I am a jazz devotee, the kind with shelves of jazz books and photos of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker in his home office. Because I love music so much, I want to understand where it came from, and learn about the people who made it.
What is jazz? “It can be said that the entire story of jazz is actually a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires,” Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest. “Jazz was created by a people obsessed with their survival in a time that did not want them to survive, and so it is a genre of myths — of fantasy and dreaming, of drumming on whatever you must and making noise in any way you can, before the ability to make noise is taken from you, or until the noise is an echo in your own head that won’t rest.”
Jazz is a uniquely American creation. People all over the world play it, and no matter how many talented white musicians play it, it was created and primarily redefined by Americans of color. Jazz is music that cannot be separated from the racially divided country that produced its musicians.
“Put it this way,” Duke Ellington said. “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”
Like critic Gary Giddin’s arbitrary map of post-war jazz, this list collects just a few of my favorite stories — mostly about my favorite period of jazz, from Bop to Hard bop. You’ll find a lot of worthwhile jazz reading in collections by Whitney Balliett, in the anthology Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, and in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now. James Baldwin’s short story ”Sonny’s Blues” is essential jazz fiction. Of course, you could write a huge list of must-read jazz books, though these are the stories that stay with me, or that handle jazz’s big names and issues exceptionally well. I’m sure I missed many things. But as Miles Davis said, “Do not fear mistakes.”
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“I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say” (Luc Sante, The Believer, November 1, 2004)
Sante’s short essay is two things: an etymology of the term “funky,” and a profile of mythic, 19th century New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, whose song “Funky Butt” turned “funk” into a musical concept. One of the many important figures who helped create what we call jazz, Bolden was a respected improvisational player in his time. Unfortunately, no recordings of Bolden survive, and reliable historical details are hazy. We know that he was institutionalized and died young. Sante conjures Bolden from the haze, painting a vivid, living portrait of a musical mystery man and his era.
He starts with a location: the site of a demolished church that doubled as a dance hall where Bolden performed. “On Saturday nights,” Sante writes, “it was rented for dances which lasted until early light, so that the deacons must have put in a hard few hours every week washing up spilled beer and airing out the joint before the pious came flocking.” As a reader I have a bias for stories of lost or nearly lost people and things, but Sante’s voice and sideways way of telling this one is what ultimately stays with me. This piece seamlessly weaves scenes with conversational exposition. And the essay’s structure does what essays can do: start in one place and end in a very different place.
“Our Lady of Sorrows” Francis Davis, The Atlantic, November, 2000)
No matter how much you love Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, no one can deny that Billie Holiday remains one of jazz’s greatest singers. Along with her stirring music and delivery, she stands as a tragic symbol, “a victim,” as critic Francis Davis writes, “of both injustice and her own vices.” In this probing piece, he illuminates her artistic achievements and enduring stature by peering behind persistent stereotypes and listeners’ projections to see who Holiday truly was as a person and a singer. “The singer nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ or just ‘Lady’ has become an all-purpose Our Lady of Sorrows,” Davis writes, “embraced by many of her black listeners (and by many women and gay men) not just as a favorite performer but as a kind of patron saint. She touches such fans where they hurt, soothing their rage even while delivering a reminder of past humiliations and the potential for more.” Davis also wonders how she became so deeply connected to the idea of sadness. Part of the answer has to do with her masterpiece about racism and lynching, “Strange Fruit.” “If the story suggests that ‘Strange Fruit’ ultimately became a way for her to release her anger,” Davis writes, “it also suggests that her anger could be unfocused, her racial indignation mixed up with resentment at her mistreatment by the men in her life, her persecution by the law, and the public’s preference for blander female singers.”
“The Charlie Christian Story” (Ralph Ellison, Saturday Review, May 17, 1958)
Although famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison published many essays. This one is about pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, whose scorching solos made too few appearances on record but whose small body of highly stylized work transformed amplified music. By a twist of fate, Ellison grew up with Christian in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, Ellison’s essay is not online. You can read it in his book Shadow and Act. While you’re there, read his essay on Charlie Parker, too, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz.” Ellison was a singular voice and his ideas created a lasting portrait of racism in America. Reading this essay makes me grateful he was so influenced by jazz.
