As a jazz musician, I’m constantly exploring new ways to improve at my craft. Over the course of my life, I’ve read a few books which I felt really impacted me in a significant way. Not all of them were explicitly related to playing music, but they undoubtedly helped to open my mind to new ways of thinking and how to learn as efficiently as possible. Obviously the books on this list are not the only books that are out there that musicians could glean valuable insight from, but they are just a few of the books that have been the most influential in my own life, and could potentially be a positive influence in yours.
You would be shocked by how much your habits have the potential to control your day-to-day life. If you’ve ever had days where you just felt like you were “going through the motions” or “on autopilot”, essentially you were just letting your habits take over. The thing about habits is that they can easily form without your awareness, and by the time a habit is formed, it can be super difficult to get rid of. It’s estimated that 70% of our daily activities are dictated by our habits, and so it’s imperative that we choose our habits wisely. The book discusses how we develop habits, how we can become aware of them, and how to give ourselves the power to change them.
As a musician, it is essential that one develop the habit of practicing in order to see consistent growth. If you’re someone who has never had a problem getting yourself to practice every single day, then consider yourself lucky. Throughout most my life I had never really been a consistent practicer, and it was a constant mental struggle in order to get myself to do it. However, once I was able to develop a practicing habit (by doing it for 21 consecutive days), I started to find that it did not take any effort to practice; it was more of an automatic process. As many of my mentors have taught me, consistency is the key to improvement, and without a practicing habit, you will most likely never improve at the rate that you want to.
Have you ever found yourself thinking “Alright, I’m going to practice now”, and then finding yourself 3 hours later watching cat videos on YouTube? Have thoughts such as “I’m never going to make it in this business” or “There are so many people who are better than I am, why do I even bother?” ever creeped into your mind? Maybe, or maybe not, but I bet that at one point or another you have gotten distracted from your goals, or discouraged about your musical pursuits. These sorts of things can be a major hinderance to reaching your full potential as a musician, and it is essential to stay focused on your aspirations if you are to ever make them a reality.
According to author Steven Pressfield, there is an invisible force called “Resistance” which exists in your mind and that will do anything possible to stop you from pursuing your goals. It will give you any excuse possible to avoid practicing, any reason to get discouraged, and it is relentless in its quest to stop you from becoming who you want to be. The book encourages the reader to see themselves as a soldier in the war against this universal Resistance, and gives you the tools necessary to fight it. For my own personal taste, this book can be a bit preachy at times, but I’ve nonetheless found the principles it offers for conquering negative emotions and distractions to be invaluable.
The process of learning to improvise is a deeply mysterious one. Part of what makes jazz so beautiful is that everyone has come to know what they know through different means, and therefore no two musical voices are identical. Everyone has a different background, different life experiences, different mentors, different listening tendencies, different values. In my view, there is no ‘right’ way to learn to improvise, but this book gives the most exhaustive exploration of the process that I have ever found. It covers essentially every aspect of learning to play jazz, from the first moments of hearing it as a child, to advanced discussions of harmonic interrelationships, audience interaction, and so much more.
Before you go out and buy this book, I must warn you by saying that this work is not for the faint of heart. At about 800 pages in total, it is quite dense and replete with historical research, concepts, interviews, and in-depth musical examples. However, if you can manage this lengthy read, I can guarantee that you will not regret the time that you spent. It is truly a treasure trove of spectacular information and insight into the process by which we learn to play the music that we all love. We spend so much time learning to play music, but how much time do we spend learning about how to learn? Learning to improvise will always be a personal journey, but this book helped me to understand the various elements of that process in unparalleled detail, and I would recommend it to any serious musician.
We are obviously all familiar with the music of our heroes, but how much can we learn about them as people? How often have we actually had the opportunity to hear about their life experiences, in their own words? Often the main source of information we have is a poorly-written biography or a Wikipedia article. If you’re anything like me, you have spent a considerable amount of time on Google or YouTube scouring the web for interviews with musicians that you admire. Notes and Tones is arguably the quintessential book of jazz musician interviews, and when I first read it I was astounded by how compelling the interviews were, and I think I actually ended up reading the book in one sitting.
