I want to learn more about jazz!
August 27, 2010 12:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some good books about jazz.

I'm a newcomer to jazz, and I'd like to learn more about its history and (especially) some basic theory. Bonus points for books with listening guides, like Jazz, by Scott DeVaux (which was pretty much perfect) and Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, by Mark C. Gridley.
posted by The Card Cheat to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Louis Armstrong's New Orleans by Thomas Brothers is a really great exploration of the roots of early jazz.
posted by umbú at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2010

I've used this listening guide in a Jazz history course, and it was really useful and accessible.
posted by umbú at 12:13 PM on August 27, 2010

Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen by Tom Piazza is good. It includes a CD of tracks referred to in the text.
posted by timeistight at 12:14 PM on August 27, 2010

Keeping Time is a collection of primary sources on Jazz (Newspaper articles, magazine articles) from every decade from the 1910s to the present. It is an essential complement to the Gridley. I liked the Martin and Waters text better than the Gridley--that might be worth checking out as well.

Head Hunters is a great book on Herbie Hancock, and Thinking in Jazz is unlike any other book on jazz improvisation. Berliner conducted detailed interviews with all sorts of famous and lesser-known jazz musicians.
posted by umbú at 12:20 PM on August 27, 2010

Mister Jelly Roll by Alan Lomax is a great read and a classic.
posted by gordie at 12:45 PM on August 27, 2010

The best book about the insides of the jazz scene in the 50s-70s is Miles: The Autobiography. It's one of the best books I've ever read, honestly.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:47 PM on August 27, 2010

Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong is amazing, and I don't even like jazz all that much. He explains what makes Armstrong's work so great.

I wish it had come with a playlist on iTunes.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2010

Some excellent suggestions above. After you've absorbed a few, you might enjoy the novel The Bear Comes Home. The author knows the scene, and as a musician himself, he writes beautifully and at length about the terror and joy of actually playing improvisational jazz.
posted by minervous at 1:01 PM on August 27, 2010

Seconding Miles: The Autobiography
posted by Lanark at 1:07 PM on August 27, 2010

My fave is Studs Turkel's Giants of Jazz.

Nice look back at the true giants of an emerging art form.
posted by smelvis at 1:07 PM on August 27, 2010

While it's by no means comprehensive or systematic, The Jazz Ear by Ben Ratliff is enlightening and inspiring.
posted by newmoistness at 1:29 PM on August 27, 2010

A Trumpet Around the Corner by Samuel Charters is a great history of Jazz in New Orleans.
posted by spakto at 1:34 PM on August 27, 2010

Also - I haven't read it, but I do know it comes with a CD and is a sort of jazz history/appreciation overview: what to listen for in jazz.

Like I said, I haven't read it, but you might want to check it out.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:55 PM on August 27, 2010

I swear by The Jazz Theory Book (so uniquely named) for theory - it's great, and works off of famous examples, although it doesn't come with a recording, or at least my copy didn't.
posted by tmcw at 1:58 PM on August 27, 2010

The first book I would recommend is Barry Kernfeld's What to Listen For in Jazz, which (like the Piazza book mentioned above) comes with a CD; I've been listening to jazz for decades, but I learned a lot from it. It's full of musical examples and clear descriptions of what to listen for. You can't do better for a basic introduction.

With that out of the way:

The Essential Jazz Records, Vol. 1: Ragtime to Swing by Max Harrison, Charles Fox, and Eric Thacker
The Essential Jazz Records, Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism by Max Harrison, Charles Fox, and Eric Thacker
These books have fairly detailed descriptions of a great many important jazz records, with useful things to say about each cut.

Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, by Gunther Schuller. Schuller probably knows more, in "official" musical terms, about the history of jazz than any living person, and it's a tragedy that he apparently isn't going to carry his history into the 1950s and beyond. I can't recommend these books strongly enough, especially the second (far longer and more detailed); he seems to have listened repeatedly to every obscure 78 produced in those years and thought about them all, and what he has to say is invariably interesting and well grounded. I don't always agree with him, but he forces me to defend my own views to myself, and I understand jazz and my own ideas better as a result.

The Jazz Tradition
, by Martin Williams, is a classic, a combination of history and criticism by an extraordinarily literate and sensitive observer.

