best jazz books

The 4 Best Jazz Books for Rainy Days

There’s no wrong time for jazz music, obviously, but those smoky, dulcet tones just lend themselves to life’s rainy days. Waterlogged April is almost at a close, but there’s still time to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and I’ve got four of the best jazz books that you can break out for your next rainy day read.

If you’re wondering why Jazz Appreciation Month falls in April, look no further than a calendar of musicians’ birthdays. The National Museum of American History lists the following April babies who turned out to be Jazz greats: “Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Dodds, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Freddie Hubbard, Randy Weston, [and] Herbie Hancock.”

Since its inception in the early 20th century, jazz music has influenced every facet of American art and culture. It has evolved, like any art form, but its free-spirited tenets of exploration, expression, and experimentation remain. These infectious qualities seep into the listener — just put on one of Spotify’s jazz playlists during your next creative session and you’ll see what I mean.

Check out my picks for the best jazz books below, and share your recommendations — for tunes and texts — with me on Twitter.

The 4 Best Jazz Books for Rainy Days

Jazz by Toni Morrison

best jazz booksWhen her previously gentle and unassuming husband murders his much-younger lover, a middle-aged housewife is left to make sense of her life. After she attacks the girl’s corpse during the funeral, the woman forges an unlikely new friendship with the young woman’s grieving aunt.

Jazz unfolds like a slow, somber dance. Here are intricate family histories, migrants, orphans, motherless children, and childless mothers. Lying in wait are the age-old questions of whether music acts as a corrupting influence on the nation’s youth,  and whether it is possible to stave off the seemingly inevitable effects of a history of violence.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

best jazz booksThis contemporary novel follows a loosely connected cast of four protagonists — including a curse-happy 9-year-old and a half-stray mutt — through a fateful December 23rd. The story revolves around the titular Philadelphia jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, where the aforementioned potty-mouth hopes to step into her late mother’s shoes and give a jazz performance for the ages.

It’s easy to forget that 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is set in 2010s Philly. The themes — religion, classism, loss, and recovery — are timeless. Most of Marie-Helene Bertino’s characters cling to their memories and outmoded traditions, fighting against the marching flow of time.

Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression by Richard Havers

best jazz booksPublished in 2014 for the titular jazz label’s anniversary, Richard Haver’s microhistory traces Blue Note’s 75-year legacy through signed artists, album artwork, landmark albums, and other ephemera. Founded by a pair of German immigrants, Blue Note became an institution, sporting a lineup that reads like a who’s-who of great jazz: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sam Rivers. It’s the American Dream, really, wrapped up in the sheets with a wholly American musical form.

If you’re a jazz lover looking for a new conversation-starting piece of home decor, snag a copy of Haver’s Blue Note for your coffee table.

Home to Harlem by Claude McKay

best jazz booksIf you’ve read everything Zora Neale Hurstone has to offer, take Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem for a spin the next time you need a Harlem Renaissance fix. Tired of fighting a war that makes no sense to him, protagonist Jake makes his way back to the U.S. from London. Riding along with him, readers are treated to the drug culture and obscured expressions of black male sexuality in the 1920s.

Hated by black leaders of the time for what they perceived as a negative representation of black men as aimless, frivolous loafers, Home to Harlem reads like an anthem for today’s post-college crowd. Here is a hero caught between dreams and comfort, forced to forge his own path in a world set against him. If you thought The Great Gatsby was the ultimate jazz age novel, put McKay’s book on your TBR today.


What books would you add to this list? Let me know by leaving a comment!

Image Credit: Jeroen Komen