One of the things I learned in the course of writing Rhythm Man, my forthcoming biography of Louis Armstrong, is that surprisingly few full-length books about jazz can be read with both profit and pleasure. Serious jazz scholarship is itself a fairly recent phenomenon, and most of the scholars who write about jazz are better at amassing and interpreting facts than in setting them down on paper stylishly. From the beginning, my goal in writing Rhythm Man was to produce a biography of Armstrong comparable in size, scope and literary quality to a “definitive” literary biography like, say, W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson. No such book exists, though Bix: Man and Legend, the 1974 biography of Bix Beiderbecke by Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans, comes close. As for the rest, the bibliography of Rhythm Man lists nearly two hundred books, the vast majority of which are about jazz in whole or part. These are the five I most enjoyed reading:
Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (1968). The first fully scholarly study of jazz to see print, and one of the best, though later scholarship has superseded some of Schuller’s findings. The insightful chapter on Louis Armstrong’s early development is still invaluable, but Schuller, a high modernist, never managed to come to terms with Armstrong’s musical populism, a defect of sensibility that mars The Swing Era, his 1989 sequel to Early Jazz.
Otis Ferguson, The Otis Ferguson Reader (1952, reprinted in 1997 as In the Spirit of Jazz). Ferguson, who wrote about jazz and movies for The New Republic in the 30’s, was the first journalistic jazz critic to produce a good-sized body of work that remains readable today. Not only has his Chandleresque tough-guy style kept much of its old-fashioned period charm, but time has proved his musical judgment to be consistently sound.
Max Harrison, Charles Fox and Eric Thacker, The Essential Jazz Records, Vol. 1: Ragtime to Swing (1984). A hard-headed, exceptionally well-written survey of major jazz recordings from the beginning to bebop. Harrison, the best of the three contributors, was one of the finest jazz critics of the 20th century, sometimes a bit cranky but impeccably knowledgeable. I drew on his contributions to this volume time and again in writing Rhythm Man.
Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman (1993). Not a scholarly biography in the ordinary sense of the word–Firestone inexplicably omitted source notes–but thorough, vividly written, and meticulous in every other way. Goodman was a famously difficult personality, and Firestone portrays him with skill and sympathy. I can think of no full-length jazz biography that I’ve read with greater pleasure.
Richard M. Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945 (1999). Hugely controversial when it was first published, Lost Chords has since come to be accepted by most (though not all) scholars as a landmark contribution to the literature of jazz. Sudhalter’s critical discussions of the music of such key figures as Red Norvo, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Miff Mole, Pee Wee Russell, Artie Shaw and Jack Teagarden are unfailingly penetrating.
All of these books are still in print except for Lost Chords (which is easy to find) and The Otis Ferguson Reader (which isn’t, alas).