How to Write the (Definitive, Readable, and Raved-About) Book on Jazz

To author The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, musicologist Ted Gioia says he listened to more than 700 new CDs a year.

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A detail from the cover of The Jazz Standards. (Oxford University Press)

While jazz may have waned in popularity since the 1960s, it's still with us in a very real way, embedded in the very fabric of contemporary culture. Good for dancing, commerce and intense study. Easily found in a steeply priced jazz club in one form, and on YouTube in another. As diverse as New York City.

In his book The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, released in July, Ted Gioia undertakes the task of fitting the defining tunes of this hugely varied form into one tome. The 544-page work is an alphabetical index of more than 250 of the most beloved jazz tunes, with a listening guide to more than 2,000 of recordings and renditions of these songs, all based on his own research and empirical reckoning. The book is replete with anecdotes and advice for listeners, both jazz newcomers and old fans. Essentially, he's given The Real Book, the "illegal" hand-written volume of jazz and pop tunes written in standard notation (a bible for jazz musicians), a highly detailed upgrade. In this month's Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz writes that "Gioia has done nothing less than define what he considers to be the jazz repertoire ... In virtually every instance, Gioia delivers."

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.

Recently you tweeted: "Susana Raya ("the Andalusian Eva Cassidy") is finally getting some press, but what she deserves is a record contract..." Is there not enough cultural, national integration in the jazz scene? Is the recording industry in America xenophobic? Parochial?

Frankly, it probably makes more sense for a European label to sign Susana Raya. But you raise a good point. Do the US jazz labels have a good grasp on the emerging talent outside the US? I doubt it. Susana Raya is a striking example. She is a big time talent, and one with a considerable amount of commercial crossover potential, but would an Andalusian singer even be on the radar screens at the US labels? Of course not.

A few years ago I did a comprehensive study of the current state of jazz singing. I listened to every recent jazz vocal CD I could find, even self-produced and indie releases. I spent months on this project, and reached a depressing conclusion: Record labels gave contracts to the best looking jazz singers, not the most talented. It's almost as if the music industry wishes it were in the fashion model business. I can't help but think the industry's lack of confidence in the inherent appeal of the music is contributing to the general malaise of the record business. Record industry execs are like priests who no longer believe in their own religion, and then wonder why no one comes to church.

There definitely seems to be some stagnation in the [recording] industry today, so that there are some amazing ideas out there that are not getting signed. Let's talk about what the ProTools MBox [and other software and interfaces] did to composing and sequencing and what SoundCloud is doing to the airwaves. Will the information age create some heroes and epics in the music culture?

These new technological tools allow musicians to control much of their own career without the need for middlemen. All the things a record label once did for you, you can now do for yourself. On the other hand, few musicians have the business savvy necessary to take advantage of the opportunities, and the abundance of self-produced CDs makes it almost impossible for anyone to stand out from the crowd. This leads to an odd paradox: There is more good music recorded now than at any time in the past, and it's also harder for fans to find the good music nowadays. The needle in the haystack image comes to mind.

Is this unfortunate new habit of the industry—overlooking talent—reflected at all in the new book?

In The Jazz Standards I offer a "recommended listening" list of around ten tracks for each of the 252 standards dealt with in the book. These include the most influential and creative recordings of the songs under discussion, but I don't just include historical tracks—I also recommend many recent versions. Sad to say, many of the tracks from the last decade come from small labels or even self-produced records. The major labels may control most of the industry revenues, but they only own a small minority of the creative music being made, especially in the field of jazz.

Let's talk about YouTube. It seems like right after, I mean, just more than a decade since Columbia Records [and other major labels] started spilling their reel vaults with fancy packaging and killer liner notes, YouTube answered the attack on Napster in the '90s. Now it is laid back: "enjoy and feel free to write something in comments."

YouTube is a blessing and a curse. The negatives are obvious ones. If you do a search for "jazz" on YouTube, you get back results with more than a million videos. New artists are lost in the shuffle. And even if they do find an audience, they won't get adequately paid for their creativity. On the other hand, YouTube does allow musicians to bypass the broken and inefficient music industry. I applaud this democratization, but we need to recognize its limitations. YouTube is not the answer—it is merely a workaround or a stopgap measure. We need a better clearinghouse for music discovery and dissemination.