Quality Jazz writing: canonical literature

Jazz exists omnipresent in the minds and lives of those who follow it devoutly and listening with open ears is the best way to follow the stories.  Jazz however has also spawned many offshoots and some are closer to the spirit of the music than others.   Art, literature and dance have all been in lockstep with this music, but of those literature has probably served Jazz the best.     Jazz literature is a vast field and to compile even a half way decent bibliography would be a herculean work.   I suspect that it would need a Tom Lord (online Jazz Discographer); time, patience and the wisdom of Solomon.

Almost everyone engages with a chosen art form by sampling the tried and trusted and if they are brave enough they allow themselves to be lured into the unfamiliar.    While the familiar may be the best place to start in reading Jazz, trawling the margins can also yield surprisingly satisfactory results.

Jazz has inspired wonderful prose and the most obvious example is the work of Whitney Balliett (‘American Musicians‘  ‘Collected works‘) published by Granta.    Balliett, primarily an essayist , cuts to the heart of the matter and he seldom over sentimentalized his portraits.   When writing of Bird he said “He was obsessed by his music and he was obsessed by the pleasure principle” or ” He had grown up in Kansas City where the blues is in the light and air and he knew how – with whispers and asides and preaching phrases – to take his blues down as far as Bechet, Art Hodges and Buck Clayton“.  This is wonderful writing.  Gary Giddins is another gifted and prolific writer and two works stand out for me.  His well known ‘Visions of Jazz ‘ Oxford University Press, is a masterpiece of Jazz writing and and a must have for anyone who loves Jazz.   It he covers the first hundred years of Jazz in a series of essays.   His more recent ‘Jazz‘ co authored by Scott DeVeaux (Norton) is brilliant, as it invites the reader into the heart of iconic tracks spanning the history of Jazz.   It also has sections covering Jazz in film, types of drum kits and varieties of trumpet mutes etc.  This highly interactive approach to history is appealing and instructive; even to those who feel that they are well informed.   It almost gives us the musicians eye view of how the music works (which song form etc), but without taking away the mystery.    I can’t go further without mentioning the enjoyable and indispensable ‘The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings’ by Morton & Cook.    I have no hesitation in including this as quality Jazz literature because the writing is so good and often tempered with outrageous or subtle humour (e.g warning Kenny Garret  that if he went too far down the smooth road he could ‘lose the last five letters of his name’ or referring to the diminutive Jarretts 70’s Concerts as portraying ‘an uneasy giantism‘).  The writing is honest, insightful and often using grown-up words like ‘elided’ which had me rushing for my dictionary.  Morton & Cook’s final offering is the ‘Penguin Jazz Guide‘ and this is also well worth having, but why they left the index out is quite beyond me.

I will briefly add a few more titles but this list barely skims the margins of what is available to those with perseverance and cash (such books are seldom cheap).   The late Gene Lees was a terrific prose writer and his books and ‘Jazz Letters‘ are often available in paperback-reprint form.  ‘Meet me at Jim and Andy’s‘, ‘The Singer and the Song‘, ‘Waiting for Dizzy‘ (Cooper Square press), are but a few.  Robert Doerschuk’s ‘88- the Giants of Jazz Piano ‘ is a monumental work on Jazz piano with a disk in the back and a foreword by Keith Jarrett (Backbeat books),    Another book on Jazz piano is Len Lyons, ‘The great Jazz pianists‘ (Da Capo Press) .    Lastly Ted Gioia’s ‘West Coast Jazz‘ (University of California press).

As a book collector I often view my collection(s) with a mixture of pleasure and despair;   So many fine books, so little time and so many more on the way.

3 thoughts on “Quality Jazz writing: canonical literature

  1. A USA blogger left this quote but later went on to justify Jazz writing. “Reading about jazz is like dancing about architecture”?* – Elvis Costello
    I get the point, but did he get slammed by the critics perhaps?? Miles hated jazz writing and liner notes and then went on to co-write a best seller.

  2. I’m loving:
    “warning Kenny Garret that if he went too far down the smooth road he could lose the last five letters of his name”

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