Good Minds Suggest—Esi Edugyan's Favorite Books About Jazz

Posted by Goodreads on March 5, 2012
The bistros and dance halls of occupied Paris hummed with jazz music in the 1940s, despite the Nazis' effort to clamp down on the "depraved" sound. Novelist Esi Edugyan revisits these bustling nightclubs in her new work of historical fiction, Half-Blood Blues, about a jazz band of black musicians called the Hot-Time Swingers. Narrated by bass player Sid Griffiths, the story alternates between the war years and 1992, when Griffiths laments the last time he saw bandmate Hieronymus Falk, a young trumpet player taken by the Gestapo. Half-Blood Blues, a finalist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, is newly available in the United States this month. The Canadian writer shares with Goodreads five books that capture the swinging spirit and rhythm of jazz.

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer
"How to sum up the exquisite strangeness of this haunting book? In language that perfectly embodies the rhythms of the music, Dyer turns the biographical details of musicians' lives into glorious dreamscapes. He throws you so deeply into the minds and spiritual lives of these musicians, it is hard to tell the facts from the invented. The piece on Thelonius Monk is a particular favorite."

Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany by Michael H. Kater
"This arresting book looks at the evolution of jazz in Germany, from its inception in the Weimar years to the postwar era. A fascinating view of how jazz continued to thrive in Europe's darkest era. Music as a form of resistance."

Jazz by Toni Morrison
"This is perhaps Morrison's greatest novel after Beloved. In angular, bright, sharp prose, Morrison tells a story of love gone bad. Really, truly bad. Its structure is dazzlingly original."

Treat It Gentle: An Autobiography by Sidney Bechet
"Dictated by Bechet just before his death, this is an autobiography like no other. Movingly Bechet—a master of both the clarinet and the saxophone—gives a warm, vivid account of his life as a 'musicianer' in language that approaches the torqued beauty of his music. The best jazz biography I have read."

Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars by William A. Shack
"Like Kater's book, this tells a story of jazz in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. In this case, it follows the rise of Montmartre as a major center of European jazz during the interwar years. A different take on the 'Americans in Paris' theme. A fascinating read."

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by J. (new)

J. Nice, and hard to think of a better book to lead the pack than "But Beautiful".
Where to go from here ?
Artie Shaw's "The Trouble With Cinderella"
"Really The Blues" by Mezz Mezzrow
And "Straight Life" by Art Pepper

message 2: by Stevens229 (new)

Stevens229 I've always liked "The Bear Comes Home" by Rafi Zabor. "The hero of this sensational first novel is an alto-sax virtuoso trying to evolve a personal style out of Coltrane and Rollins. He also happens to be a walking, talking, Blake- and Shakespeare-quoting bear...."

Much more natural and less forced than it sounds.

message 3: by Terri (new)

Terri I'm starting my christmas shopping early!

message 4: by Linda (new)

Linda Ashley Kahn's book, Kind of Blue - The Making of Miles Davis' Masterpiece, is one of my favorite books about jazz. Another very beautiful biography I read in 1999 when the book was first published is Linda Dahl's "Morning Glory" about Mary Lou Williams.

message 5: by Luke (new)

Luke Another vote for Zabor's book. It's amazing. Encapsulates the feeling of improvisation, or so I felt. One of my favourites.

You also can't go past Miles Davis's autobiography. It's so full of bad-assery that it's almost unbelievable.

message 6: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Barter I want to Thankyou for all your suggestions,I was happy to see "Jazz" made your list.It was the first time I read a book that sang to me.

message 7: by David (new)

David Hayes A good list, esp the Dyer book. Thinking of novels (or, in this case, a novella), I would add Josef Škvorecký's "The Bass Saxophone," about a jazz band during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.

message 8: by Shara (new)

Shara Faskowitz Wonderful suggestions: love "But Beautiful"! I'd include John Clellon Holmes' beat masterpiece "Horn." It's loosely based on the life of Lester Young and is a joy to read--if you can find it.

message 9: by Susan (new)

Susan In order that the jazzwomen don't remain invisible I will add some of my favorites.
Two are by Linda Dahl: Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, and Morning Glory, the biography of the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams.
Then, the biography of First Lady of Jazz, Lil Hardin (Armstrong) by James L. Dickerson.