What makes the book special in my view is that all of the interviews were conducted by the great drummer Art Taylor, who was indeed personal friends with many of the interviewees. Among them are Miles, Monk, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, and a number of others. Due to the rapport that had already been established with Art, these musicians seemed to let their guard down for these interviews and spoke more openly and honestly than they may have with some arbitrarily-chosen television host or reporter. The interviews have received a lot of criticism over the years, however I think it is undeniably fascinating and valuable to learn about these musicians’ experiences and philosophies directly from their own brain.
Although there are of course many autobiographies of jazz musicians out there, and I encourage everyone to check those out as well, this one holds a special place in my heart. There are very few people who rival Miles in the impact that they had on jazz and on the larger musical and cultural landscape. He was an astonishing genius of musical innovation, as well as a remarkably complex human being and man. Some of the stories that are told in this book would strike anyone as fascinating, not only those who are interested in his music.
If I had a choice between reading a traditional jazz history book, full of dry information and banal historical examinations, and a compelling, detailed recount of the unbelievable life and experiences of a genius musician such as Miles, the compulsion to pick up the latter seems obvious. Miles was no ordinary man by any means, and after reading this book I felt as though I had not only gained a new level of understanding about Miles himself, but also why he made the music that he did. Like many people, I have always been enthralled by Miles’ music, and it was breathtaking to have a glimpse into the man behind the music that has captivated me for so long. He is truly a giant of this music and in certain ways a role model for how I would want to go about living my life.
Why were all of the great icons of this music—Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Dizzy, etc.—so wildly successful? Even the most unknowledgeable of jazz listeners has heard their names. My own personal take on why we have all heard of these people, as opposed to many others, boils down to a combination of genius, hard work, and luck. Consider some names of other people who have reached mega-success in their own lines of work—Alexander the Great, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett—the list is nearly endless. What led to these people reaching such absurd levels of success? I am convinced that an integral part of their success was their obsession with their work, and I think an obsessive nature has been a key component of many jazz musicians’ success as well.
We all have heard the stories of giants such as Coltrane, Bird or Sonny Rollins practicing 15 or 16 hours a day. They were obsessed with their craft, by any definition of the word. However, our overweight, TV-watching, uninspired culture has taught us that obsessions are unequivocally negative and dangerous. And that is of course true for certain things (drugs, junk food, etc.), but is it really a bad thing to work too hard? This book encourages the reader to ignore the negativity that is often cast upon those who become obsessed with their work, and to be fearless in cultivating a healthy obsession, even if it means being labeled an outcast or a freak. Grant Cardone makes the claim that the greatest achievers, in any field, only got to be where they are by rejecting mediocrity and becoming obsessed with reaching their dreams. He can be a bit grandiose at times throughout the book, but his proposition of becoming successful by becoming obsessed is one that is difficult to argue with. So why was Coltrane, Coltrane? Because he was obsessed, and the results speak for themselves.
Think back to a time where you were just jamming with friends, and everybody was cool and just enjoying the music. How did you play? Now think of a time when it was really important to sound good, and there was a lot of pressure on you. How did you play then? If you played worse, then you are like most people, myself included. But why did you play worse? Maybe there was someone in the audience you wanted to impress, or maybe it was an important audition that was going to impact your future. We spend so much time practicing and studying material and concepts in a very intellectual way, and often that mindset can creep into a performance. Kenny Werner sets off with the purpose of training you to essentially enter a meditative state while performing, and to let your unconscious mind take control.
The premise of the book is that as soon as you stop caring if you play well or not, you will actually start playing a lot better. It’s no secret that being in a high-pressure performance situation can wreak havoc on your thoughts and actually make you play worse, and so learning to cultivate a positive mental state while playing can completely change your life. Learning to ignore conscious thought while performing is something that Werner has taught for decades, and his method has been an incredibly useful tool for countless musicians.