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Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler Oxford Univ. Press ISBN 0-19-507418-1
The title in combination with the author credits pretty much says it all: This is perhaps the ultimate reference on the musicians who created and continue to create jazz.
Feather, who died before this work was completed, and Gitler are rightly regarded as two of the most important and thoughtful writers on jazz. As the entries show, they didn't take their responsibility lightly when putting this book together.
They endeavored to get every fact correct (Louis Armstrong's mythological birthdate of July 4, 1900, for example, doesn't appear. Instead we get the real one, tracked down by critic Gary Giddins several years back, of Aug. 4, 1901) and to compress every important career development, composition and record date into each artist's entry.
It's not a book you'll skim, such as a record guide. The numerous abbreviations can make for frustrating reading. But, if you want to know something about an artist, chances are excellent you'll find it here.
I love jazz because it mixes intellect and emotion in a very spontaneous way.
I was first exposed to jazz by liberating a Coltrane and a Pharoah Sanders record from a friend in NYC and listening to them over and over until I got it.
My advice to new listeners is you have to take the time to listen to some jazz tunes a number of times until it starts to make sense.