Apart from the experience of listening, jazz biographies are just as captivating as jazz photos. If only I could bring the Li family to life with such detail as we find in books like
- Ross Russell, Bird Lives
- Miles, The Autobiography
- David Brun-Lambert, Nina Simone: the biography
- J.C. Thomas, Coltrane: Chasing the trane
And as to books on Billie Holiday, don’t get me started…
More academic, but masterly, is
- Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz
In books like this, it’s not just the social and personal detail that impresses, but the technical aspects of their constant musical strivings – their obsession with chords, timbre, and so on. From Charlie Parker’s use of the Rico number five reed (Russell pp.10–13) to Keith Richards’ sheer exhilaration in his Life (no less captivating than the many gaudy experiences throughout the book) of discovering the open five-string tuning (p.270ff.).
We could compile lists of similar excursions in world music, but jazz leads the way…
While I’m about it, don’t forget
- George Melly, Owning up.
Here’s a fun party game. When reading Life, be sure to read it in Keef’s voice—his inclusive conspiratorial chuckle is one of the great primeval sounds of nature.
Whereas Miles’ autobiography should be read in the voice of the Queen, Brian Sewell, or (for yet older readers…) the presenter of Listen with Mother. If serialised on Radio 4, it could be called Listen with Motherfucker.