You might not know Charlie Christian’s name, but when you hear an electric guitar, be it rock or jazz or Blues, you hear Christian. “Some of the most brilliant jazzmen made no records,” Ellison writes. “So at best the musical contributions of these local, unrecorded heroes of jazz are enjoyed by a few fellow musicians and by a few dancers who admire them and afford them the meager economic return which allows them to keep playing…” Christian almost became one of those lost local musicians, but thankfully, he ended up in Benny Goodman’s band and lived long enough to get some of his genius on record.
“Bird-Watcher” (David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 12, 2008)
Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the most influential musicians in history. An indisputable genius, he also suffered greatly, died at age 34, and left a vast body of work that people are still studying decades after his death in 1955. David Remnick profiled one of those hardcore Bird fans, Phil Schaap. The obsessive, detail-oriented Schaap had hosted the Parker-themed radio show “Bird Flight” for 27 years back in 2008. It was a show that fed a jazz fan’s curiosity while also testing their patience, or as Remnick put it, blurred “the line between exhaustive and exhausting.” Remnick doesn’t question Parker’s contribution or examine his music. He focuses on the way jazz completely shaped Schaap’s life and on his approach to his radio show. (Schaap was partially raised by jazz legends, including drummer Jo Jones, with whom he watched cartoons and played records.) Why does he play countless, poorly recorded, live renditions of Parker songs? Why does he pontificate on air for hours on historical minutia and the meanings of song titles and lost recordings? Because jazz obsessives like Schaap preserve the details of a musical history that increasingly few people care about. Ultimately, Remnick recognizes that Schaap’s invaluable cultural service goes beyond jazz, that “Schaap puts his frenzied memory and his obsessive attention to the arcane in the service of something important: the struggle of memory against forgetting — not just the forgetting of sublime music but forgetting in general.” Bird was one of a kind, and Schaap is, too.
“The Grandest Duke” (Geoffrey O’Brien, The New York Review of Books, October 28, 2010)
Ostensibly a review of Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, O’Brien’s essay expands to cover the grand scope of Ellington’s entire professional creative life. One of history’s greatest composers, Ellington was not strictly an American jazz composer. He was a visionary global artist, even though he was shaped by, and in return shaped, the racially segregated America he inhabited. Stanley Crouch, a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature, called Ellington “the most American of Americans.” Ellington not only managed to succeed commercially in a divided nation, he succeed without compromising his artistic freedom, his musical vision, or his identity. Like the book it reviews, O’Brien’s essay goes beyond biography to examine how Ellington managed his career, his public image, and of course, his music, across decades of American life. “Reading Cohen’s book,” writes O’Brien, “we begin in one nation and end in quite a different one… Of many artists it can be said that deep cultural currents can be read through their work; much rarer are those who, like Ellington, worked so powerfully and subtly on those currents as to transform them.”
“Black, Brown, and Beige” (Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, May 10, 2010)
Miles Davis said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” Ellington’s range is so vast that he’s worth reading about twice here. Responding to Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont takes her examination of America’s Beethoven in a more particular direction than Geoffrey O’Brien did in his review. Drawing its title from Ellington’s unfinished piece “Black, Brown, and Beige,” Pierpont’s piece focuses on what Ellington’s career reveals about race in America. “Black, Brown, and Beige” was not well received. This stung Ellington especially hard, since the work celebrated Black history, following the many strands of Black culture from Africa to the United States. For insight, she follows Ellington’s long musical life back to its beginning:
“More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was a done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton brushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes. All the performers were black — or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait — and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. …Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical reviews.”
“What,” Pierpont asks, “was he thinking?” Meaning: how does Ellington’s early period square with his middle and later periods? It is a legitimate question about an artist whose work and reputation tried to transcend race in a world that would never let any artist of color remain unaffected by racial dynamics.
Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Getty Images
“At the Five Spot” (Stanley Crouch, Considering Genius, 2006)
Crouch is a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature. In 2003, JazzTimes fired him as a columnist for his article “Putting the White Man in Charge,” where he correctly argues that “white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated.” Crouch did fine without that magazine. He’s opinionated. Some critics claim he has too narrow a set of aesthetic guidelines for what good jazz is. But he wrote the best book on Charlie Parker, called Kansas City Lightning, and his ideas about music, race, and history are brilliantly observed, finely articulated, and thought-provoking. I like my thoughts being provoked, just like I like my music to push me. In this book Considering Genius, Crouch writes many powerful, controversial jazz essays. “At the Five Spot” covers Thelonious Monk’s 1957 stint at the iconic Five Spot club in Manhattan, painting a portrait of this singular jazz composer and stylist at what is arguably his creative peak, and what makes him a genius. Originally written in 1977, the piece appears in his book Considering Genius.
“Jazz and the White Critic” (Amiri Baraka, Down Beat, 1963)
Crouch and poet and critic Baraka had a contentious relationship, but after JazzTimes fired Crouch, Baraka defended Crouch’s right to his musical opinion, especially with music. Baraka examined jazz at a time when few Black critics were publishing essays about the music. He has written timeless, influential pieces about jazz and race in America, most notably “Jazz and the White Critic.” He challenged critics to quit examining the music without examining its musicians’ lived experience, treating the music as if it emerged sui generis, as a collection of sounds, when it was, as he writes, inseparable from “the attitude that produced it.” “The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define Jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy…” He begins the essay:
Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been. This might seem a simple enough reality to most people, or at least a reality which can be readily explained in terms of the social and cultural history of American society. And it is obvious why there are only two or three fingers’ worth of Negro critics or writers on jazz, say, if one understands that until relatively recently those Negroes who could become critics, who would largely have to come from the black middle class, have simply not been interested in the music. Or at least jazz, for the black middle class, has only comparatively recently lost some of its stigma (though by no means is it yet as popular among them as any vapid musical product that comes sanctioned by the taste of the white majority). Jazz was collected among the numerous skeletons the middle-class black man kept locked in the closet of his psyche, along with watermelons and gin, and whose rattling caused him no end of misery and self-hatred. As one Howard University philosophy professor said to me when I was an undergraduate, “It’s fantastic how much bad taste the blues contain!“ But it is just this “bad taste“ that this Uncle spoke of that has been the one factor that has kept the best of Negro music from slipping sterilely into the echo chambers of middle-brow American culture. And to a great extent such “bad taste“ was kept extant in the music, blues or jazz, because the Negroes who were responsible for the best of the music were always aware of their identities as black Americans and really did not, themselves, desire to become vague, featureless, Americans as is usually the case with the Negro middle class.
“Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Map” (Gary Giddins, Village Voice, June 4, 2002)
Gary Giddins has long been one of jazz’s most passionate and incisive authors — authoritative but approachable, rigorous but not academic. You see him speaking in many jazz documentaries. He wrote the Village Voice’s his “Weather Bird” column for years. In 2002, he decided to create what he called “an overview” of jazz records during the post-swing heyday of Bop, Hard bop, free, avant-guarde, and modern jazz, so he challenged himself: He would create a map by selecting a single jazz song for each year between 1945 and 2001. Just one song. Then he’d write a paragraph about each song — for 57 songs! That was a gargantuan undertaking that exhausted me just thinking about it, and “choosing,” he wrote, “was an exercise in frustration, even heartbreak.” Why subject himself to this? “I hoped to offer a purview that balanced achievement and innovation.”
He acknowledged his subjective map’s inherent flawsone and the many ways readers would disagree with his choices. (Only one song? The year 1957 alone produced countless jazz masterpieces!) “An infinite number of maps were possible,” he said, “all of them valid.” Instead of debating him, Giddins wrote, he invited readers to make their own selections to enjoy the process of revisiting the music. “For me,” he wrote, “the key reward was in exploring hundreds of records I hadn’t revisited in years. Some records that I expected to include no longer sounded as good; others I had previously neglected now filled me with admiration.” Reading this is fun. You can dip in and out for years, reading your favorite years or your favorite artists. And although I will never subject myself to the grueling process of mapping jazz’s years myself, I do appreciate the chance to listen closely to the music. That’s why anything like this matters.
