Reading about an aural tradition sometimes seems unnecessary, as practically all of the Jazz masters learned their craft from studying recordings. Still, I have found a few books especially profound, as they articulate artistic approaches, practice techniques, and experiences on the road. Here are some of my suggestions:
Wynton Marsalis: To a Young Jazz Musician
Wynton’s approach is sometimes a little traditional and opinionated for my taste, but this book was an inspiration to me years ago when I was first starting out. Through many letters to his student, Wynton articulates the challenges and joys of his life as a touring musician, offering advice for how to avoid common pitfalls young artists face. Every chapter in this is gold, I would highly recommend it to everyone.
Kenny Werner: Effortless Mastery
This is probably the most famous book on my list. Through meditations, personal anecdotes, and practice strategies, Werner offers advice for how to reach a point of true mastery. When one has fully internalized a musical language, Werner argues, they can improvise without consciously thinking. Many musicians tend to over-analyze and second-guess themselves when they play instead of letting go. This book is a recipe for how to achieve that ideal mental state.
Paul Berliner: Thinking in Jazz
This is a very long, comprehensive book that I had to read for a pedagogy class. Even though there were sections I didn’t like or even agree with, there are a lot of great stories and ideas in here. In creating this musicological analysis, the author sifted through literally thousands of pages of interviews with many of the greatest Jazz musicians in recent history, choosing quotes that best embodied their approach to playing. I will hold onto my copy forever, as it contains perspective that I will return to for years to come.
Richard Niles: The Pat Metheny Interviews
If you’re a Pat Metheny fan, this book is a very fun read. It’s basically a transcript of interviews between Metheny and the author, offering musical and personal insight into his upbringing and artistic achievements. There are lots of surprising stories in here as well, especially as Metheny describes how he started his musical career on trumpet and listened to rock music around the house. His personality comes through in a way that is both personal and revealing.
Thomas Marks: What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body
If you’re a pianist looking to improve your body-awareness, this book is the place to start. Drawing on Alexander Technique, Dalcrose, and years of medical research, the author describes every part of the playing mechanism in substantial depth. Many technical inefficiencies, he proves, come from “mis-mapping” how your muscles and joints actually move. Through studying some of the diagrams in this book, you can quickly develop more efficient and ultimately healthier motions in your playing.
Others I have heard great things about:
Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (autobiography)
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (autobiography)
Dave Liebmann: Chromatic Harmony in Jazz (complicated theory book)
Hal Crook: Ready, Aim, Improvise!
Have other music-related books to recommend? As always, I look forward to hearing from other students. There are tons out there, so we can keep adding to this list for a while!