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Night Lights Classic Jazz

Songs Of Themselves: Jazz Autobiographies

At the intersection of performance, narrative, and remembrance: some notable jazz stories told by the musicians themselves.

Cover of Art Pepper's book Straight Life

Photo: Book cover art

Art Pepper's autobiography, written with the help of his wife Laurie, provides a raw and sometimes-harrowing look at the saxophonist's life.

There’s an oft-repeated quote from the great saxophonist Lester Young about the importance of telling a story when you play. Over the decades a number of musicians have also told their stories through the written word, often making significant contributions to jazz history, and sometimes popping up in other aspects of culture as well (Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings The Blues was made into a movie starring Diana Ross, while Mezz Mezzrow’s Really The Blues became a kind of bible for underground hipsters in the 1940s and 50s). Some exist in different, unpublished “alternate take” versions (Charles Mingus’ Beneath The Underdog and Holiday’s Lady Sings The Blues), while others were intended but never came to pass, such as Paul Desmond’s much-talked-about-but-barely-written How Many Of You Are There In The Quartet? Like other self-penned memoirs, these books contain their fair share of embellishments, inaccuracies, and omissions, but they provide us with numerous and invaluable firsthand accounts of this music’s making at the ground-level viewpoint of the artists, while giving us their subjects’ voices in a different context. Read Louis Armstrong’s autobiographical writings, for example, and you’ll appreciate his creative flair and life-loving spirit in a new realm; take in Art Pepper’s Straight Life, and you might come away thinking that the saxophonist could have done double-duty as a hardboiled novelist.

Also, as with many autobiographies by performing artists, some of these books were written with the assistance of other writers. I have not included the co-authors’ names in this list, but they can be found in the links to the books themselves. I have also added the autobiographies of several people who were impresarios or otherwise chroniclers of the jazz scene such as George Wein, Valerie Wilmer, John Hammond, and Lorraine Gordon. As always, suggestions for further titles are welcome.

Louis Armstrong, Swing That Music

Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans

Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings

Chet Baker, As Though I Had Wings

Danny Barker, A Life In Jazz

Charlie Barnet, Those Swinging Years

Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle

George Benson, Benson: The Autobiography

Barney Bigard, With Louis And The Duke: The Autobiography Of A Jazz Clarinetist

Paul Bley, Stopping Time

Gary Burton, Learning To Listen

Garvin Bushell, Jazz From The Beginning

Cab Calloway, Of Minnie The Moocher And Me

Hoagy Carmichael, The Stardust Road And Sometimes I Wonder

Doc Cheatham, I Guess I’ll Get The Papers And Go Home

Buck Clayton, Buck Clayton’s Jazz World

Bill Coleman, Trumpet Story

Buddy Collette, Jazz Generations: A Life In American Music And Society

Eddie Condon, We Called It Music: A Generation Of Jazz

Miles Davis, Miles: The Autobiography

Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress

Peter Erskine, No Beethoven: An Autobiography And Chronicle Of Weather Report

Pops Foster, The Autobiography Of A New Orleans Jazzman

Bud Freeman, Crazeology: The Autobiography Of A Chicago Jazzman

Michael Garrick, Dusk Fire: Jazz In English Hands

Terry Gibbs, Good Vibes: A Life In Jazz

Dizzy Gillespie, To Be, Or Not… To Bop

Benny Golson, Whisper Not

Babs Gonzales, I Paid My Dues: Good Times, No Bread

Benny Goodman, The Kingdom Of Swing

Lorraine Gordon, Alive At The Village Vanguard: My Life In And Out Of Jazz Time

John Hammond, John Hammond On Record

Lionel Hampton, Hamp

Herbie Hancock, Possibilities

Hampton Hawes, Raise Up Off Me

Jimmy Heath, I Walked With Giants

Woody Herman, The Woodchopper’s Ball

Milt Hinton, Playing The Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life In Stories And Photographs

Art Hodes, Hot Man

Billie Holiday, Lady Sings The Blues

Quincy Jones, Q

Andy Kirk, Twenty Years On Wheels

Yusef Lateef, The Gentle Giant

Dave Liebman, What It Is: The Life Of A Jazz Artist

Wingy Manone, Trumpet On The Wing

Pat Martino, Here And Now!

Hugh Masekela, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey Of Hugh Masekela

Mezz Mezzrow, Really The Blues

Charles Mingus, Beneath The Underdog

Anita O’Day, High Times Hard Times

Chan Parker, My Life In E-Flat

Art Pepper, Straight Life

Oscar Peterson, A Jazz Odyssey

John Pizzarelli, World On A String

Pony Poindexter, The Pony Express

Valery Ponomarev, On The Flip Side Of Sound

Roy Porter, There And Back

Flora Purim, Freedom Song

Marshall Royal, Marshall Royal: Jazz Survivor

Willie Ruff, A Call To Assembly

Artie Shaw, The Trouble With Cinderella

George Shearing, Lullaby Of Birdland

Horace Silver, Let’s Get To The Nitty Gritty

Nina Simone, I Put A Spell On You

Willie the Lion Smith, Music On My Mind: The Memoirs Of An American Pianist

Rex Stewart, Boy Meets Horn

Horace Tapscott, Songs Of The Unsung

Billy Taylor, The Jazz Life Of Dr. Billy Taylor

Clark Terry, Clark

Mel Torme, It Wasn’t All Velvet

George Wein, Myself Among Others: A Life In Music

Dickie Wells, The Night People

Randy Weston, African Rhythms

Bob Wilber, Music Was Not Enough

Valerie Wilmer, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This: My Life In The Jazz World

Teddy Wilson, Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz

Also see:

Robert Gottlieb, editor, Reading Jazz: A Gathering Of Autobiography, Reportage, And Criticism

Christopher Harlos, “Jazz Autobiography” in Representing Jazz (edited by Krin Gabbard)

Daniel Stein, Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, And American Jazz

Daniel Stein, The Performance Of Jazz Autobiography

Previous Night Lights bibliographies:

Jazz Capitals Of America: A Bibliography

Women In Jazz: A Bibliography

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