And finally, High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The life and music of Valaida Snow, by Mark Miller.
If you've not read these books, I highly recommend them. I used Stormy Weather as a text for my Women in Music Course at Berklee College of Music.

message 10: by John (last edited Mar 26, 2012 12:22AM) (new)

John Gilmore I'm surprised Esi Edugyan didn't mention the great Canadian novel about the legendary New Orleans jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden: Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje. It's a brilliant work of literature.

Coming Through Slaughter

Readers interested in "the jazz life" might also be interested in my own book: Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal.

Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal

message 11: by Susan (new)

Susan I know it's just a typo, John, but you meant Buddy Bolden, right? David Fulmer has featured Bolden un his novels (as a real life character) in his historical mysteries set in New Orleans. see Rampart Street

message 12: by John (new)

John Gilmore Ooops. Yes, Susan, I meant Buddy BOLDEN.

message 13: by jo (new)

jo more fiction: Jackie Kay's Trumpet, a beautiful, lyrical, mind-blowing reprise of the life of piano and sax player billy tipton.

message 14: by Susan (new)

Susan Wow, thanks Jo, I knew about Billy Tipton, didn't know there was a book out about him/her. It's an amazing story. Care to expand on what the book's about, Jo?

message 15: by jo (new)

jo susan, that i can see, billy tipton works as an inspiration here only in the sense that the protagonist of Trumpet lives his whole life as a man but he's a biological female. the novel starts with joss's death and proceeds multi-vocally to cover his wife's bereavement and his son's (who didn't know anything) various stages of rage, puzzlement, contempt, etc. there are other voices. the book is basically a survey of people's responses to the fact of joss moody, his amazing talent as a musician, his blackness, and his gender-bending. jackie kay covers a ton of ground, from the beauty of the music, to race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and fatherhood. it's a slim volume, but a beautiful song.

message 16: by Susan (new)

Susan Well now I'm really confused. Billy Tipton was a very talented WHITE FEMALE sax player who lived as a man for her entire career because the prejudice against female jazz instrumentalists was so great s/he couldn't get work. Yes s/he married. Don't know how the child was conceived. This is a well-known story in jazz music circles. Full disclosure, I taught a course at Berklee College of Music in Boston about jazz and classical female instrumentalists. There is also a very well known group called the Billy Tipton Quartet. It consists of 4 female sax players.

So the book, Trumpet, is about a black man called joss moody (who is really a woman). It's an interesting concept, Jo, but it appears to me that the only similarity to the Billy Tipton story is the gender-bending thing.

message 17: by jo (last edited Mar 27, 2012 07:23AM) (new)

jo yes. i misspoke the first time. billy tipton acted as an inspiration for the book. however, given that there are probably not THAT MANY cases like this, i suppose one cannot deny that billy tipton played a part in the conception of this novel haha.

also, billy tipton totally identified as male, married more than once and should probably be thought of as a male. i don't think his cross-gendering was solely for the purpose of doing jazz in a male world. i think it was who he was. just my opinion!

having said this, check out Trumpet. it's short and sweet and beautiful.

message 18: by Susan (new)

Susan Hi Jo, I agree that the gender-switch aspect is not that common. But there are precedents long before Billy Tipton did it. For example, there was a woman who fought for the Union army in the Civil War disguised as a man (because women were not allowed into the army in those days).

And I would not discount the possibility that Joss Moody pretended to be male in order to gain entre to the extremely male-dominated jazz world. I know the book is fiction, but that has been, and in some places still is, the reality in jazz and the hiring of women players to work in a band.

Jo, I again thank you for calling the book to our attention. It sounds very interesting and I'm going to read it.

message 19: by Des (new)

Des Thank you GoodReads for introducing me to "Half Blood Blues". What a wonderful read! The only other book relating to Jazz that comes anywhere close to it for my money is John Wain's "Strike the Father Dead". Have now started William Shack's "Harlem in Montmartre" (thank you GoodReads)...a different type of book but nonetheless enjoyable.

back to top