Jazz History

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was an incredibly talented vocalist. She was an innovator and an inspiration to many. She was also a Black woman who sacrificed her own personal safety to sing a song that many say began the civil rights movement.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was among the most prolific composers of the twentieth century and is arguably one of the most famous and influential jazz musicians of all time. His musical innovations are so ever-present and timeless that if you’ve played or listened to any jazz in the last 50 years, it most likely contained influences from Duke Ellington. 

Lester Young

Lester Young was one of the most influential tenor sax players in the history of jazz. He came to prominence with the Count Basie band in Kansas City in the 1930s, and was rapidly recognized as an original talent who was playing in a new style all his own. 

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was one of the best jazz pianists around, and a friend and mentor to many, including jazz icons Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. She was also an outstanding arranger and composer, something few women got credit for. Williams literally shaped the sound of the big band era. 

Valaida Snow 

Valaida Snow lived most of her life on stage and on the road. She was born to a traveling show business family, the eldest of four children, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the age of 15, she was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, singer, and dancer, and began to appear professionally in many touring shows. Although little known today, Snow was a superstar on three continents in the 1930s.


Social Histories, Biographies, Memoirs, etc.

The following list is by no means exhaustive. There are many books on jazz as well as the historical context it sprang out of. This page lists a few suggestions to get you started. The opinions expressed in these works are the authors’ own and the fact that a work is included here simply means we feel it is worthy of consideration.

Living Legends

A project for Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire. These short audio portraits are excellent entries into jazz history that highlight jazz elders still in action.

Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns

This insightful and moving 10-part series is the best single introduction to the history of jazz and its place in the American experience. Highly recommended! If you are a Seattle resident, you can use your Seattle Public Library card to check out the DVDs, or you can stream all episodes at no cost. If you live in King County, WA, you can link your King County Library card to the Seattle Public Library and access these same resources. Also available on Amazon Prime and possibly other streaming services.

Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music, by Gerald Horne

"What does it mean for descendants of enslaved people to create a music embraced by the world and still be treated as second-class citizens, exploited, dehumanized, and subject to premature death? By following the money, the managers, the musicians, and the bodies, Gerald Horne gives us an enthralling view of jazz history from the underside. An essential contribution to our understanding of how racial capitalism shaped American music." 

- Robin D.G. Kelley, author, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Moving to Higher Ground, by Wynton Marsalis

“In this book I hope to deliver the positive message of America’s definitive music: how great musicians demonstrate a mutual respect and trust on the bandstand that can alter your outlook on the world and enrich every aspect of your life—from individual creativity and personal relationships to the way you conduct business and understand what it means to be a global citizen in the most modern sense.” 

- Wynton Marsalis

How to Listen to Jazz, by Ted Gioia

This highly readable book can help you to hear what is going on in a jazz performance, not only on recordings, but also in your combo, and in your own playing. Chapters such as “The Mystery of Rhythm,” “Getting Inside the Music,”  “The Structure of Jazz,” and “The Origins of Jazz,” take you into the heart of the music.

Jazz, by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux

In this vivid history of jazz, a respected critic and a leading scholar capture the excitement of America’s unique music with intellectual bite, unprecedented insight, and the passion of unabashed fans. They explain what jazz is, where it came from, and who created it and why, all within the broader context of American life and culture. Emphasizing its African American roots, Jazz traces the history of the music over the last hundred years. From ragtime and blues to the international craze for swing, from the heated protests of the avant-garde to the radical diversity of today’s artists, Jazz describes the travails and triumphs of musical innovators struggling for work, respect, and cultural acceptance set against the backdrop of American history, commerce, and politics. With vibrant photographs by legendary jazz chronicler Herman Leonard, Jazz is also an arresting visual history of a century of music.

NPR's 'Jazz Profiles'

This documentary series profiles the legends and legacy of jazz. Hosted by singer Nancy Wilson.

Driving While Black, PBS

Discover how the advent of the automobile brought new mobility and freedom for African Americans but also exposed them to discrimination and deadly violence, and how that history resonates today.

The Black Church, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

This four-hour series from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explores the 400-year-old story of the black church in America, the changing nature of worship spaces, and the men and women who shepherded them from the pulpit, the choir loft, and church pews.

Africans in America, PBS

America's journey through slavery is presented in four parts.

Scene on Radio

Scene on Radio is a podcast that tells stories exploring human experience and American society. In Season 2, the Peabody-nominated Seeing White, Biewen and collaborator Chenjerai Kumanyika explored the history and meaning of whiteness; in Season 3, Biewen and co-host Celeste Headlee delved into sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny.

Smithsonian’s Jazz Page

Through world-class collections, scholarship, concerts, exhibitions and programs, Smithsonian Jazz at the National Museum of American History explores and celebrates the American experience through the transformative power of jazz.

All About Jazz

Jazz news, reviews, radio, podcasts, interviews, profiles, and events calendars.