”Heroine” (David Hajdu, The New Republic, December 24, 2006)
Jazz has no shortage of brilliant, tragic figures. Sometimes their destructive behavior is inseparable from their body of work. Foremost among them was singer Anita O’Day. Many listeners called her the greatest of all jazz singers, but the substances that helped her swing also ensured she never reached the top like Ella Fitzgerald. Hadju explores how O’Day’s singular delivery, her whole approach, was unfortunately related to inebriation. Or in his words, he shows us “the error in defining her by either her substance abuse or her singing alone. The two were not inextricable; they were one.” Even short pieces like this make it clear why Hajdu has long been one of America’s foremost writers. “Her music was the manifesto of her devotion to kicks at all cost,” he writes. “Ecstatic, indulgent, risky, excessive, and volatile, it was drug music, improvised in a state of simulated euphoria and imagined immunity.”
O’Day has long been an artist more difficult to accept than she is to appreciate, because of the primacy of dope in her aesthetic. We like our junkies tragic, preferably taken before their time, like O’Day’s long-gone contemporaries Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (or, in rock and roll, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain); and in their music we want to find the evidence of mad genius run wild (Parker) or gothic decay (Holiday). We know that heroin is an evil soul-killing venom, and that is pretty much all we want to know about it. We want to hear only about heroin’s inevitable betrayal, not about its seduction. We most certainly do not want to think that music as spirited and delightful as Anita O’Day’s work in her prime could be good because of its debt to heroin.
Another great O’Day piece is Matthew C. Duersten’s “The Moon Looks Down and Laughs,” from Flaunt Magazine. It isn’t online, but you can read it in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2002.
“When Canadian Jazz Was Good” (Chantal Braganza, Maisonneuve. May 4, 2010)
Heard of Nelson Symonds? Me neither. The guitarist’s talents attracted the attention of B.B. King and Miles Davis. During a 1965 performance, John Coltrane told Symonds’ band “This is the best organ trio I’ve ever heard.” And yet Symonds only recorded one proper studio album as a leader and a few collaborations. His ouevre is mostly what writer Chantal Braganza calls “crude recordings that get shuffled around like playing cards.” Why didn’t Symonds tour, release more albums, and have a more visible career? Why, when jazz left Montreal, did he stay? This is a fascinating story of an overlooked talent who crossed paths with giants but never joined their ranks.
Those old enough to remember often cite Symonds’ nights at the Black Bottom as among the best of his career. Out-of-town acts — Miles Davis, John Coltrane — would drop by after their gigs to see what all the fuss was about. Once, at the end of Symonds’ set, Davis pulled him aside. “What’s your story, what you playin’?” he asked. “Hey man, I do what I can,” was Symonds’ answer. “I like it,” said Davis, but it’s hard to tell if Symonds did. He was constantly self-effacing about his licks, sometimes to his own detriment. Whenever friends asked him to record albums with them, they got the same response: “Man, I gotta practice. I’m not ready.” For the most part, Symonds wasn’t interested in any aspect of the business that didn’t take place in a smoky club.
“Nica’s Story: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness” (David Kastin, Popular Music and Society, August 21, 2006)
This is one of those academic pieces that doesn’t read like an academic piece. Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but any deeply researched story about the compassion and financial support of the Jazz Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter — whose name graces many mid-century jazz titles — is worth reading. Jazz would have much less music were it not for her support, and this profile does her contribution justice. Here is the abstract: “While a coterie of bebop loyalists keep alive a caricature of Pannonica de Koenigswarter that has been woven into some of the music’s most durable myths, she has, for the most part, been relegated to the dustbin of history. A closer look at Nica’s 40‐year reign as New York’s ‘Jazz Baroness,’ however, reveals an iconic figure whose extraordinary life was played out at the nexus of gender, race, and class during a particularly transformative period in American popular culture.”