‘But Beautiful’ by Geoff Dyer
Geoff Dyer is probably best known as the witty, urbane writer of ‘Jeff in Venice’, ‘Paris, Trance’ and ‘Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It’, but he started off his career with this stunning series of vignettes based on the lives of jazz greats including Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Art Pepper. In his foreword, Dyer explains how famous photographs of the artists informed his writing, and each of these pieces superbly realise the courage, creativity, integrity, loneliness and often brutality that shadowed the lives of these groundbreaking players. The book is sometimes poetic, sometimes shocking, and full of memorable phrases; of Ben Webster, Dyer says, ‘He carried his loneliness around with him like an instrument case. It never left his side’. And his writings on Thelonious Monk uniquely capture the pianist’s quirky genius.
‘Visions of Jazz: The First Century’ by Gary Giddins
Giddins, jazz critic of New York’s Village Voice for 30 years until recently and frequent contributor to Ken Burns’ famous ‘Jazz’ documentary, has written great books about Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong but this extraordinary work features a chapter on almost all of the major jazz artists of the 20th century. He seems to refresh the parts that other writers cannot reach, focusing in expertly at what exactly makes these individuals unique. He reserves a special place for singers such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Sinatra but also acknowledges groundbreaking though sometimes sidelined artists like Spike Jones, Irving Berlin and Rosemary Clooney, who influenced jazz in their own less obvious way.
‘Straight Life’ by Art and Laurie Pepper
The primal scream of jazz books. Pepper was arguably the foremost post-Charlie Parker alto sax player, and this book co-written with his wife is an unflinching account of a jazz life lived at the apex of drug addiction, criminality and cultural upheaval. But it also somehow manages to be a tender love letter to jazz. Let’s call it the Stan Getz Syndrome: one wonders how such a complicated, violent character can create such beautiful, uplifting music. Some of the answer can be found in this gripping book. It’s not for the faint-hearted though. Interestingly, Art’s wife and co-author Laurie Pepper has recently written a follow-up which gives much more of her side of the story – that’s certainly one for a summer holiday…
‘Talking Jazz’ by Ben Sidran
Sidran is a respected pianist and singer, and he raided his contact book to chat with some of the most important jazz and crossover artists of the late 20th century including Keith Jarrett, Art Blakey, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Donald Fagen, Mose Allison, Dr John, Wynton Marsalis, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis. What’s immediately evident is that most jazz musicians like talking as much as they like playing, and yacking has always been intrinsic to the jazz life. Sidran’s interviews mainly took place in the mid-‘80s offering up an fascinating snapshot of the contemporary scene, with the spectres of technology and jazz puritanism looming large. And because he knows many of the interviewees, they often let their guard down in unexpected and amusing ways: check out the interview with Carla Bley in particular.
‘Quintet of the Year’ by Geoffrey Haydon
In May 1953, five all-time great jazzmen performed together at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada – Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. The resulting Jazz at Massey Hall live album has always been shrouded in controversy and mystery – until now. This classy book serves as a veritable history of bebop, tracing each of five genius’s careers leading up to this epochal concert, and concludes with a cracking account of the night itself which clears up many of the inconsistencies. It’s a fast-moving, gripping read with the depth and range of a really good BBC4 documentary – possibly because Haydon began his career making music programmes for the BBC. And it’ll have you rifling through your CDs to re-listen to these artists’ incredible music.
‘Notes and Tones’ by Arthur Taylor
Another series of musician-to-musician interviews but this time taking place in a very volatile, politicised period of jazz, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Taylor was a first-call drummer for legends like Miles Davis, Donald Byrd and Thelonious Monk and had access to an incredible array of interviewees such as Ornette Coleman, Erroll Garner, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, Betty Carter, Philly Joe Jones and Dizzy Gillespie. Without exception, they open up to Taylor on topics such as racism, free jazz, civil rights and The Beatles without a trace of political correctness. Some of the interviews are plain controversial (Ornette Coleman, Johnny Griffin), some moving (Leon Thomas), some thought-provoking (Ron Carter) and some just very good fun. Taylor’s chat with Miles Davis begins with Miles soundchecking the microphone thus: ‘Hello, hello, hello, hello, my ding! Look out, look out, my duke. What do you want to talk about, Arthur?’ There are some great photos too, many taken by Taylor himself.