We’ve compiled this collection of 10 of the best jazz books of all time to unravel the stories behind the lives of some of the jazz greats. From Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker through to Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, here’s our pick of the recommended reads.
Miles: The Autobiography, like the man himself, holds nothing back. Miles bravely details his struggle with drugs and racism, and talks about the various women he has been with.
However, most of all, Miles talks of music and musicians, with many tales of the greats he’s played with, from Bird and Dizzy Gillespie to John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Miles continues his winning streak of engaging the audience by offering a fascinating and often riveting read about into his life as a jazz trumpet great.
‘An engrossing read . . . gives fascinating insights into the cult phenomenon’ – Miles Copeland, Weekend Telegraph
An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen
Biographer Laurence Bergreen enthusiastically pursues the story of Louis Armstrong both as a person and as an artist.
From jazz’s beginnings at funeral marches and brothels, in a world of marijuana smoke, mobsters and razor-wielding prostitutes, to Armstrong’s role in turning it into high art. This great jazz book is a vivid bundle of information, put together using an archive of Armstrong’s writing, recordings, photographs and 1,800 hours of tape-recorded reminiscences and anecdotes.
Chet Baker: His Life and Music – Jeroen De Valk
From his emergence in the 1950s – when an uncannily beautiful young man from Oklahoma appeared in the West Coast and became, seemingly overnight, the prince of ‘cool’ jazz.
In this first major biography, the story of Baker’s demise is finally revealed. So is the truth behind his tormented childhood. The author brilliantly recreates the life of a man whose journey from golden promise to eventual destruction mirrored America’s fall from post-war innocence – but whose music has never lost the power to enchant and seduce us.
Bird Lives! (Charlie Parker) by Ross Russell
Filled with beaming admiration, Bird Lives! offers a riveting account of the great saxophonist-composer, which is not just limited to his artistic endeavours or his personal life.
Instead, the book aptly describes the environment that produced Parker and honed him. Russell explains Parker as a complex personality brought out by his times; a wayward virtuoso who exhibited an endless desire for sex, drugs, food, and, most of all, life.
Bird Lives! discusses Parker’s immense influence and importance for the decades that followed him, and details how the driving force behind the mid-1940s bop revolution never lived up to his potential as the domineering talent he was. It’s a personal and dedicated account.
“One of the very few jazz books that deserve to be called literature” – Grover Sales, Saturday Review
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff
The story of John Coltrane goes beyond a simple discussion of music and cannot be reduced to the tale of a man who played the saxophone in the 60s. Ratliff explores this very idea in his engrossing book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.
More than a biography, it’s a study into the musical zeitgeist created by Coltrane; his identity, his influence, his distinctive language.
Understanding of music or of Coltrane is not essential to enjoy Ratliff’s engaging book. The words entrap us in an atmosphere that shows love, adoration, admiration, and wonder in spades, transporting us into something ethereal – the experience that only Coltrane can give.
A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson
While unable to talk with Fitzgerald directly, Nicholson went about creating as true an image of the great jazz singer as possible through written accounts and exhaustive interviews of childhood and professional associates.
The resulting book account details the rise of a career that began at the age of 17. From the New York City Apollo Theater to the grandest halls and theatres around the country, Nicholson offers an insight into the jazz legend’s life through those who witnessed it all with her.
Nicholson’s account proves to be a fascinatingly detailed look into the life of a true great.
“a glittering, engaging, comprehensive biography and “must” reading for all her fans” – Midwest Book Review
The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin Kelley
A rewarding and exciting journey through the life of one of the jazz greats. The book is based around the idea that every great artist has a muse that propels them. In Monk’s specific case, there were three…
His mother nurtured, his wife saved, while Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter provided.
Through this triumvirate, Monk’s artistic zeal went unabated for 3 decades. His tale is one of a child who received love and encouragement to be himself and explore his talents, in an environment of social and cultural emancipation.
“I doubt there will be a biography anytime soon that is as textured, thorough and knowing as Kelley’s” – August Kleinzahler, The New York Times Book Review
The Man & His Music by Ian Carr
The Man & His Music celebrates the career and talent of the controversial jazz pianist who became known across the world for his improvisation.
Jarrett found fame early, with his exuberant solo piano performances and his work with renowned artists propelling his reputation. The author details his career’s many twists and turns, with obvious admiration and praise for Jarrett’s musical prowess.
The book also highlights various compositions, Jarrett’s tryst with classical music, and the various artistic mannerisms that made him such a distinctive voice in the jazz world.
“Jarrett admirers will relish this adulatory biography” – Publishers Weekly
Straight Life by Art & Laurie Pepper
From rear cover notes: Art Pepper, 1925-1982. Jazz musician. Innovator. Played with Benny Carter, Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne. Called the greatest alto saxophonist of the post-Parker generation.
Also: junkie, convict. And the author of Straight Life, the self-portrait that manages to put the pieces of this life together.
“the Most Harrowing Jazz Memoir Ever” – JazzTimes
Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins by Bob Blumenthal
Filled with images taken by John Abbott, Rollins’ photographer of choice, this book captures the essence of the myth and the man.
Sonny Rollins’s influence on jazz is well-documented, most of all by Blumenthal, yet this book aims to offer a complete look into the life of the great saxophonist.
Painstakingly captured with evocative pictures and glowing words – and named after the 1956 masterpiece Saxophone Colossus – it’s an engrossing look into the jazz musicians life.
“Bluementhal’s familiarity with Rollins, and his insight into the body of work, is palpable throughout.” – Jazz Times