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8/9/09

Listening is always better, but there are also good reads...

Jazz literature, like the music itself, has undergone a tremendous evolution since such European writers as Hughes Panassié and Robert Goffin got the ball rolling in the 1930s. Their writing was, understandably, somewhat naïve, but the passion was genuine.

Today, there is a wealth of jazz and blues books on the shelves, but that includes many schlock publications of the hastily assembled cut-and-paste variety. I suggest avoiding the shallow work of authors like Leslie Gourse, James Haskins and Scott Yanow, for example. I do, however, recommend the following handful.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few random (and one not so random) choices that came to mind. To recommend a more balanced collection, I will be adding to this list from time to time, but I hope this is a good start.


The Oxford Companion to Jazz - Bill Kirchner (Oxford University Press) ISBN-10: 019512510X. An 852-page compilation of articles by 59 authors, including Dan Morgenstern, Bill Crow, Terry Teachout, Lewis Porter, Lawrence Kart, Richard M. Sudhalter, Ted Gioia, Peter Keepnews, Gene Lees, Gunther Schuller, Bob Blumenthal, and yours truly.


Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya - Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro (Dover Publications) ISBN-10: 0486217264. Compiled from articles, interviews, letters, etc., this is a customized oral history that flows nicely and contains first-hand narratives, slightly doctored for the sake of continuity.


Early Jazz - Gunther Schullar (Oxford University Press) ISBN-10: 0195040430. A scholarly look at the early history of jazz and its pioneers.


Jazz Masters of the 30s - Rex Stewart (Da Capo Press) ISBN-10: 0306801590. This is not an autobiography, but rather recollections and observation by Rex, who himself contributed so much to the music. He was there, he looked, listened and—in this book—shares.


Swing to Bop - Ira Gitler (Oxford University Press) ISBN-10: 0195050703. An important book by one of the bop era’s leading observers.


The Story of Jazz - Marshall Stearns (Oxford University Press) ISBN-10: 0195012690. Stearns, a thoughtful scholar and founder of The Institute For Jazz Studies, digs deep into the history of jazz and its roots.


The Jazz Tradition - Martin Williams (Oxford University Press) ISBM-10: 0195078160. Few writers on jazz have had the insight that makes this book so valuable. Martin Williams never received the rewards his work oughtto have earned him, but he left us much to savor and learn from.


Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes. (Da Capo Press) ISBN-10: 1560253533. Of all the autobiographies contributed by jazz performers, this one by pianist Hampton Hawes is the most absorbing I have read. His heroin addiction, imprisonment, pardon by JFK—it’s all there, told skillfully and with surprising humor.


Bessie - Chris Albertson (Yale University Press) ISBN-10: 0300107560. An expanded, updated 2003 version of my original Bessie Smith biography. I’m afraid that modesty does not prevent me from mentioning that Leonard Feather (whom I had little regard for) called the original edition: “The most devastating, provocative, and enlightening work of its kind ever contributed to the annals of jazz literature.” Whitney Balliett (whom I had very high regard for) saw it as “The first estimable full-length biography not only of Bessie Smith but of any black musician.” (available for Kindle download).


Wishing On the Moon - Donald Clarke (Da Capo Press) ISBN-10: 0306811367. This is the book that Lady Sings the Blues should have been, a well-researched, thorough biography of Billie Holiday. Donald had access to the exhaustive material amassed by Linda Kuehl in the early 1970s, and he knew exactly what to do with that treasure.


Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001 - Whitney Balliett (St. Martin’s Griffin) ISBN-10: 0312270089. When it came to prose, no jazz writer could come close to Whitney. This is a wonderful collection of essays and reviews that originally appeared in The New Yorker. You may not always agree with his observations, but I dare you to not become mesmerized by Balliett’s style. It is the music translated into words.

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