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Fall Reading: 10 Snappy Jazz Memoirs

Jazz musicians have a hard-won rep for quirk, sometimes attributed to unique artistic temperaments, sometimes to marching to the beat of a different, syncopated drum. The music is often built on delightful surprise so it makes complete sense that the same can be said of the artists who practice it. For decades, some of the maestros of the genre have written memorable accounts of their own life stories, making for a worthy bookshelf of raucous tales, musical edification, and periodic debauchery. Here are some choice selections, from the eclectic Herbie Hancock to the straight-talking Miles Davis to the iconic Lady Day.

Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities (2015)

Hancock has been a beloved, wide-ranging jazz purveyor for half a century, and he brings a vibrant, almost sunny sensibility to his recollections. He rose to fame under the tutelage of the great Miles Davis in the early 1960s, after being trained as a classical musician. He veered from those roots to jazz, rock, and electronica thereby winning fans as well as an Academy Award for 1986’s ’Round Midnight soundtrack. In Possibilities, he spills about his crack cocaine addiction in the ‘90s along with other indulgences. Still, a long, happy marriage, firm Buddhist faith, and air of good cheer makes for a boppy read.

Rosemary Clooney’s Girl Singer: An Autobiography (2001)

Breezy, confessional, and a little mystifying, Clooney’s legend begins at age 13 when she got her foothold in the biz by crooning on a midwestern radio station. Her smooth tones combined with a lovely stage presence ensured her success for decades as a solo vocalist, whose biggest hit “Come On-a My House” she wryly compares to a drunken chant. Her marriage to unfaithful movie actor-director Jose Ferrer is covered in detail, so much so that their eventual reunion years later feels less like the happy Hollywood ending than a maddening enigma. Five children, endless affairs, and a nervous breakdown are also covered with disarming honesty. It’s not all gloom though: There are also great reminiscences about Marlon Brando, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole among others.

Quincy Jones’ Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones (2001)

Jones’ status as an anchor pin of pop may have some forgetting his deep ties to jazz, especially with artists like Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, and Frank Sinatra. Indeed, his lifelong loving friendship with Ray Charles — another artist who always had one foot in the genre — brought Jones’ life great joy. (Ray himself penned a chapter supporting this special connection.) Jones grew up poor and compromised by his mother’s mental illness; an early connection to music saved his soul. This is a redemptive memoir of one of the all-time greatest musicians and producers, filled with feeling, vivacity, and some good Michael Jackson anecdotes.

Related: “The 10 Best Michael Jackson Songs You May Have Never Heard”

Art Pepper’s Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper (1979), with Laurie Pepper

Here’s an unsettling journey into the mind of a saxophonist with enormous talent and an inability to lead a balanced life. Written as a courageous collaboration with his beleaguered wife Laurie, Straight Life goes deep into his troubled childhood, drug addictions, multiple incarcerations, and an eventual recovery of sorts. Throughout the chaos, his alto saxophone genius remains intact. His musicianship is to be lauded, but his humanity…let’s just say, he tells tawdry tales with a lack of self-awareness while interviews with friends and colleagues relate a sometimes amusingly different account. In short, get ready for a trip to the dark side.

Miles Davis’ Miles: The Autobiography of Miles Davis (1990)

Rich with language saltier than the angriest millennial podcaster, this memoir — written shortly before his death in 1991 — gives voice to one of the most seminal musical figures of 20th-century music. Throughout, Miles speaks with an openness that can be harsh while reflecting a temper that can be unsparing. Through it all, however, is a man dedicated to art. Always striving and taking risks, this charismatic trailblazer knows how to craft a story that lives up to the hype, sometimes despite himself.

Related: “It Takes A Long Time to Be Able to Play Like Yourself”

Peggy Lee’s Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography (1989)

Sultry chanteuse Peggy Lee was the epitome of elegance and tonal excellence, from her earliest days with Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1941 until just a few years before her passing in 2002. Her song “Fever” is a timeless standard as is “Is That All There Is.” She had many hits, played to packed houses, was nominated for an Oscar in 1955, and racked up four turbulent marriages. Not a dull life! That she survived her terribly abusive childhood and years of ill health is a testament to her grit. Her book goes down easy. You expect she’d want it no other way.

Anita O’Day’s High Times, Hard Times, with David Eels (1981)

O’Day may never have achieved universal stardom, but she’s a revered jazz vocalist nevertheless. Here she writes with earthy humor and total hipness as she chronicles her struggles and screw-ups without apology and with an open heart. Like her singing, her prose style swings. The addictions that almost ended her life take a heartening turn when she kicks heroin in the 1970s and returns to public life and acclaim. Too bad she never wrote a sequel so we could enjoy tales of her later years, too.

Ray Charles’ Brother Ray, with David Ritz (1978)

If you’ve seen the biopic, you know: There’s no shortage of tragedy in this narrative. Ray went blind at age 7 and then lost his little brother to a drowning. Dealing with racism and heroin on the road would’ve taken down a lesser man, but bolstered by lessons learned from mom, he’s set on a course of complete independence, wise business deals, and unmatched musicianship. He performed in all modes (but disco), but jazz was his first love and informed all the rest. This is a book full of salacious tales and enormous wit. A classic of the genre.

Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues, with William Dufty (1956)

A gorgeous piece of vintage music history that some have taken issue with because of its lack of precise factual accuracy, Billie Holiday’s autobiography remains one for the ages, critics be damned. Her abusive, poverty-stricken beginnings in Baltimore were compounded by jail time, rape, and drug addiction yet a God-given gift as a song stylist secured her legend forever. Here we get firsthand accounts of her troubled relationships (which somehow never seemed to break her spirit or sense of self) and the substance abuse that expedited her tragic death at 44. Lucky for us, her patois, humor, and humanity are immortalized in these words.

Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954)

Reissued in 2015, this collection of Louis Armstrong’s historical jottings — straight from his own heart and traveling typewriter — are a joy to read. What the astoundingly gifted and humble Armstrong brought to trumpet, scat, and jazz he also delivers in prose. Satchmo literally sings. His upbringing in the Storyville brothels at the turn of the 20th century yields colorful stories aplenty as Armstrong brims with enthusiasm in a N’awlins argot that only enriches his cool observations.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo Credit: Public domain images of Ray Charles and Billie Holiday

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