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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.

1. Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser: To Be or Not to Bop (1979)

1. Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser: <i>To Be or Not to Bop</i> (1979)

The story of how Dizzy Gillespie transitioned from being a sideman in various big bands to leading his own groups, which created a new form of jazz, is fascinating. There will never be a memoir from Charlie Parker, so Gillespie’s story serves as a proxy for Bird’s incendiary path through the jazz world. This entertaining and illuminating memoir is as much an oral history because a large portion of the book contains testimony from Dizzy’s peers of that time, including John Lewis, Miles Davis, Mary Lou Williams, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton, Roy Eldridge, and many more. Like two books in one.

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.