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The 15 Essential Books, Movies and Podcasts About Jazz

You don’t have to break out the sax to get an education in jazz.

John Coltrane | Mosaic Images

Jazz music drew its first breaths in the late 19th century. Since then it’s helped galvanize American communities through Prohibition in the ’20s and ’30s and the Civil Rights Movements of the ’50s and ’60s. Today, jazz music can’t be defined by a single song or artist. The music takes after ragtime, soul, the blues and even pop music; legends like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and even Frank Sinatra have produced a wide spectrum of sounds. Likewise, there are near infinite ways to learn, listen to and appreciate jazz. But for those interested — whether you’re a jazz scholar, intermediate saxophonist or complete musical neophyte — these books, podcasts and films can get you started.


But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz
Geoff Dyer
This acclaimed fictional book is divided into vignettes, each portraying a time in the life of one iconic jazz musician: from Lester Young to Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. The book earned Dyer a number of accolades, including winning the Somerset Maugham Prize, and it was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. $12

Coming Through Slaughter
Michael Ondaatje
Winner of the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1976, this fictional book focuses on the lives of jazz musician Buddy Bolden and photographer E. J. Bellocq. The book is written in episodes that highlight Bolden’s creative genius, his struggles with schizophrenia, and the impact both of those have on the people around him in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century. $13

Treat It Gentle: An Autobiography
Sidney Bechet
Legendary jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet passed in 1959. Over 40 years later his autobiography was published. Using interviews from when Bechet was alive, Desmond Flower was able to create a compelling narrative that touches on it all: gunfights, playing with Louis Armstrong, getting deported from London and the early jazz music scene in New Orleans. $13

Herman Leonard
The man behind the lens of some of the most iconic jazz photographs was Herman Leonard. This book, which is a compilation of his photos and corresponding essays, shows legendary jazz musicians (like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday) on and, more interestingly, off the stage. $12

The History of Jazz
Ted Gioia
Ted Gioia is a jazz scholar. He’s published a number of books on the subject and is one of the founders of the jazz studies program at Stanford. This book covers the musical genre in its entirety: its origins, key musicians and their different styles, jazz fusions with other genres (like rock) and how it’s still important today. $15

NPR Jazz Profiles
Podcast hosted by Nancy Wilson
Sit back and listen to NPR’s collection of podcasts. Each roughly 50-minute podcast focuses on the life and musical career of a specific musician. Want to lean more about Willie “The Lion” Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith or Frank Sinatra? There’s a podcast that’ll help. Listen Here

KPLU: Studio Sessions Video Podcast
Want to listen to contemporary jazz? Washington-based jazz radio station KPLU-FM recorded 100 video podcasts of various jazz musicians playing live studio sessions. Each podcast is available on iTunes. And they’re free. Listen Here

Jazz Online
Listen as musicians, jazz scholars and all-around fans of jazz share personal anecdotes and moving concert memories. Listen Here

Talking Smooth Jazz
Talking Smooth Jazz posts a new podcast every five days. In total, they have over 300 podcasts. Their podcasts are interviews with contemporary jazz musicians — keyboardists, saxophonists, guitarists, violinists. And, website aside, the podcast library can be accessed with an Android app. Listen Here

I Was Doing All Right
Podcast Hosted by Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland was a big name in the jazz community. And even though she passed in 2013, her podcasts from her piano jazz radio show live on. Each podcast follows a similar formula: McPartland first interviews a jazz musician, they they play a live session. Listen Here

Young Man With a Horn
Michael Curtiz
With a young Kirk Douglas, captivating instrumentals and a complicated three-way love story — this movie hits on all cylinders. $8

Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns
Ken Burns
This documentary-style miniseries aired in 2001 and was greeted with unbelievable acclaim, culminating in five Emmy Award nominations. Throughout the 10-part series, innovative jazz composers and musicians explain the evolution jazz music from 1917 to 2001. $52

Round Midnight
Bertrand Tavernier
“My life is music. My love is music. And it’s 24 hours a day,” says Dale Turner, a famous yet troubled tenor saxophonist living in Paris. The film is a jazz classic. Dexter Gordon, who plays the titular role of Dale Turner, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal. He also won a Grammy for the film’s soundtrack. $3

What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography
Alan Light
This documentary, which opened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, focuses on the life and career of the singer-musician Nina Simone. Supremely talented, yet known also for her violent temper, Simone was a key jazz, soul and pop singer during the mid-20th century. $19

Damien Chazelle
This critically acclaimed 2014 film stars Miles Teller, as a precocious jazz drummer, and J.K Simmons, as Teller’s demanding and sometimes violent music professor. $15
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