John Edward Hasse is curator of American Music at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, founder of national Jazz Appreciation Month and the author of “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington.” These are his picks for the best all-time books on jazz.
By Bob Blumenthal. Collins. 2007.
Blumenthal produced the single best compact introduction to jazz currently available. And he did it in fewer than 200 pages of engaging, clearly written prose, accompanied by handsome illustrations and a short but useful glossary. Blumenthal's “Jazz” is the ideal starting point for anyone drawn to the music for the first time.
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2. Mister Jelly Roll
By Alan Lomax. Duell, Sloan & Pearce. 1950.
At the invitation of folklorist Alan Lomax in 1938, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton recorded reminiscences, anecdotes, boasts and songs in what amounts to a performed autobiography. In 1950, Lomax converted the recordings into this book, graced by David Stone Martin's delightful line drawings. Even better than reading “Mister Jelly Roll” by itself is listening to the original recordings, now issued (the book is included) by Rounder Records as “Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax.”
3. American Musicians II
By Whitney Balliett. Oxford. 1996.
For more than 40 years, Whitney Balliett was the jazz critic of the New Yorker magazine. His death last year silenced one of the most literate and lyrical of writers on the arts. “American Musicians II” – an expanded version of the original from a decade earlier – includes all of Balliett's New Yorker profiles of jazz musicians, from pioneers Sidney Bechet and Fats Waller to modernists Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.
4. The Swing Era
By Gunther Schuller. Oxford. 1989.
Gunther Schuller is a musical Renaissance man – composer, conductor, teacher, advocate and author. Twenty years after his pioneering “Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development,” Schuller turned to the swing era, a glorious period in American music, when Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington developed an idiom that was accessible yet also innovative and artistically satisfying. Schuller listened to 30,000 recordings to analyze and astutely assess the music itself. “The Swing Era” might be uneven as a history of the music, but it shines as a highly opinionated and erudite survey from a brilliant mind with a golden ear and a precise pen.
5. Reading Jazz
Edited by Robert Gottlieb. Pantheon. 1996.
Don't be put off by the massive size of this anthology. You can dip into its 1,068 pages one piece at a time. Robert Gottlieb, former editor of The New Yorker, has selected and excerpted 106 examples of the most memorable English-language writing on jazz, culled from books and magazines between 1919 and the 1990s. In the autobiographical entries, we learn about the thoughts and experiences of musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Anita O'Day and Miles Davis. In “Reading Jazz” we also encounter the work of gifted writers, including Ralph Ellison, Martin Williams, Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddins and Dan Morgenstern.