The genre of memoirs by jazz musicians is a rich one, filled with tales of trials and tribulations as well as success stories. To make a memoir work, the author has to not only recall events and feelings from the past correctly, but also manage to project the right tone and voice, with genuine rather than false humility. On top of that, we readers would like to learn something about the author that we didn’t know before, which presents another challenge. Every memoir here except (spoiler alert!) Charles Mingus’ required an assist from a writer or editor, who deserves credit for helping to bring the project home.
There's something to be said for a lurid tale, and Pepper’s graphic account of his struggles with drug addiction during the late '50s delivers in full. Reading about his not-at-all straight life, you can’t help but wonder how the saxophonist was able to play so well for as long as he did. Comedian, actor, and podcaster Marc Maron cites this book as a favorite read.
African Rhythm: The Autobiography of Randy Weston by Randy Weston and Willard Jenkins
Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty: The Autobiography of Horace Silver by Horace Silver and Phil Pastras
Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton by Gary Burton
The Good Life: The Autobiography of Tony Bennett by Tony Bennett
There are also many excellent compilations of writing by jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong: In His Own Write, Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones, Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes, and Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All in Good Time. Although these collections aren’t memoirs, they do offer readers the opportunity to learn about the music from the perspective, and through the voices, of accomplished artists.