Q&A with American jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia - best known for his activities in the jazz world

"Jazz is fun and exciting music, and the literature about it should be the same. Some of the people writing dense, academic books nowadays on jazz have lost touch with the fun in the music—maybe that’s required for them to get credentials and tenure. But it’s said to see boring writing on such enjoyable music."

Ted Gioia: All About The Jazz

Ted Gioia is a musician and author, and has published eleven non-fiction books, including his latest work Music: A Subversive History (released in October 2019 by Basic Books). His books have been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, Turkish, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. Gioia's wide-ranging activities as a critic, historian, performer, educator and YouTube presenter have established him as a leading global guide to music past, present and future. Gioia has been called "one of the outstanding music historians in America" by the Dallas Morning News.  He has served on the faculty of Stanford University, and published in many of the leading newspapers, periodicals and websites.                                          (Ted Gioia / Photo by Dave Shafer)

Gioia grew up in an Italian-Mexican household in Hawthorne, California. Gioia is also owner of one of the largest collections of research materials on jazz and ethnic music in the Western United States. Gioia is the author of several other books on music, including Music: A Subversive History (2019), West Coast Jazz (1992), The Jazz Standards (2012), and The Birth (and Death) of the Cool (2009). A second updated and expanded edition of The History of Jazz was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press in 2015, is a survey of the music of courtship, romance, and sexuality; it completes a trilogy of books on the social history of music that includes Work Songs (2006) and Healing Songs (2006).

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz and Music Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I’ve always felt that jazz is more than just a music genre, it’s also a worldview and way of dealing with the situations you face in life. The music puts a high priority on spontaneity, interaction and risk-taking—so it would be surprising if the people who play the music didn’t apply those same practices in their day-to-day lives.

Of course, this isn’t always a good thing. On the jazz bandstand you live intensely in the moment, and when you cultivate that approach in other situations it might be very exciting, but it won’t always guarantee that you can pay the rent on time.

In my own life, I have been almost too spontaneous, too trusting of the impulses of the moment. I make important decisions in a flash, and then need to live with the consequences. Perhaps I would do that even if hadn’t been exposed to jazz, but my hunch is that my devotion to this music has made me this way.

What were the reasons that you started music historical researches? What is the hardest part of writing a book?

I never planned on being a music historian. My initial idea was to play jazz piano and do some writing as a sideline. But I began experiencing symptoms of arthritis in my early 30s, and this forced me to step back from the piano. I am fortunate that the symptoms have almost completely gone away now—I am pain-free and don’t need to take any medications—but in the interim I redefined myself as a music historian.

The easiest part of being an author for me is the actual writing, which I enjoy doing. The hardest part is collecting all the necessary research materials, and understanding what they mean. That can take many years. For my book on West Coast jazz, for example, I wrote the actual book in just a few months, but the research involved years of planning and work. My latest book Music: A Subversive History is the result of more than 25 years of research. But the writing itself only required about 18 months.

"I’ve always felt that jazz is more than just a music genre, it’s also a worldview and way of dealing with the situations you face in life. The music puts a high priority on spontaneity, interaction and risk-taking—so it would be surprising if the people who play the music didn’t apply those same practices in their day-to-day lives." (Photo: Ted Gioia's books "Music: A Subversive History" 2019 & "The History of Jazz", 2011)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I focus most of my listening nowadays on new music, and don’t worry much about revisiting the past. We already have those old songs, and they aren’t going away. But I do wish the economic conditions for musicians today hadn’t changed so much. Opportunities to perform in clubs and get a record contract from a label have declined enormously. Even if a musician makes a great record, it’s hard to get any media attention for it. It’s not the music that’s suffering, it’s the musicians.

Do you consider the Jazz a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

The sound of jazz is always changing. But the psychology and attitude that create great jazz are always the same. You must have an intense desire to create something vibrant and exciting in the heat of the moment. If that ever goes away, we are in deep trouble. 

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

Music lovers should always try to expand their horizons. I tell people to seek out sounds they have never heard before, and to listen to new music outside their comfort zone. You not only learn more about music that way, but you also enjoy it more because your listening is always a fresh experience.

That has been my approach. Every day I want to hear something I have never heard before. Jazz is the perfect genre for people who have this attitude, because it is all about encouraging surprising, unexpected results.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?                                  (Ted Gioia / Photo by Dave Shafer)

I would like to see musicians take control of the distribution of their music. Tech companies (Apple, Google, Spotify) shouldn’t have so much power over the music ecosystem.

"The sound of jazz is always changing. But the psychology and attitude that create great jazz are always the same. You must have an intense desire to create something vibrant and exciting in the heat of the moment. If that ever goes away, we are in deep trouble." 

What is the impact of Jazz on the literature, and what is the relationship on the socio-cultural implications?

Jazz is fun and exciting music, and the literature about it should be the same. Some of the people writing dense, academic books nowadays on jazz have lost touch with the fun in the music—maybe that’s required for them to get credentials and tenure. But it’s said to see boring writing on such enjoyable music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

When I was 15 years old, I had to go to a school conference in Portland, Oregon. As we were checking into our hotel in Portland, I saw Duke Ellington standing in the lobby. I was too young to realize what an opportunity that was. I’d like to go back in a time machine, get his autograph and maybe ask him a few questions.

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