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JazzTimes 10: Great Jazz Memoirs

What some of the music's most important figures have written about themselves

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.

Charles Mingus: Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus (1971)

Charles Mingus: <i>Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus</i> (1971)

Although some of the material was later determined by historians and critics to be, shall we say, less than truthful, the forceful nature of Mingus as a musician and man comes across loud and clear. In recounting his early life and struggles, Mingus is blunt, profane, and sometimes poetic. To get a clearer picture of his life, we suggest combining this book with Sue Mingus’ beautifully written Tonight at Noon, which talks about her life with the legendary bassist and composer.

Other memoirs of note:

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.