When reading about jazz, I look for writers whose passion for the music comes across in their description and critique of performances and recordings.
For What’s Going On: Ben Ratliff, a jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996 who has written “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music” (2008); “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound” (2007, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); and “Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings” (2002).
Ratliff: “I wanted to know what Little Richard sounded like and what he might signify for me. I began to understand that music criticism can be both reporting and conjuring. It’s not just opinion. It’s not just an answer to the question of what something sounded like and who played it. It can also address what music might mean with its abstract gestures and tonal masses and shudders and silences, what shape it takes in your memory and understanding, and in some way, what it’s for. That’s a lot to take in over your breakfast, but if you can do it, then it’s going to be a good day. This is all subjective, to some degree. A minute ago, when I wrote “your memory,” I meant the one that belongs to me, the writer. But I also meant the one that belongs to you, the reader. Because we’re in this together. Music exists only in relation to those who hear it. Music criticism exists only in relation to those who read it.” http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/r/ben_ratliff/index.html
For History and Context:Robert Gottlieb, the former New York editor and dance critic for The New York Observer, excellent vast compendium “Reading Jazz.” (1999) The book blurb: It includes plenty of dashing portraits, autobiographical and otherwise, of jazz greats ranging from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker (rightly seen as the twin pillars in jazz history to date), such curios as an early essay by the Swiss classical conductor Ernst Ansermet on the impact of jazz in Europe right after WWI and many fine accounts of memorable nights on the bandstands of the '30s and '40s. The reportage section reminds us again of how sterling a stylist the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett is, and there is a definitive piece on the essential differences between classical and jazz criticism by Winthrop Sargeant. Almost everything is worth its weight, including the reminders of the great debate that used to rage over the merits of bop versus classical New Orleans style, exemplified here in pieces by the French critic Hugues Pannassie and English poet Philip Larkin (himself a noted buff). It's a feast that also enshrines a great deal of American social history. For history and context.
For the Feeling: Geoffrey Dyer: “But Beautiful” (1997) From: http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2005/04/embut_beautiful.html
“An impressionistic, semi-fictionalized series of portraits of early jazz legends - Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus et al - it's also one of the great books about popular music, period. His starting points are first-hand accounts of these great musicians' lives, memoirs and liner notes, and particularly photographs - his destinations are gloriously creative evocations of a time and a sound, of the immense spirit of these extraordinary players, and the cities with which their lives and music became entwined.Dyer: "Part of jazz is the illusion of spontaneity and Monk played the piano as though he'd never seen one before. Came at it from all angles, using his elbows, taking chops at it, rippling through the keys like they were a deck of cards, fingers jabbing at them like they were hot to the touch or tottering around them like a woman in hells - playing it all wrong as far as classical piano went. Everything came out crooked, at an angle, not as you expected. If he'd played Beethoven, sticking exactly to the score, just the way he hit the keys, the angle at which his fingers touched the ivory, would have unsteadied it, made it swing and turn around inside itself, made it a Monk tune." [p.39]