Date of Interview: 03/27/2013

© 2013 Clayton Perry

Ted Gioia is a pianist, music historian, and one of the founders of the jazz studies program at Stanford Univeristy. The New York Times has named two of his works notable books of the year: The History of Jazz (1997) and Delta Blues (2009). Gioia is also the author of West Coast Jazz, Work Songs, Healing Songs and The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.

In promotional support of The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press: July 6, 2012), Ted Gioia spoke with Clayton Perry about the evolution of music criticism, defining moments in jazz history, and the importance of music education.

Clayton Perry:  At what point did you realize your penchant for writing?

Ted Gioia:  I always loved writing, and even created make-believe newspapers during idle hours when I was in elementary school.  I had a buddy with similar interests, and instead of passing notes back and forth in class, we exchanged imitation news articles.   It sounds strange in retrospect, but seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do at the time.  You’ve got to remember that we didn’t have text messaging back then.

Clayton Perry:  When did you start writing for publication?

Ted Gioia:  I had a great high school journalism teacher, Konnie Krislock, and I made my first faltering steps as a journalist under her direction as editor of my high school newspaper. I also wrote occasional movie reviews for my hometown newspaper—you know the kind of paper they give away for free, and still no one wants to take it? Later I contributed regularly to the college newspaper at Stanford and during my senior year I got enlisted as a paid contributor to the Palo Alto Times.  I was hired by a fellow named Paul Emerson who, in a strange quirky situation, died three days after he brought me on board.  His last act as an editor was to transform me from an amateur to a professional writer.  My pay was seven dollars per article.  But that was seven dollars more than I had ever been paid before for an article.  God bless Mr. Emerson!  I also edited the Stanford literary magazine during my last two years on campus, which gave me insights into the construction of poetry and fiction.   And, of course, I was learning how to write in the classroom too. I look back with some embarrassment at much of what I wrote during this period, but these experiences were invaluable in teaching me the rudiments of the writer’s craft.

Clayton Perry:  What led you down the path of jazz music criticism?

Ted Gioia:  I started writing jazz reviews for The Stanford Daily as a ruse for getting free jazz albums from record labels.  I was on a very tight student budget, and I couldn’t afford to buy these recordings.  But because I was a reviewer, I got them for free, and also got free tickets to concerts and jazz clubs.   I thought that was a very sweet deal! I didn’t realize for a long time that I was turning into a jazz writer.  During this same period, I was studying literature, philosophy, sociology, art history and other liberal arts subjects—first at Stanford and later at Oxford—and my goal was to become, in my own fumbling and stumbling kind of way, a cultural or literary critic in the mold of Susan Sontag, George Steiner or Lionel Trilling.  My first book, The Imperfect Art, was a work of cultural criticism about jazz—at least, that’s what I thought it was.  In my head, I saw as my goal (perhaps unachievable, but when you’re young that doesn’t stop you) as doing for jazz what Sontag had done for photos in her book On Photography or akin to Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Architecture.  As a result my debut book was a strange hybrid, sort of a cross between Wittgenstein and Lester Bangs. But my editor, Sheldon Meyer of Oxford University Press, saw me as a jazz writer, not a cultural critic.  With his encouragement, I chose to write a history of West Coast jazz for my second book.   After that, there was no turning back: I was considered a music writer, not a cultural critic.  Also, I started recording albums as a jazz pianist around this time, and that seemed to seal the deal.  I have still occasionally returned to cultural and literary criticism, but to most of my readers, I am a music writer and always will be.  Hey, it’s still a sweet deal.

Clayton Perry:  What do you think have been the most drastic changes in the field of music journalism, for better or for worse?

Ted Gioia:  The business model for music journalism has been broken.  I was lucky to get into the field when it was still flourishing, more or less. Nowadays, writers are expected to give away their writing for free—and once they go down that path, it’s hard for them to change the ground rules.  But there’s a problem with the disappearance of the professional critic.  As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.  What was once a profession is turning into a hobby, with the standards of hobbyists prevailing in most instances. Of course, the dedicated few will still treat it as a serious profession, and put in the care and study it takes to become a first-rate critic.  But there is no guarantee that they will be able to earn a living wage doing this, no matter how skilled they are.

Clayton Perry:  In ten words or less, define “jazz” music?

Ted Gioia:  I’ll just quote Louis Armstrong who, when asked that same question, said: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Clayton Perry:  Historically, what function/purpose has jazz music served over time?

Ted Gioia:  Jazz’s role has changed over time.  At the very beginning, you might have called jazz a type of folk music.  Later it became the most popular form of commercial music in America.  More recently, it has turned into a type of art music.  The practitioners have also changed. Jazz was introduced by African-Americans.  Then it gained adherents among other ethnic and racial groups in the US.  Nowadays it flourishes all over the world.

Clayton Perry:  What do you consider to be three defining moments in jazz music’s storied history?

Ted Gioia:  Let me start with 1923.  Before 1923, very few of the leading jazz bands made recordings.  But after that point, the work of the major performers in the art form was preserved for later generations.  The next milestone came in the mid-1930s, when the music of the swing jazz bands was adopted by the youth of America.  Jazz became the most popular music in the US, and that continued for another 10-15 years.   Then, in the years following World War II, jazz musicians increasingly embraced modernist and experimental techniques.  Modern jazz was born and, as a result, the 1950s and 1960s marked a period of great creativity and artistry in jazz.  But, sad to say, these very advances led to a shrinkage in the jazz audience.  We are still living with the repercussions of that third shift.

Clayton Perry:  On July 6, 2012, Oxford University Press released your critically-acclaimed book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to Repertoire. One of my favorite songs – “My Funny Valentine” – is featured in the book. My initial introduction to the song was Chaka Khan’s rendition on the Waiting to Exhale (1995) soundtrack. From Broadway to Miles Davis to Chaka Khan, what makes this song “timeless”?

Ted Gioia:  The best jazz songs usually have something quirky or complex about them.  “My Funny Valentine” is no exception.  It’s both a tender song and a cruel song—the lyrics make some scathing comment about how funny this valentine lover really is.  But you can’t just bring out the harshness in the lyrics.  A jazz musician needs to evoke the tender, heartfelt qualities too.  A song with such paradoxical ingredients is rich with possibilities.   As a result, jazz musicians can play it again and again, over a period of decades, without exhausting its expressive qualities.  And though it might seem strange to combine the cruel and the tender, to some extent all jazz does that.

Clayton Perry:  Jazz instrumentalists tend to be better known than versus jazz vocalists. Why is this the case? In the context of jazz, is one’s “voice” not an instrument?

Ted Gioia:  I would flip the question around and ask why there are so few instrumentals in rock music?  Or country music?  Or in other forms of popular music?  I think jazz has the balance rights, and the other genres are imbalanced.  I suspect that jazz record sales over the last couple decades represent a fairly even split between instrumental music and vocal music.  You need to remember that Norah Jones’s debut CD sold more than 25 million copies, and Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum and a bunch of other jazz singers also sell in large quantities.  If vocal jazz isn’t half of the jazz market, it must be close to that level.  Why don’t we see that in rock or pop?  Perhaps it’s because bands in these other genres don’t have the same musicianship that we find in jazz, and thus lack the skill needed to pull off all-instrumental tracks.

Clayton Perry:  You mention Norah Jones 2002 release Come Away with Me. The record – a fusion of jazz, pop and country music – garnered five GRAMMY Awards, including “Album of the Year.” A decade later, in 2011, Esperanza Spalding – a jazz bassist and singer – would win the GRAMMY Award for “Best New Artist” following the release of Chamber Society Music (2010). Briefly examine the careers of both women and place them within a historical context.

Ted Gioia:  I believe that jazz music benefits by having a close relationship and ongoing dialogue with the popular music of the day.  Both Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding are trying to do that, and both have had some success.  I applaud their efforts, but I would urge both of them to focus on the artistic potential of mixing jazz and popular music, rather than chasing after the commercial potential.  Some may think that there is only a small difference between those two stances, but I disagree. If you are looking to raise your artistry to a higher level, you will approach the fusion of jazz and popular music in a much different way than if your goal is just to squeeze some more sales out of the trendy sound du jour.

Clayton Perry:  The Roots are a GRAMMY-Award-winning hip-hop band. Their musical work includes live instrumentals and incorporates elements of jazz. What thoughts do you have on the intersection and relationship between jazz and hip-hop music?

Ted Gioia:  I believe that we are still in the early stages of creating a true dialogue between jazz and hip-hop.  I would stress that any winning formula needs to draw on the spontaneity and rich musical techniques of jazz.  As you note, the live instrumentals are an essential part of process. Just sampling a jazz riff on your hip-hop album doesn’t do it for me.

Clayton Perry:  What is the value/importance of music education?

Ted Gioia:  You don’t need to be an aspiring musician to benefit from music studies.  The experts tell us that people do better at math, languages and other subjects as a result of the discipline of studying music.  Also, as someone who cares deeply about music, I believe that we need a knowledgeable audience.  It’s no coincidence that a huge portion of the people attending jazz concerts and buying jazz CDs have studied music themselves.  These people are more sophisticated and knowledgeable consumers of music because of this background.  I suspect that a large percentage of my readers have studied music, and many have performed at a semi-professional or professional level.  This keeps me honest.  You can’t con these people because they know enough about music to see through the endless hyping of the ‘flavor of the month’—which accounts for a huge portion of the music criticism published nowadays—and can tell the real from the sham. When I write, I keep those kind of readers in mind, and work hard to earn their trust.

Clayton Perry:  What is the value/importance of including “jazz” in music education?

Ted Gioia:  Jazz is important from a historical perspective, because of its central role in the evolution of modern American music.  But it’s also valuable to study because of its emphasis on improvisation and instrumental proficiency. Yet I think another reason might be the most important of all.  Jazz is worth studying because the music is fun and smart and creative, and our lives are richer if we learn how to appreciate its beauties.

Clayton Perry:  What popular stereotypes are associated with jazz music? What are their origin?

Ted Gioia:  Well, it’s simply not true that jazz musicians are hipsters or drug addicts.  Yes, there were well publicized situations from the past that have given that music this kind of reputation. But things have changed. Probably a new stereotype of jazz is emerging, one that portrays the music as cerebral and academic.  That view also may be less than ideal, but perhaps it represents a slight improvement in the public’s perception of the art form.  Better to be a nerd than a druggie, huh?  But we would be better off if we put all these stereotypes aside, and learned to listen to jazz without preconceived notions of what it should be or how it should sound.

For more information on Ted Gioia, visit his official website: http://www.tedgioia.com


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