Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Jazz Books for Everyone on Your Christmas List

Last night I visited one of my favorite places in the world: the Strand Bookstore in NYC. I am a reader. I love to read. I love books. I love receiving books as gifts and I love giving them to others. If you’ve ever been to my apartment you know I have shelves on every wall where I house my precious friends (thank you Elias Bailey!). I have no favorite genre when it comes to reading, except possibly Jazz books. I love a good biography or history, and definitely love a good autobiography (even if everything is not “factual”!). 

I went to the Strand last night looking for the new Bud Powell Biography (has anyone read it? Recommendations?), but when they didn’t have it I came away with “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray” (I’m also a nut for correspondence and anything to do with fellow Oklahoman Ralph Ellison). 

As the holiday gift-giving season fast approaches, I am going to share with you a few of my favorite Jazz books. This list is by no means comprehensive, and as I do not claim to be a Jazz historian by trade, I cannot vouch for the truthfulness of every book! However, I can say these are some of my favorites and I think you would enjoy them too. (all links take you to Amazon)

1) Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell by Francis Paudras When I first read this book it moved me to tears. This is not a biography, but instead a very personal story about Paudras’ hero and friend, Bud Powell. Quite interesting. 

2) Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews by Art Taylor A must have for any Jazz minded person! Each interview is so relaxed and easy – I love hearing the real voice of the musicians. For those of you reading who aren’t musicians, don’t worry! The interviews don’t focus on “shop talk”, but instead cover a lot of social issues and personal histories. 

3) Treat it Gentle: An Autobiography by Sidney Bechet I have heard it said that very little in this book is factual, but let me tell you, I don’t care! Great story-telling and it will keep you reading until the last page. 

4) Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings I told you, I’m a nut for Ralph Ellison. When I first discovered this book I must have bought 50 copies and given them to everyone for Christmas. The book includes excerpts from his works of fiction and also essays, interviews, and a few letters. I love the nonfiction pieces, my favorites being “Living with Music” (where he writes about growing up in Oklahoma City) and “Homage to Duke Ellington on his Birthday”. I consider this a must read for anyone interested not only in Jazz, but American culture. 

5) Erroll Garner: The Most Happy Piano by James Doran This is a collectors piece, since it has been out of print since the late 1980’s. There are still a few copies on Amazon (starting at $85), but for a serious Erroll Garner fan it might be worth it for the exhaustive discography alone. The stories from his family are very interesting and there’s much to be learned from the chronology as well. (If you want to discover Erroll Garner this holiday season, you can also check out the great new DVD which came out earlier this year: No One Can Hear You Read, which is very fascinating, and much more affordable)

6) Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes This autobiography is a must-read and possibly my favorite Jazz autobiography of all time. There is a 2001 edition out now which includes pictures and a discography. 

7) Bird: the Legend of Charlie Parker by Robert Reisner My favorite book about Charlie Parker because it is comprised of short accounts written by people who knew him (it’s not a biography!). One of my favorites is the account from Jay McShann. 

8) Blues People (and it’s Sequel: Black Music) by LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) For the past few years the Jazz community has heard a lot of talk about defining Jazz and “Black American Music”. If you’re interested in the social aspect of this music (and its history), read LeRoi Jones. Jones (or Baraka) is the author of my favorite quote of all time: “The further Jazz moves away from the stark blue continuum and the collective realities of Afro-American and American life, the more it moves into academic concert-hall lifelessness, which can be replicated by any middle class showing off its music lessons.” His books will make you think. 

9) Good Morning Blues: the Autobiography of Count Basie (as told to Albert Murray) Love this book and love Count Basie. What more can be said? 

These are *some* of my favorites – what are yours? Have you read any of my recommendations? Can you recommend a new book for my library? Let me know in the comment section below: 

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10 Responses to Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Jazz Books for Everyone on Your Christmas List

  1. I’ve read Wail: The Life of Bud Powell by Peter Pullman, and The Amazing Bud Powell by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. If you want to read about the life of Bud Powell — which wasn’t fun or pretty — Pullman’s book is the one. Ramsey’s is more of an academic analysis of jazz with reference to Powell’s music.
    Other suggestions: A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music by George E. Lewis, about how rugged individuals including Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, Anthony Braxton, the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Leroy Jenkins, Wadada Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, etc came together to form the longest-running artists’ own collectivein ANY medium, one hasn’t dictated an aesthetic or other such rules. Short on description of the music, but a fascinating quasi sociological study.
    Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus’ self-mythologizing, self-revelatory “autobiography” (with uncredited editorial help from Nat Hentoff); he was brilliant but troubled. See also Tonight at Noon: A Love Story by Sue Mingus, who keeps her late husband’s music alive by managing and producing the Mingus Big Band.
    Modesty forbids, of course, my lauding my own Future Jazz, about people and trends from the ’70s to the Aughts still influential today, and Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz, which pours over those three as representatives of an enduring “avant-garde.”


  2. Love this Champian! Listen to my interview with Robert O’Mealy. We talk about the Ralph Ellison book!!!!

    Hope to see you soon. xx J


  3. Pingback: 20 Days to Christmas: What are your favorite Christmas Songs? | The Undisputed Champian

  4. George King says:

    Hi Champian, good suggestion. Thanks for the mention of the Garner DVD –
    Besides a few videos, there is not much out for Erroll Garner – besides his great reccords.
    By the way, your blogpost on chords led me to Milt Buckner and made a huge fan.
    With all these great guys gone, we are lucky to have you. Looking forward to see you live soon.
    Cheers George.


    • Hello George! I hope you can check out the Garner DVD, it is really very good.

      I’m so glad to hear you became a fan of Milt Buckner! He’s one of the greats.

      Thanks so much for your kind words. See you soon –


  5. gerardrouger says:

    I was about to suggest Staight Life from Art Pepper but El Nicko already did!
    By the way,I suppose you know that the relationship between Bud Powell and Francis Paudras inspired the film by Bertrand Tavernier “Round Midnight” with Dexter Gordon and other jazz musicians in the main roles. A bit dark but interesting characters, shot mainly in Paris, but you’ve certainly already seen!


  6. El Nicko says:

    Great list! I’ve always been a fan of Art Pepper’s “Straight Life.” Pretty dark and twisted but an amazing read. Also love the Miles book…


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