Reading about jazz was a passion of mine from a young age. Unfortunately, this facet of my fascination with the music took a backseat during my undergraduate studies, but it’s back in full swing (ha)! Here’s what I read this summer. What did you check out?
Morning Glory, Linda Dahl
Mary Lou Williams’ story is an inspiring one. It was moving to read about how she used the adversities she faced not as excuses for failure but fuel for success. I was particularly amazed by how she went from being solely reliant on her ears to becoming one of the most admired arrangers of her time. I can’t recommend this book enough. It was a powerful read.
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis
Davis’s book focuses on Bessie Smith, Gertrude Ma Rainey, and Billie Holiday. I listened to Holiday extensively during my early development as a musician, only being able to understand so much about the very mature topics she often sang about. Davis helped me to understand the repertoire of these blues singers in a whole new light, contextualizing their work with the times they lived in. While the book is short page-wise, it is written for a more academic audience, making it a time-consuming and enlightening read.
Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, John Szwed
As previously mentioned, Billie Holiday was a very important influence for me when I first became interested in jazz (and still is). What I really appreciated about this book was Szwed’s effort in bringing back Billie’s humanity and dignity. So often discussions and literature about her focus on her traumatic past, drug usage, and trouble with the law, leaving very little space to discuss her art and who she really was.
Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday and William Dufty
I have been meaning to read this for so long and am so glad I finally did. This book is notoriously scrutinized for its questionable truthfulness. However, and perhaps Szwed’s book helped me to see this way, that did not bother me. I found it incredibly moving to read Billie’s story the way she felt it. For my purposes, it did not matter if some dates didn’t line up or if she remembered an event differently than others. Reading this book felt like she was speaking directly to me, and I know others have shared this same experience.
Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus
Another classic memoir… This book is discussed a lot, however, it seems like not a lot of people actually read it and just talk about the very inflammatory parts. If you are looking to find out detailed information about Mingus’s life, career, etc., this is not that book. However, I thought it masterfully showcased his creativity in a new medium – writing. I do hope that much of the contents of the book are fictional, but we may never know how much is true.
A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, Gunther Schuller (in progress)
As an entering student at New England Conservatory, I thought it was crucial for me to learn more about Gunther Schuller. As NEC’s president, Schuller founded the Jazz Studies and Third Stream (now Contemporary Improvisation) departments. I wrote a paper about him this past spring and read segments of his autobiography in my research. Now, I am committed to reading the massive work in its entirety.
Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews, Arthur Taylor
This book features short interviews with a who’s who list of jazz musicians. These interviews are particularly candid because drummer Art Taylor was conducting them, making the artists feel more at ease talking to a peer. He asked the artists to recall their relationship with Bird and Bud Powell, their thoughts on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and how they felt about the use of technology in music. I found their answers to be nuanced and thought-provoking.
Madame Jazz, Leslie Gourse (in progress)
This book is near and dear to me because my copy once belonged to my beloved late teacher Bobby Jackson. I deeply wish we could talk about it together. This book profiles female artists in various stages of their careers in the early 1990s. Some of the women just starting out in the book are now seasoned professionals. Some of the more established women have now gone into obscurity. It is difficult to read about some of the barriers these women faced to achieve all they did. As I read this book, I am in awe of them and aspire to continue their legacies.
I have started a Women in Jazz Directory on my website, which includes a list of musicians, industry members, and ensembles. This book has been incredibly helpful in expanding my list.