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Night Lights Best Of 2009: Books Edition

1. Jack Chambers, Bouncin' With Bartok: the Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik

The powerful narrative myth of the tortured jazz genius who leaves behind only a scattered number of recordings has been with us at least since the passing of Bix Beiderbecke (who left behind more than a scattering) and Buddy Bolden (who didn't even leave any, save for one rumored cylinder that has never surfaced).

Boston jazz pianist Dick Twardzik, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 24 in 1955, fits right into this storyline of tantalizing brilliance and ultimately-unfulfilled promise. Jack Chambers, who also wrote a biography of Miles Davis, has done a marvelous job here of digging up the details of Twardzik's life, tracing his influences, analyzing his style (bop with a dash of classical and avant-garde), and situating him in the vibrant Boston jazz scene of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

2. Sascha Feinstein and David Rife (editors), The Jazz Fiction Anthology

A welcome and definitive modern/hip expansion upon previous anthologies. James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is here, of course, but so is Yusef Komunyakaa's "Buddy's Monologue," Frank London Brown's "Singing Dinah's Song," and Julio Cortazar's unfinished "Bix Beiderbecke." A multicultural testament to the power of jazz to inspire and shape lives and art; hell yes, you can dance about architecture!

3. John Howland, Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz

The birth of the Third Stream occurred well before the 1950s. This in-depth study of the cultural trends that produced symphonic jazz illuminates for readers how Ellington arrived at significant works like Black, Brown and Beige and Harlem. It also provides a welcome emphasis on the importance of Johnson as a pioneering jazz composer. Stay tuned for an upcoming Night Lights program featuring an interview with Howland.

4. Robin D.G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original

This book sets out to be a myth-buster, knocking down the long-running image of the pianist Thelonious Monk as a bebop eccentric separated from reality by drugs and creative madness. Kelley doesn't try to deny the offbeat aspects of Monk's personality. Instead, he makes the case that they were either hyped or exaggerated and gives us a much more complex portrait of Monk as a human being, a man rooted in family life who worked hard to develop his music. Kelley's smart and deeply knowledgeable about the music, and while he often holds back his scholarly chops in the interest of accessible narrative, he's not restrained at all about documenting just how difficult it was to function as a working (or, all too often, not working) black jazz artist in mid-20th-century America.

5. Mark Miller, Herbie Nichols: a Jazzist's Life

Like Jack Chambers, Mark Miller came up with far more on his biographical subject than one might reasonably expect at this late date. Herbie Nichols, an almost-unknown pianist in his lifetime, died in 1963 at the age of 44. He left behind much more of a compositional legacy than did Twardzik, and he also had a handful of friends and posthumous advocates who have elevated his work to a respected place in the post-World War II jazz canon. In addition to his fine detective work and analysis of Nichols' unique music, Miller makes a strong and original case for Nichols as a product of the Harlem Renaissance movement.

6. Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker, Freedom, Rhythm and Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Cover Art 1965-83

The years between 1965 and 1983, also known as the Fire Music Years, were a time when the front of the record often conveyed a message of resistance and cultural/artistic autonomy similar to the music contained within. One of the most fascinating and still-unexplored chapters of jazz history, if nothing else, this book may hip you to a few fine albums you haven't come across before.

7. Sam Stephenson, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965

Two months ago, when the website that accompanies this book was launched, I wrote:

Imagine a place, a time when jazz converged with literature and painting, in a gritty and vibrant setting where Norman Mailer might breeze by to talk philosophy while Thelonious Monk prepares for a concert in another room. Maybe Bob Brookmeyer and Zoot Sims are jamming, or Salvador Dali's dropped in to help plan a happening. Urban street-life regulars are there as well – this is no sanitized and disconnected sanctum of sterility, it's a hive of creation among rot.

In The Jazz Loft Project, Sam Stephenson's juxtaposition of photographs, essays, and selected transcriptions of the numerous tapes Smith made bring a vanished artistic world of mid-20th century Manhattan back to life.

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