I spoke with Gioia about how he assembled what The Wall Street Journal called "the first general-interest, wide-ranging and authoritative guide to the basic contemporary jazz canon"—and about the state of jazz.
There is a certain amount of subjectivity in the book. Memoir narratives, rather than dry, historical collating. Can you talk about this?
I've spent time playing jazz standards—or listening to other people play them—almost every day of my life since I was a teenager. So I had plenty of stories and personal opinions to share in my book. But I also tell readers the history of the songs and assess the most famous recordings. I refer to more than 2,000 tracks in the course of the book. My accounts of the 252 jazz standards featured in the book also include performance advice, anecdotes from other musicians, bits of lore and legend, musical analysis, and other information that I thought readers would enjoy. By the way, I've always liked music writers who brought something of their biography into their writing. Some critics do this to an extreme, and I could never match people like Gene Lees or Alan Lomax, who turned music writing into a kind of memoir. But I've never hesitated to share personal stories when they seemed relevant to the subject. I recently read a book on jazz by one of the younger academics, and he never once expressed a personal opinion—not once in an entire book. It was all documentation of facts and cold musicological analysis. I wouldn't want to write like that, and certainly hope that doesn't become the norm for jazz writing.
Can you talk about the difference between The History of Jazz (2011) and Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (2012). Can you mention this in the context of your own creative process? What were the different charges involved in launching these two projects?
The History of Jazz (2011) was a revision of a book that originally came out in 1997, so the 2011 edition was not a completely new project. That said, I went through the original book sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and made lots of changes and improvements. A surprising amount of new information has come to light in the last 15 years, so even the early chapters about traditional jazz needed reworking. And, of course, I also was able to chart the recent history of jazz, and trace developments in the new millennium.
The Jazz Standards is a more personal book. But it still drew on historical research and careful study. Readers will notice a more informal tone. People have told me that it is very readable, and a good book for browsing. So it isn't like a history book that you need to read from start to finish.
As to my own creative process? I write every day. But I also listen to new music every day—this year I will probably listen to around 700 or 800 new CDs. I play music on the piano every day. I want to expose myself to new sounds and new ideas on a daily basis. This keeps me fresh and inspired. On the other hand, I don't feel compelled to jump on the latest musical fad or fashion. I want to hear what's happening, but I don't feel obliged to act impressed if I'm not.