Category Archives: music

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

By Terry Teachout (2010)
Louis Armstrong is widely known as the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century. Offstage he was witty, introspective, and unexpectedly complex, a beloved colleague with an explosive temper whose larger-than-life personality was tougher and more sharp-edged than his worshiping fans ever knew. Terry Teachout has drawn on a cache of important new sources unavailable to previous biographers, including hundreds of candid after-hours recordings made by Armstrong himself, to craft a sweeping new narrative biography.

Posted in biography, music

Talking Jazz

By Ben Sidran (expanded edition, 1995)
Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Jon Hendricks, Max Roach, Betty Carter, Jackie McLean, Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, and Jack DeJohnette—these are just a few of the jazz musicians whose conversations with Ben Sidran are recorded in this volume. In stimulating, personal, and informative discussions, they not only reveal their personalities, but also detail aspects of the performance, technique, business, history, and emotions of jazz.

Posted in biography, interview, music

Yes Yes Y’All: An Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade

Edited by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn (2002)
Based on the “Hip-Hop Nation” exhibit at Seattle’s Experience Music Project and the project’s ongoing Oral History Program, this history of the beginnings of hip-hop in 1970s New York City is a lavishly illustrated and lovingly compiled homage to the many artists who contributed to the birth of what soon became and remains today, more than 25 years later a worldwide cultural institution. Editors Fricke and Ahearn (director of the hip-hop film Wild Style) weave the insights and attitudes of nearly 100 of the key players into a multihued and multiracial tapestry that illustrates what the excitement of that era and its music was all about. Since the hip-hop style was first developed in the Bronx borough of New York City as a dance-floor alternative to the then-prominent “disco” sound, the oral narrative is dominated by the voices of well-known DJs: Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. But much of the success of the book is derived from its exploration of the roots of other related hip-hop trends: how the massive new styles of graffiti were both a response to urban violence as well as a way to provoke the interest of downtown New York avant-garde artists; how the competitive world of break dancing was rooted in the rapidly changing and fading gang culture of the Bronx; and how many women were far more active and influential in all types of hip-hop styles than was obvious or recognized at the time. This is an excellent documentation of how early hip-hop expressed “a balance between pain and the celebration of music and movements.”

Posted in art, culture, exhibition, history, interview, language, music

Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein

By John Corbett (1994)
Using obscure and familiar figures from around the world as touchstones for portraits, interviews, and essays, Corbett roams an incredible breadth of musical territory: blues and jazz, contemporary classical, funk and rap, free improvisation, rock, and reggae. His true talent becomes clear as he exits surface terrain to guide the reader through a labyrinth of philosophical and intellectual thought amid the musical landscape. His interview techniques (particularly with Cage), breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding, and use of words in a way that imparts wisdom and provokes deep thought all shine. This work shows Corbett to be an important writer of our time; recommended for serious musicians and all others who enjoy the “outside.”

Posted in culture, history, interview, music, theory

Mingus: A Critical Biography

By Brian Priestly (1983)
The British pianist and journalist Brian Priestly has written the first biography of Charles Mingus, and it’s an excellent piece of work. His emphasis tends to be on the music, which he discusses in a lucid and lively manner. But Priestly recounts the life, too, exalting Mingus’s devotion to his art and treating even his most self-destructive fiascoes with even-handed sympathy.

Posted in biography, music

Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings

By Ralph Ellison (2001)
Ellison (1914-94) developed his love of music during his childhood in Oklahoma City, a bastion of Southwestern jazz in the 1920s and 1930s and the home of Jimmy Rushing, Charlie Christian, and the famous Blue Devils. As a young man, he lived with music, listening to it, analyzing it, and mingling with performers in the hopes of becoming one himself (he became a trumpeter). As editor O’Meally makes clear, jazz influenced both his thinking and writing. This fine collection consists mainly of previously uncollected jazz writings, among them “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz” and “Homage to Duke Ellington on His Birthday.” These interesting and highly personal pieces offer details about a bygone era as well as insights into the formation of Ellison’s mind and the writing of Invisible Man and other fiction in which jazz and its processes figured so strongly.

Posted in biography, culture, history, music

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock-n-Roll

By Greil Marcus (1975)
More than 20 years after its initial publication, Mystery Train remains one of the smartest, most provocative books ever written about rock-and-roll. Marcus puts his subjects–which include Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman, and Sly Stone–into their proper context, which is the culture-at-large. He makes you understand why these musicians matter, and what they’ve contributed to the American imagination.

Posted in culture, history, music

Mr. Jellyroll

By Alan Lomax (1950)
When it appeared in 1950, this biography of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton became an instant classic of jazz literature. Jelly Roll’s voice spins out his life in something close to song, each sentence rich with the sound and atmosphere of the period in which Morton, and jazz, exploded on the American and international scene.

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Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus

By Charles Mingus (1971)
A wild, lyrical, and anguished autobiography, in which Charles Mingus pays short shrift to the facts but plunges to the very bottom of his psyche, coming up for air only when it pleases him. He takes the reader through his childhood in Watts, his musical education by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, and his prodigious appetites–intellectual, culinary, and sexual. The book is a jumble, but a glorious one, by a certified American genius.

Posted in biography, music

Bound for Glory

By Woodie Guthrie (1943)
The original road novel–even though it takes the form of autobiography. If Guthrie didn’t actually invent the footloose, no- strings-attached American hero, he certainly solidified the 20th-century version. Guitar slung over the shoulder as he sprinted to boost himself aboard freight trains, a man of the people equally at home with urban intellectuals, Guthrie incarnated for generations of Americans the artist as free spirit. This is the book that created the legend.

Posted in biography, history, music