blues People by Leroi Jones (who became Amiri Baraka) and Stomping the Blues by Albert Murray, who would have been 100 on May 12, 2016. The blues and black American culture are at the root of jazz, so these books are essential.

  27. Sam
    Reply

    Well all the great comments and reviews I’ve seen about the book “But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz by Geoff Dyer”. It is on my list to buy. I love jazz of the fact we have 100 years of different genres, styles, profiles, studio and live performances to explore. I am a novice and Jazz is my passion to enjoy and explore the ones I haven’t heard before. Miles, Duke, The Bird and Django are my favourites. lets not forget the silk sounds of jazz vocals which are timeless ladies i salute you. We are spoilt for choice.

  28. Shaun McGlue
    Reply

    If you like Bix you will love The Stardust Road by Hoagy Carmichael.
    A must read for all jazz lovers.
    So be it So bend it So burn it.

  29. Graham Taylor
    Reply

    No list can be complete without reference to the great Mr Morton – Mister Jelly Roll by Alan Lomax & Laurie Wright’s painstakingly researched Mr Jelly Lord. Essential social history even if you don’t appreciate the guy’s music!

  30. Paul Loubriel
    Reply

    3 Really good ones with a lot of first hand accounts by musicians:
    Swing to Bop – Ira Gitler
    Gil Evans: Out of the Cool: His Life and Music – Stephanie Stein Crease
    Reminiscing In Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington Hardcover – Stuart Nicholson

  31. Philippe Lauwers
    Reply

    I was hoping to find some fiction that would plunge the reader into the world of jazz. But maybe that’s a subject for another list 😉

  32. DrumPhil
    Reply

    I would add “Hard Bop Academy”, that covers everyone who played with Art Blakey, and “Blowin’ Hot and Cool”, a history of jazz as seen through the critics who covered jazz in the media. Great list!

  33. Kelly
    Reply

    Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War by Penny M Von Eschen.

    Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley

  34. Soren Bogelund
    Reply

    Billie Holiday and William Dufty: Lady Sings the Blues. 1956
    Ross Russel: Bird Lives!. 1972
    Important reading about two of the greatest artists in jazz!

  35. Enno Jönsson
    Reply

    “Straight Life” by Art Pepper. Apart from the tragic story the dedicated reader can follow up with the music itself in parallel – the list of recordings w/ dates, locations, musicians etc. is super helpful.
    This year 2016 Benny Golson published “Whisper Not”, and this book covers much more than the interesting developments of Mr Golsons career, but also gives insights into the mindset of this great artist.

  36. Alan Brinkworth
    Reply

    One of the very best biographies is The Long Shadow Of The Little Giant by Simon Spillett covering the life of Tubby Hayes

  37. Dave Pearson
    Reply

    I’d add Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Farrago – a compilation of features from Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s Magazine. A really excellent collection of insightful articles covering the whole jazz spectrum. Plus Ronnie’s legendary well worn jokes to enjoy one more time.

  38. Jimmy McArdle
    Reply

    I would also recommend WE CALLED IT MUSIC by Eddie Condon with Thomas Sugrue and JACK TEAGARDEN/ The story of a Jazz Maverick by Jay D Smith and Len Guttridge Two books that I pick up every now and then and reread.

  39. Amadeu António Mortari
    Reply

    I have a impressive book from 1962: JAZZ -A history of the New York scene – by Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt. For jazz lovers it’s indispensable!

  40. Steve Andrews
    Reply

    “Hendersonia, A Bio-Discography” by Walter C. Allen. Meticulously researched, it tells you everything about Fletcher Henderson, his Orchestra, his arranging and recordings. Indispensible!

  41. JazzTN37
    Reply

    Wonderful list — maybe too skewed towards a few early bio’s verging towards hagiography’s — and many great added recos (some that WERE on original list) but the voice of another woman besides Anita O’Day would’ve been nice. There’s a cool slim volume by Amy Beal on Carla Bley, Ellen Johnson’s portrait of Sheila Jordan, Jazz Child. Also might add A.J. Albany’s memoir of her father, Joe Albany in Lowdown (also great indie film) and Lorraine Gordon’s Alive at The Village Vanguard. For me the most striking omission is what often used to be considered perhaps the best single volume providing an overview/framework for thinking about the evolution of the music and compiler of the classic Smithsonian : Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition (!)

  42. beth
    Reply

    Give a look at Jean Pierre Lion’s exceptional Bix, The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, from 2005; the discography literally follows session dates with commentary across 300+ pages. Lion continues in the vein of Philip R Evans and Richard Sudhalter and he doesn’t skimp on the important full quotations from key musicians who knew BIx both as a musician (ex. Pops) and as a friend and associate. Lion also writes with both poise and elegance which is a joy to read.

  43. Andrew Homzy
    Reply

    I think the list of 25 is flawed in many ways.
    1. it is very Ameri-centric.
    2. I don’t think there is any musical notation in any of those books.
    3. The Miles autobiography is a sham.
    4. Even though Blesh quotes Yeats, it doesn’t mean he has written a good book
    5. I’d rather see a list come from somebody with great creds – like Dan Morgenstern or Ethan Iverson. Knowing the Beatles & Megadeath is not a jazz-qualifier.

  44. George
    Reply

    The late Ian Carr’s biography of Miles Davis is still definitive on Miles – and is one of the best books on jazz.

  45. Erland Eikestad
    Reply

    Shouldn’t Ross Russell’s “Bird Lives! The Hard Life and High Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker” really be on that list? Yes, it should., yet it isn’t.

  46. John Illingworth
    Reply

    Bill Crow’s “Jazz Anecdotes” and “Birdland To Broadway” are both informative and entertaining. Scott DeVeaux ‘s “The Birth Of Bebop” is a scholarly tome!

  47. Chaz
    Reply

    An unfortunate omission is Dizzy Gillespie’s “To Be Or Not . . . To Bop.” Not only is it one of the best books about jazz, it is also one of the best autobiographies that I have read.

  48. Christopher Sjoholm
    Reply

    I would add “Kansas City Lightning-The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker” by Stanley Crouch. Crouch’s supple prose gives voice to what gave birth to Parker’s originality. This book is not just musical criticism. It is adroit political, social and cultural criticism, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *