“Writing about music,” the saying goes, “is like dancing about architecture.” If it's meant to dissuade, the warning has gone unheeded: Over the years, a number of novels about music have ingeniously translated this notoriously languageless experience into English. In rock novels or the burgeoning genre of lit-hop, most of the action happens to non-musicians—the listeners populating record stores, high schools, the streets. The primary focus of the jazz novel, however, is the musicians themselves. No other form pays as much attention to the players, their instruments, and the music as it is being performed. The musicians found in the following books—a trumpeter, a pianist, a drummer, a saxophonist, a bassist, and a vocalist—form a sort of sextet. Each solos on themes endemic to the genre: racism and heroism, virtuosic talent and ruined ambition. Like a set of jazz standards, the tune can be familiar; the execution rarely is.

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

In what is considered the first true jazz novel, a young, brilliant trumpeter succumbs to alcoholism at the height of his career. Loosely modeled off of 1920s trumpet prodigy Bix Beiderbecke, Rick Martin is a white kid who gains the trust of a group of group of black jazz musicians, apprenticing with them over countless all-night jam sessions. Like Beiderbecke, Rick briefly achieves stardom in New York. Unlike Beiderbecke, he is loyal to the black jazz musicians who taught him, not to the white big bands popular at the time. Baker, an amateur musician herself, knew where jazz was going. She deftly foreshadows bebop and cool jazz, and her descriptions of how the music sounds are unparalleled: “When that thin blond boy stood up in his place and tore off sixteen bars in his own free style, filling in the blank allotted to him on the score, it was a surprise forever, like seeing an airplane take off from the deck of a good solid ship. To hell, please, with the law of gravity.”

No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again; A Symphonic Novel by Edgardo Vega Yunqué

The plot of Edgardo Vega Yunqué’s epic 2003 novel is founded on an astoundingly bad decision: A young jazz pianist, Billy Farrell, opts to be shipped to Vietnam as a machine-gunner rather than accept a chance to perform with Miles Davis. The teenage patriot says simply, “They need me and I gotta go.” We only ever hear him on the piano during flashbacks when he remembers playing with the greats: Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and, of course, Davis. In the present, Billy is not only unable to play piano like he used to, he can’t even touch one—the war has cost him two fingers, a buddy, and his wits. The novel is as sprawling as its title, itself a play on the old jazz tune “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” and mapping out New York through a plethora of different characters. For Yunqué however, Billy’s main battle is to be present, and it is through the unexpected benevolence and constant encouragement from his estranged daughter as well as his former mentor that he is able to briefly return to music.

Another Country by James Baldwin

James Baldwin wrote part of Another Country in Paris, and finished it in Istanbul. But the situation, and the issues of class and race at play, are distinctly 1950s New York. Here, jazz isn’t an art form but a job. When the flirtation between black drummer Rufus Scott and a white woman turns violent, he’s excommunicated from Harlem and the jazz community. One night, he shuffles into a club, where he fails to be stirred: “The music was loud and empty, no one was doing anything at all, and it was being hurled at the crowd like a malediction.” Scott and the audience he joins are impervious, and the musicians know it. “Bloodless people cannot be made to bleed. So they blew what everyone had heard before, and the people at the tables found it pleasant to shout over this stunning corroboration.” This numbness carries Scott out of the club and toward the Washington Bridge, where he ends his life. Though this tragedy takes up only a fourth of Another Country, Scott’s downward trajectory reads like a separate lyrical narrative, an allegory of the shift in jazz from ecstasy to outrage, a theme inspired by one of Baldwin’s good friends, Nina Simone.

The Tenor Saxophonist’s Story by Josef Skvorecký, translated by Caleb Crain

In post-Stalin socialist Prague, it must have been easier to write about jazz than to actually play it. For Skvorecký, jazz wasn’t just a rebellious sound, but an example of a perfect democracy in which every voice was heard, and loudly—a novelty in life behind the Iron Curtain. Skvorecký was a tenor saxophonist; his characterization of Danny Smiick, who appears in many of his works and is a tenor sax player too, is partly a self-portrait. Here Smiik wanders the streets of Prague, encountering Soviet loyalists and limp civil dissent and dreaming of a livelier West. Even jazz has been forced to water itself down. And yet Smiik keeps playing, and ruminating: “When you play the tenor sax, sooner or later you ask yourself the question/What's it really for and why and so forth and so on./Life, that is.”

Bass Cathedral by Nathaniel Mackey

A typical passage in Bass Cathedral runs, for better or worse, like a string of arpeggiated notes: “We played possessed of a corpuscular undulacy, more atmospheric than fact as we began. One’s ears admitted water, a valved admission of water’s proximity, abstract adjacency and auspice thought it was, time’s immemorial echo an alto admonishment prompting one from afar. The audience was on the edges of their seats.” The book’s sextet, called Molimo m’Atet, plays original compositions like “The Book of Elysian Escort.” Their music is a vehicle for magical realism—bass solos launch messages in balloons, players get held up by melodies, cowrie shells spark bebop nightmares, and playing records makes demiurges rumble.

Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing by Stanley Crouch

Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome might be the most conservative jazz novel on the list, opposite Mackey’s alliterative riffs. Stanley Crouch keeps his narrative straight: The protagonist is a white jazz singer from South Dakota in love with a black saxophonist from Texas. Once again, shame figures. Each half of the emerges from the relationship as someone different, changed. But the protagonist eventually develops her own reputation, with a voice able to “get all the way into the pulse, the interior of the rhythm.” Toward the end, as New York begins to discover rock and Andy Warhol, jazz comes face to face with its own mortality.

Michael Barron is an associate editor and the director of publicity at New Directions.