Some of my favorite books on the subject, but absolutely not exhaustive! What are some others that you like? Please share in the comments.
Biography & Autobiography
Bird Lives! The High Life & Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker; Ross Russell (1973)
Yeah, I know…but it’s such an entertaining read!
Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker; Gary Giddins (1987)
More of a photo overview, but it includes lots of pictures I’d never scene anywhere else.
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound; Ben Ratliff (2007)
A compelling overview of the origins of John Coltrane’s style and sound. In the introduction, Ratliff writes that his book is not a biography, for the usual biographical details regarding his personal life and the people in it are mere thumbnails. Viewed as a biography of Coltrane’s sound, however, the book goes into exhaustive detail with respect to Coltrane’s musical interests (obsessions?) and the specific steps he took in his musical quest for meaning.
Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes; Hampton Hawes with Don Asher (1974)
I hadn’t heard of Hawes when I’d read about this book being a great jazz autobiography somewhere. Such a wonderful book with lots of anecdotes about the later years of bop and the California scene in the ’50s and ’60s. He is unfailingly honest about the devastating effect that his heroin addiction had on his career. And he offers some fascinating insights on race and music.
Sugar Free Saxophone: The Life and Music of Jackie McLean; Derek Ansell (2012)
Despite talking about it over the years, Jackie never managed to write his own life story, which is our loss, because he was one of the most honest and open jazzmen of all time. A memoir or autobiography would have been an incredible historical document. But as of now, SFS is all we have. It’s fairly light on the research (no interviews to speak of), and Ansell seems to have been overly dependent on magazine articles, liner notes, and YouTube videos. If you’re a Jackie Mac fan like I am, you might not find much new, but for its album by album rundown, it’ll have to do.
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original; Robin D.G. Kelley (2009)
Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs; Martin Torgoff (2017)
Twenty-five years ago, I was going through my “Beat” phase. I read Kerouac, Ginsberg and others and enjoyed the Bohemian vibe of the era. But I’m not really into that anymore. Fortunately, this book alternates chapters between jazz musicians and Beats. I read just the jazz chapters and found it to be a really interesting—if too short—look at the role that drugs played in so many famous jazz musicians’ lives. Some, like Louis Armstrong (marijuana), seemed to be able to compartmentalize their use. Others, such as Jackie McLean (heroin) managed to overcome their addictions. But for people like Bird (heroin and alcohol), Prez (alcohol), and Lady Day (also heroin and alcohol), addiction ultimately cut their lives tragically short and impaired their output.
The Boston Jazz Chronicles; Richard Vacca (2012)
The only book about Boston’s vibrant jazz history that I am aware of. Mostly about the local music scene in the ’40s and ’50s. Even includes a map of where all the top clubs were (e.g., Storyville, The Hi-Hat, etc.)
Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-65; Kenny Mathieson (2012)
Bite sized mini-biographies of most of the big names of the era, from Mobley to Montgomery. You can read it out of order and not really miss anything. Mathieson wrote an earlier volume on the bebop years, and he repeatedly says in the present one that artists of the 1960’s avant-garde (e.g., Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, etc.) would be included in his next book. As far as I can tell, however, that book never came to pass, which is a major bummer.
Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965; David H. Rosenthal (1993)
This was my entry to so much great music, starting with Lee Morgan. Essential.
Jazz from Detroit; Mark Stryker (2019)
Elvin Jones. Thad Jones. Paul Chambers. Kenny Burrell. Ron Carter. Tommy Flanagan. Curtis Fuller. Donald Byrd. Milt Jackson. Must be something in the water.
All Music Guide to Jazz; (1996)
The Encyclopedia of Jazz; Leonard Feather (1960)
The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties; Leonard Feather (1966)
The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music; Ben Ratliff (2008)
Adapted from his NY Times columns, Ratliff sits down and listens to music with legendary jazz musicians, who have chosen the selections. Ratliff’s informal conversational approach makes for some compelling reading. Artists include Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny, Andrew Hill, and Roy Haynes.
Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings; Ben Ratliff (2002)
The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography; Lee Tanner (2006)
A Pictorial History of Jazz; Orrin Keepnews & Bill Grauer, Jr. (1966)
One of my all-time favorites. A very readable history of jazz, from its origins to the ’60s avant garde.
The Art of Jazz: A Visual History; Alyn Shipton and John Hasse (2020)
Blue Note; Michael Cuscuna & Francis Wolff (2015)
Spectacular collection of the legendary Francis Wolff’s (mostly) session photography.
Blue Note: The Album Cover Art; Graham Marsh (1991)
The definitive collection of Reid Miles’ best work. Blue Note II (1997) is also good, but they really did choose the best covers for the 1991 book.
Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression; Richard Havers (2014)
A nice combination of photography, album covers, and a history of the company. Pricey, but worth it.
Jazz Covers; Joaquim Paolo, Julius Wiedemann (ed.) (2015)
Includes many great covers from a range of labels. Including Blue Note. Considerably smaller format than the Blue Note book above.