Ted Gioia is a music historian and a musician. He has published eight non-fiction books on music. Delta Blues, The History of Jazz and The Jazz Standards are a sample of his work. He also maintains www.jazz.com. He has written many articles in various publications on Jazz. When Ted is not focusing on his writing, he turns to piano playing where he is classically trained.
Ted Gioia: Q&A with Robert von Bernewitz (June 25, 2013)
Where did you grow up and when and how did you first become interested in music?
I grew up in Hawthorne, a city near the Los Angeles airport. The city’s most famous contribution to music history is the Beach Boys, who grew up very close to my own boyhood home. I heard a lot of surf music during my formative years.
I began playing piano at a very young age. I had very typical experiences as a student musician. I took piano lessons, learned a bit of classical music, and in high school started playing popular music in rock bands and other settings. The decisive moment in my development was the discovery of jazz toward the end of my high school years. After I started going to jazz clubs, I began practicing with more discipline, and within a couple of years was able to play at a quasi-professional level.
How old were you when you got your first instrument? What kind was it? What others through your career?
I have a baby photo of me taken at 11 months. It shows me sitting on the piano bench and hitting the keys with my fingers. The piano was a Kimball upright piano in our home. It had belonged to my Uncle Ted, who had died in a plane crash shortly before I was born. I clearly had inherited his obsessive interest in music, and learned by playing his old instrument. Later I owned various keyboards, and dabbled with other instruments, including guitar and harmonica. But piano has always been my main focus. I currently own a 1922 Ivers & Pond grand with real ivory keys. Please don’t tell any elephants!
How did you become interested in jazz and blues? Through Records? Family? Friends?
I literally stumbled upon jazz by reading old issues of Down Beat in the local public library. This inspired me to go to a jazz club—which was the real turning point for me. I heard blues at an early stage of my development, and could play a decent blues even when I was in high school. But I didn’t really develop a passion for the blues until my thirties. Like many jazz musicians, I had inherited a snobbish attitude that blues was simple music. It was only when I started to listen more extensively to traditional blues musicians that I realized the depth, complexity and emotional force contained in this music. I went very quickly from being a blues skeptic to a blues fanatic.
Did you write any articles on jazz and blues prior to your college education?
I started writing about music for my college newspaper. This led to other writing opportunities, and eventually I took the plunge and started writing my first book. I’m embarrassed by most of the articles I wrote during my teens and early twenties. But all of us need to go through a period of apprenticeship and development. Finally, by the time I was 25 or 26, I had developed some skill at writing, and could hear and understand many of the nuances in the music I wrote about.
Where did you go to school and when did you complete your first book?
I did my undergraduate work at Stanford, and later pursued graduate work at Oxford and then back again at Stanford. I started writing my first book the day after I finished my exams at Oxford. It’s a very peculiar book, entitled The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture—and reflects the interests and concerns I had while studying philosophy during the day at Oxford, and gigging with local jazz bands in the evening. Sort of like Lennie Tristano meets Martin Heidedgger. I’d like to think that it would show up on any list of the strangest music books of the last few decades.
Any interesting college stories?
I remember how shocked the Stanford Music Department was when I auditioned for them by playing Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. At that time, none of the Department’s classes dealt with jazz, blues or rags. Students nowadays who participate in university jazz and black music programs can hardly comprehend how different the attitude was towards these art forms just a few decades ago.
Your books had high praise by the New York Times. How do you feel about that honor?
I’m happy to get good reviews and awards. But as a writer, you can’t afford to get too focused on reviews, either good or bad. I tend to operate in extreme isolation from outside influences. I don’t consult with publishers about what books or articles they would like me to write. I stopped using an agent years ago. I don’t let reviewers influence my projects. And I certainly don’t pay attention to the constantly changing fads and fashions of the music industry. In my opinion, these are sources of distraction, perhaps even sources of corruption. Instead I immerse myself deeply into lots of music and primary sources, and let my own passion, curiosity and enthusiasm guide me.
My basic rules are simple ones. I listen to new music every day. I write every day. I play piano every day. I spend 2-3 hours every day reading. I constantly try to expand my horizons, exposing myself to new sounds and new perspectives. This input is invaluable, and far more useful than chatting up editors or journalists.
I personally read your Delta Blues book and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It seemed to be to be a comprehensive overview of all previous authors on the blues. Gayle Dean Wardlow, Alan Lomax, Samual Charters and others. What was your goal on this publication?
I am passionate about the subject and wanted to share my enthusiasm with others. I wanted to write a narrative account of the Delta players, one that was written as stylishly as a novel, but drawing on all of the latest research, including my own discoveries about these performers and their milieu. I wanted to incorporate a range of disciplines, from musicology to sociology, into my perspective, but never in a heavy-handed or pretentious manner. I wanted to tell not only the story of the blues, but also the story of the blues researchers who tracked down by the musicians and solved the many mysteries surrounding this music. Finally, I wanted to clear up the many misconceptions and distortions circulating in others blues books.
What CD’s do you have in your CD player or IPOD right now?
Just this morning I was listening to Son House and Honeyboy Edwards—and was teaching my 13-year-old son about them. He is quite skilled at piano and plays viola in the regional youth orchestra, but I have a hunch he will soon start playing guitar.
I’ve also been listening to a fair amount of contemporary classical music lately, including several CDs by the extraordinary composer Morten Lauridsen, who I had the opportunity to meet last week in Seattle. And yesterday I checked out the new CD by 14-year-old blues guitarist Quinn Sullivan and a new double album of 20th century Soviet chamber music.
I find that there is lots of great music out there, but not always from the major labels these days. Most of the good stuff is now coming from small indie labels and self-produced albums. For example, you would be surprised at how many of the best new blues albums are do-it-yourself projects uploaded on Bandcamp.
You instituted a Jazz program at Stanford University? Do you include the blues in this?
Let me clarify this. I worked as one member of a group of people who brought jazz music inside Stanford’s Department of Music. I can’t take sole credit for this, and a lot of the praise belongs to people like Stan Getz and James Nadel, who played decisive roles in this process. After a few years Stanford and I parted ways. I now look on from a distance, but I don’t think Stanford has made a sufficient commitment to jazz in recent years—and the same goes for the blues. Mr. Nadel does more singlehandedly for African-American music than the rest of the University combined, and is driven more by his own personal vision than by Stanford’s priorities.
What are your future plans?
I recently signed with Oxford University Press for my ninth book. It will be entitled Love Songs: A Secret History. I have a hunch that this may turn out to be my most controversial book. I will tell the history of love songs in a way that will surprise many readers. And the blues will be a key part of the story.
To order Ted's music and books click the Amazon tab upper right.
This Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz. This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission.