Books about jazz you need to read – Big Issue

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For all its explicitly sad, frustrating aspects, the colloquial language and detail puts the reader right at the centre of hot, hedonistic tour bus tales and on sizzling onstage scenes with Pepper cutting his teeth playing in Stan Kenton’s band, going on to work with Chet Baker and Buddy Rich. It is a rich, affecting, uncompromising book, and each chapter crowds the room I’m reading in with voices and music and backstage hubbub.

Some recent releases I’ve been enjoying include US music historian Christopher M Reali’s Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals , chronicling the rise of the raw, rugged and distinctly southern soulful sound which emanated out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s, in stark contrast to the preened, cleanly produced ‘Motown Sound’ coming out of North America at that time.

Reali shines a light on the notorious Fame Studios, which helped Aretha Franklin to find her edge and record the girl first hit, along with Etta James, Wilson Pickett plus Arthur Alexander. Many British artists in pursuit of an authentic American R& B sound made pilgrimages to Fame Studios; The Rolling Stones, for example , recorded Brown Sugar at Fame in 1969, sparking a reinvention which insured their success throughout the following decade. Muscle Shoals was at one point a beacon of musical authenticity, the designation which gradually gave way to legend and fantasy.

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The ‘mystique’ in the title of the book refers to the myths created around Muscle Shoals’ regional identity, many of which have further fed in to its impact on pop culture, which Reali decisively picks apart without straying from his commitment towards the music.

Sammy Stein’s new book The Wonder of Jazz provides a broad, accessible take on where jazz finds itself presently and how it got here. Stein is prolific on this subject, having published books recently about women’s changing experiences of playing jazz songs, and about the impact of Covid lockdown on working musicians.

She is a deft interviewer, and as in her previous books this one seeks insight and opinion from many musicians, academics and others who are close to the music. Seemingly simple questions posed to different people take us down countless contradictory rabbit holes, providing many perspectives on what jazz is, and more to the point what jazz is now and where it might go next, given the current simmering dynamism of the UK scene.

The book is informative, but its optimism is what makes it such a compelling read, and as with all of these books I’ve recommended, almost as impactful as the music itself.

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer

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