Jazz: America's Classical Music, by Grover Sales, is similar, but more academic and with lots of illustrations (Williams doesn't have any).

I strongly second the praise for Mister Jelly Roll by Alan Lomax; if you only read one jazz (auto)biography, make it this one. Jelly Roll Morton may not have invented jazz, as he sometimes claimed, but he was there at the beginning and was its first creative genius, and his voice is inimitable (literally: if you get a chance to hear the Library of Congress recordings the book is based on, by all means do so).

Another great autobiography is Treat It Gentle, by Sidney Bechet, who was also there for the early years and is a wonderful storyteller.

I'm going to strongly disagree with a couple of people above and urge you to avoid Miles: The Autobiography. Its facts are mostly ripped off from Milestones: The Music And Times Of Miles Davis, by Jack Chambers, a well-written and thoroughly researched book I would urge you to read instead. Davis has some nasty stories to tell and is matter-of-fact about the way he treated women ("I slapped the shit out of her"); as Chambers says, it's self-inflicted tabloid journalism. If you want that stuff, you can take the book out of the library, I guess.

Some good bios: Mingus: A Critical Biography, by Brian Priestley; Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music, by Thomas Fitterling; Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra by John F. Szwed; Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music, by Peter Niklas Wilson; and Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life by John Litweiler. Not a bio but a very helpful musical analysis is Forces In Motion: The Music And Thoughts Of Anthony Braxton, by Graham Lock.

OK, start reading, and enjoy!
posted by languagehat at 2:25 PM on August 27, 2010 [10 favorites]

For the music theory of jazz improvisation, a fantastic, detailed, readable, erudite, thoroughly supported book is Thinking in Jazz by Paul Berliner. It was a gift from my dad; both of us enjoyed it equally, even though he knows almost no music theory and I know a lot of theory. Berliner's writing style is a bit dry, but he more than compensates for this by quoting lots of insightful interviews with jazz musicians. Based on your question, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
posted by jejune at 2:37 PM on August 27, 2010

I liked Bix: Man and Legend, by Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip Evans, but I think it is out of print. If you're interested in a comprehensive examination of the history of jazz, I'd recommend James Lincoln Collier's The Making Of Jazz. The book is old enough (1978) that many of the players who helped shape the genre were still alive while it was being written. He's also written biographies of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.
posted by Sallyfur at 5:09 PM on August 27, 2010

Robin Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is fantastic, and a valuable reality check on the bullshit and mythology that has grown up around Monk over the decades.

Scott DeVeaux's Birth of Bebop is also great reading, on the off-chance Amazon hasn't already recommended it to you after you read Jazz.

E. Taylor Atkins's Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan is excellent, although as should be obvious from the title it is about the sociology of jazz in Japan specifically.

Derek Bailey's Improvisation is not limited to jazz but a good read especially if the "free" end of the spectrum interests you. (Thinking in Jazz, recommended above, is also totally awesome.)
posted by No-sword at 6:22 PM on August 27, 2010

Oh, and I am looking forward to reading Harvey G. Cohen's Duke Ellington's America when it comes out in paperback. (The New Yorker published a very absorbing review of it a couple months ago.)
posted by No-sword at 6:25 PM on August 27, 2010

Thanks so much for the suggestions, everyone! Enough here to keep me busy for a long time, by the look of it, and a quick trawl through the catalog has confirmed that my library system has a lot of these books.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:41 PM on August 27, 2010

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow. A personal account of early jazz, Louis Armstrong and marijuana — and, to boot, an inspiration to Kerouac and friends. A good read, too.
posted by argybarg at 10:15 PM on August 27, 2010

Lots of great recommendations already.

I'm a big fan of Studs Terkel's jazz writing, and I love love love A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business.
posted by box at 9:25 AM on August 28, 2010

> Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow. A personal account of early jazz, Louis Armstrong and marijuana — and, to boot, an inspiration to Kerouac and friends. A good read, too.

All this is true, but I have to add an important caveat: don't believe a single word you read in it unless it's confirmed elsewhere. Mezz was a raconteur, not a historian.
posted by languagehat at 12:06 PM on August 28, 2010

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