Jazz Biographies
 Use at least two of these for your biography research project.
Click here to listen to jazz music (linked with permission).

Louis Armstrong   1901-1971
Louis Armstrong, King of Jazz by Wendie C. Olds
   NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1999.

Did you know that Louis Armstrong could blow more high C notes than any swing band trumpeter in the world in the 1920's? He is considered the most influential jazz musician of his time--and not just for those high C notes. Learn about his life from childhood days in New Orleans to his first break in the music industry in Chicago and then on to New York City. Plenty of photos make reading this fact-filled biography a pleasure.

If I Only Had a Horn, Young Louis Armstrong by Roxanne Orgill
   NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Louis Armstrong grew up in a city known for music, New Orleans. One New Year's Eve he got into trouble and was sent to the Waifs' Home for Boys. It was here that he learned to play the horn, and the rest of his story is history. Louis Armstrong became the "King of Jazz." Learn all about his childhood in this picture book biography, and be sure to read Wendie C. Olds' biography as well to complete the story.

Duke Ellington   1899-1974

Duke Ellington by James Lincoln Collier
  NY: Macmillan, 1991.

Duke Ellington's name is synonymous with jazz. He is considered one of the greatest composer's of American music. Oddly, Duke Ellington did not like the term, "jazz." He preferred to call the music he wrote "the music of my people." Although this biography is long, it's packed with details of Duke's childhood and youth. He was not a "born genius" but was encouraged by his parents to make something of himself, and he did! Discover the secret of his success in this book (Hint it had to do with his mother!).

Duke Ellington by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
  NY: Hyperion, 1998.

"Duke's Creole Love Call was spicier than a pot of jambalaya. His Mood Indigo was a musical stream that swelled over the airwaves" so writes Andrea Pinkney, the author of this wonderful picture book biography as she describes the lively tones of Ellington's music. Her rich descriptions of the life of this great Amercian jazz composer make this a spectacular picture book biography. The beautiful illustrations by her husband, Brian Pinkney, add to her writing--swirling color radiates from jazz horns and the piano keys seem to move on the pages creating a visual sound for Duke's "soul sweet music."

 Ella Fitzgerald  1918-
Ella Fitzgerald by Bud Kliment
  NY: Chelsea House, 1998.

In this detailed biography, you'll discover how Ella Fitzgerald was discovered as a singer in her teen years and went on to become the greatest voice in the history of jazz. She was friends with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, but she also sang bebop jazz in her later years. As author, Bud Kliment, notes: "Representing the entire tradition of jazz, Fitzgerald continually kept the fire in the music alive."

Ella Fitzgerald, the tale of a vocal virtuouso by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
NY: Hyperion, 2002

This is a short "must-read." Writer and illustrator team Andrea and Brian Pinkney add another beautiful book to what may be a growing picture book biography collection on jazz artists. Find out why Ella Fitzgerald was called "The Queen of Scat" in this swinging story that also incorporates a "real" cool cat. Experience the sights and sounds of the jazz clubs where Ella came to fame in New York.

George Gershwin   1898-1937
Introducing Gershwin by Roland Vernon
   London: Belitha Press Limited, 1996.
Take a visual tour of Gershwin's life in this pictorial biography. Each double-page spread reconstructs a chapter of his life, from his childhood in the Lower East Side to his rise to fame in Tin Pan Alley and beyond to the Concert Hall and Broadway. Gershwin was a talented pianist, and a celebrity in New York's music world in the 1920's and 1930's. His music embraced jazz, and Ella Fitzgerald often sang his tunes.

George Gershwin, American Composer by Catherine Reef
    Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds, Inc., 2000

Although Gershwin did not write only jazz tunes, most of his work incorporates jazz bands and jazz singers. Rhapsody in Blue is one of his most famous pieces, and you'll find out why in this interesting biography. If you are curious about jazz, New York City, and musicals, George Gershwin is a good choice for your biography project. In this book, you'll learn a lot about his childhood, including his piano teachers, and how he was inspired to create music with popular appeal.

Miles Davis 1926-1991
Miles Davis by Ron Frankl
  NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.

Miles Davis was an intense person and a talented trumpet player. His legacy has inspired many younger musicians, including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Did you know that Miles Davis attended Julliard in New York City and played classical music before turning entirely to jazz? He also became something of a rock musician in the 60's and 70's. This biography has plenty of interesting stories about a phenomenal musician, and the complementary photographs reveal Miles Davis's personal qualities as well as stage persona.

Thelonious Monk  1917-1982
Mysterious Thelonious by Chris Raschka
NY: Orchard Books,  1997 .

A colorful journey that explores the music of a master jazz pianist. Monk was known for his eccentric style, and this biography conveys what gave his music that special something, the signature style, of  the mystical, marvelous, Thelonious Monk. Be sure to read about him in Jazz, My Music, My People as well for more details about his music. This book is so beautiful, it will give new meaning to his music and the idea that "jazz is the music of freedom."

Wynton Marsalis 1961 -
Wynton Marsalis, Gifted Trumpet Player  by Craig Awmiller
  NY: Children's Press, 1996.
"'Music comes to you at strange times,' Wynton says, 'but you have to be ready to catch it, because if you don't she may be gone for good.'" Find quotes like this throughout this delightful, and short, biography about Wynton Marsalis. He was not a born musician, but became one through lots of practice and dedication to music. He comes from a musical family, and nowadays plays with his brothers at times, or his father, Ellis Marsalis. He has become an inspiration to many young musicians. Be sure to read Wynton Marsalis on Music as well.

 John Coltrane   1926-1967
John Coltrane, A Sound Supreme by John Selfridge
   NY: Franklin Watts, 1999.

John Coltrane practiced the saxaphone several hours each night after his schoolwork was done and before going to bed. That's how he became a great musician. Today, his music is unique for the spiritual and emotional tones it communicates to listeners. One of his later pieces is called, "Meditations." In this engaging biography, you'll discover what it was like to live in New York in the 1950's and 1960's and experience the "jazz scene" through pictures of the clubs and the celebrated musicians. This is a beautiful biography, and worth

Collective Biography
Jazz, My Music, My People by Morgan Monceaux
    NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
You must use this book as your second biography resource if you are looking at the life of a jazz musician. Morgan Monceaux has catalogued 41 musicians that shaped jazz music in the past 100 years. Each short biography is tied into one of Monceaux's personal stories--when he first heard the music of a particular jazz artist and what he liked about it, or if he knew the featured artist personally. Each portrait of an artist brings you close to the spirit of the music: Miles Davis is the "breaker of rules", John Coltrane a "prophet in jazz" and be sure to take a look at the forward to this book by Wynton Marsalis as well, it says a lot about the history of jazz.

Related Video
Jazz by Ken Burns, see: www.pbs.org/jazz

Other jazz picture book biographies by Chris Raschka--Charlie Parker Plays BeBop, NY: Orchard, 1992.   John Coltrane's Giant Steps, NY: Atheneum, 2002.