Advertisement
Books

Books about jazz you need to read

Deb Grant shares her top picks that are a must for anyone who loves jazz – and especially everyone who doesn’t

On hot and sticky nights when I’m struggling to sleep I’ll often find myself seeking out familiar company – there are several books which are never far from my nightstand, unless I’ve loaned them benevolently to a friend who’s told me they’re curious to learn more about jazz, or by force to one who insists that they hate it.

Val Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life, first published in 1977 and reprinted many times since, is a book I return to often for reference and usually discover something new each time, both in Wilmer’s prose and her stark photography.

It chronicles the rise and development of ‘new jazz’ throughout its most dynamic period, 1960 to the mid-’70s, profiling significant figures like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders. It unravels the meaning of their music in its social and political context while giving a sense of the struggles they faced in pioneering a sound which was so outside of the mainstream.

Subscribe to The Big Issue

From just £3 per week

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work.

Though they may be considered present-day household names, their vanguard approach to music kept them on the peripheries of popular culture to a large extent during their lifetimes. Wilmer writes with reverence and candour about the artists’ struggles with money, envy and lack of recognition. She is herself a fascinating figure in the jazz world, having photographed and written about these musicians since she was 17, and she has an effortless way of untangling even the most convoluted aspects of the avant-garde.

Another book I often reach for and recommend is Art Pepper’s extraordinary autobiography, Straight Life; a dark, daunting and at times excruciatingly intimate oral history of one of the world’s greatest alto saxophonists, transcribed from recordings of Pepper recounting his life story along with perspectives from his family and fellow musicians.

His talent and aspiration are compromised and diverted at every turn by drug addiction, compulsive destructive behaviour, sexual depravity, stints in prison and the impact of a hostile, chaotic upbringing on his sense of self-worth. It’s something that no amount of fame or accomplishment seems able to defeat.

Advertisement
Advertisement

For all its explicitly sad, frustrating aspects, the colloquial language and detail puts the reader right at the centre of hot, hedonistic tour bus tales and on sizzling onstage scenes with Pepper cutting his teeth playing in Stan Kenton’s band, going on to work with Chet Baker and Buddy Rich. It is a rich, affecting, uncompromising book, and each chapter crowds the room I’m reading in with voices and music and backstage hubbub.

Some recent releases I’ve been enjoying include US music historian Christopher M Reali’s Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals, chronicling the rise of the raw, rugged and distinctly southern soulful sound which emanated out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s, in stark contrast to the preened, cleanly produced ‘Motown Sound’ coming out of North America at that time.

Reali shines a light on the notorious Fame Studios, which helped Aretha Franklin to find her edge and record her first hit, along with Etta James, Wilson Pickett and Arthur Alexander. Many British artists in pursuit of an authentic American R&B sound made pilgrimages to Fame Studios; The Rolling Stones, for example, recorded Brown Sugar at Fame in 1969, sparking a reinvention which insured their success throughout the following decade. Muscle Shoals was at one point a beacon of musical authenticity, a designation which gradually gave way to legend and fantasy.

Ethical Shopping

Visit The Big Issue Shop

Browse our range of books and support a social enterprise today.

The ‘mystique’ in the title of the book refers to the myths created around Muscle Shoals’ regional identity, many of which have further fed in to its impact on pop culture, which Reali decisively picks apart without straying from his commitment to the music.

Sammy Stein’s new book The Wonder of Jazz provides a broad, accessible take on where jazz finds itself presently and how it got here. Stein is prolific on this subject, having published books recently about women’s changing experiences of playing jazz music, and about the impact of Covid lockdown on working musicians.

She is a deft interviewer, and as in her previous books this one seeks insight and opinion from many musicians, academics and others who are close to the music. Seemingly simple questions posed to different people take us down countless contradictory rabbit holes, providing many perspectives on what jazz is, and more to the point what jazz is now and where it might go next, given the current simmering dynamism of the UK scene.

The book is informative, but its optimism is what makes it such a compelling read, and as with all of these books I’ve recommended, almost as impactful as the music itself.

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Advertisement

Bigger Issues need bigger solutions

Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity. Learn how you can change lives today.

Recommended for you

Read All
What would a world without borders look like?
Books

What would a world without borders look like?

Book reviews: The Candy House and Eyes of the Void
Book reviews

Book reviews: The Candy House and Eyes of the Void

Top 5 books for young nature lovers, chosen by Dr Jess French
Books

Top 5 books for young nature lovers, chosen by Dr Jess French

Nudes by Elle Nash: short, sharp and sometimes shocking
Book reviews

Nudes by Elle Nash: short, sharp and sometimes shocking

Most Popular

Read All
All the places where kids can eat free during the summer holidays
1.

All the places where kids can eat free during the summer holidays

This Twitter bot is exposing celebrities taking three-minute private jet flights
2.

This Twitter bot is exposing celebrities taking three-minute private jet flights

Will free school meals and vouchers be offered over the summer holidays?
3.

Will free school meals and vouchers be offered over the summer holidays?

Estate agents caught saying they don't rent homes to people on benefits
4.

Estate agents caught saying they don't rent homes to people on benefits

Keep up to date with the Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.