For most contemporary music consumers, listening to jazz is a historical exercise. Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue is, at the time of writing, still No. 3 on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart 61 years after it was released, much to the chagrin of the artists making music in the same tradition today.
Ted Gioia, whose third edition of The History of Jazz was released in March, won't tell you to avoid Kind Of Blue. The esteemed music writer and historian has as much reverence for the classics as anyone, as is evidenced by the effusive, electric way he writes about them: "Is it going too far to see this Davis unit as the most impressive working combo in the history of modern jazz?" Gioia writes of Kind Of Blue's sextet, before a detailed description of each player's contributions.
But Gioia won't let you stop with jazz's highlight reel, captivating as it might be. His own version can be found in the 15 pages of recommended tracks at the back of the book, updated with this latest edition to reflect the past decade in jazz. Insisting on jazz's current vibrancy was one of the primary reasons Gioia wanted to revisit the book, originally published in 1997 and last revised in 2011. "I've always felt that the best way to look at music history is in the way that embraces its vibrancy and accordance for people living right now," he says.
The History of Jazz is an ambitious survey of the genre that was almost immediately recognized by critics from Terry Teachout to Greg Tate as among the most authoritative and thorough books of its kind. Since it was first published, Gioia's History has sold more than 100,000 copies to an audience that ranges from jazz history students to newcomers to the genre to aficionados; as a result, his impact on shaping jazz's narrative and canon can't be overstated.
Gioia spoke with NPR about what he's learned about jazz in the 24 years since he first published his exhaustive history, what's surprised him about the music's development, and what he thinks will never change.
Natalie Weiner, NPR Music: What is your process for writing a book like The History of Jazz?
Ted Gioia: The first rule I have is: you must control the narrative or it will control you. Before I write anything in a historical survey, I have to have a crystal clear idea in my head of what the structure is and where all the pieces are going to fit. If you start with just the empirical evidence, you'll never get from there to the finished book. I had to start with big picture questions: What is this music all about? What have been the profound changes in it? How has it impacted people's lives, and society and culture? When I start with the big questions, then I can structure it and bring in all those characters and songs. But that structure should be hidden from the reader. It should feel natural and obvious.
How do you start revising a book that covers such a vast topic? Did you have a specific idea of what you were going to add, or were you planning broader edits?
Whenever I do a revised edition, I go through the whole book and say, "Can I make this sentence better? Do we know more facts about this subject?" But a number of things were happening in the jazz world that really needed to be added. All of them were in embryonic form in earlier editions, but they're clearly more important now.
First of all, the expansion of jazz globally. It's always been the case to some degree, but right now the vibrancy and excitement of jazz scenes all around the world is remarkable. They've become very self-sufficient. I have some experience with England, for example, because I lived there for two years when I was younger, so I know what jazz musicians in England are like — or at least, I thought I did. When I was living in England, the jazz musicians were always very focused on what was happening in America. When I talk to jazz musicians in England now, they're so focused on the excitement of their local scene that they don't even need to worry about what's happening in New York.
Also, the growing role of women in jazz is one of the most significant trends we're seeing. It's a dramatic change from when I was coming up, and this requires me to not only pay attention to what's happening right now with women in jazz, but to look back at the history of the music and see what the antecedents were that prepared us for this shift. I had to make changes [to that effect] at several junctures in the book.
I saw a third trend that I thought was absolutely critical: Jazz seems to be returning to a dialogue with popular culture, to a degree that I had hardly believed possible when I wrote the previous edition of the History of Jazz. Look at all the popular musicians who have embraced jazz: David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar. Everywhere you look in the popular music scene, there's this dialogue, and to me that's tremendously exciting. Some of it might seem superficial, like with these Hollywood movies about jazz. I know jazz people make fun of Whiplash and La La Land, but with the Miles Davis movie, the Chet Baker movie, the Ma Rainey movie, Soul — everywhere you look in pop culture, jazz is used as a touchstone for excellence. We, as jazz musicians and jazz people, should be proud of that.
With jazz's re-engagement with popular culture, are there any noxious narratives about the music that you see being perpetuated?
Probably the thing that irritated me most was this idea that jazz was dead. But actually, as I dig into the music day after day and week after week, I see the exact opposite. My sense is that things are changing and evolving, and that there are new artists and things happening all the time. In revising a history of jazz, I want to do justice to that. The funny thing is, as I was working on the revised edition, more and more people started seeing this. All of a sudden, the same magazine that had written an article called "Jazz Is Dead" five years ago now comes with an article saying, "Jazz Is Coming Back."
I also wanted to deal with a myth about jazz that I've heard often. There's a view that the new generation of jazz musicians are all cold and lifeless — students who have learned to play jazz in a college classroom, and because they didn't pay their dues the way the old-timers did, their music falls short in some undefinable way. I don't think that's fair. The more I looked into this, the more it became clear to me that jazz musicians are getting jobs at universities and grants, but that's not changing how they play at all. They've adapted very little to the bureaucracy and strictures of academia and institutionalization, and they deserve credit for this.
In many ways, I think classical music is loosening up because of the entry of jazz into these institutions — the rest of the music ecosystem is adapting to jazz, the same way these pop stars are adapting to jazz. Jazz is a catalyst; it's a change agent.
There was a part about that in the book that I was surprised hadn't really changed from the first edition. You addressed that concern about conservatories, and even the risks that come from trying to document a history: "The only danger, and a very real one, is that our respect for the past comes to blind us to the demands of the future ... all agendas become suspect, and even the concept of a history of the music, with the sort of stately chronological unfolding that we associate with such narratives, is not beyond debate." How do those sorts of ideas inform your approach to creating a history like this one?
As a historian of jazz, it's tempting to buy into this model of the music progressing in an eternal Hegelian motion towards progress and greater and greater things. It's an easy way to write a book on the history of music, to say, "Each generation takes what the previous generation did and pushes it two steps forward." But that narrative doesn't do justice to the real life activities of jazz musicians. Jazz music is messy; the trends are complex and often go back and forth in surprising ways. Even in the midst of writing a history of jazz, I wanted to make sure people knew that fitting this thing into a historical progression could mislead them.
It also could have a negative effect on the music. If I form a student jazz band, and I view our job as to play the masterpieces of the past, I will teach those musicians in a very different way than if I believe I am teaching them to play music of the present moment.
That kind of begs the question of how you think the institutionalization of jazz — epitomized in some ways by how Wynton Marsalis has developed Jazz At Lincoln Center — and some of those institutions' insistence on the creation of a canon has impacted the music.
I view myself as a defender of Wynton Marsalis. He's attacked a lot, but often he's attacked for things that are beyond his control. He arrived on the scene at a moment when the jazz world wanted to dig into its history, wanted institutional support, wanted respect. He helped us do that. He deserves praise for that. On the other hand, if the only role of an institution in jazz is a historical one, turning it into a museum piece would do more harm than good. I tend to think that Wynton understands these tradeoffs, and that overall his impact is mostly positive on the art form.
The worst thing that could happen is for jazz to end up like the symphony orchestra, where you go to a concert and almost everything they play is 100 years old. I view it as part of my mission to deal with the history of the music in a way that prevents that from happening. My respect for the history must always be tempered with an understanding of how we use these songs and sounds to revitalize the music ecosystem we currently live in.
Returning to your point about the expanding role of women in jazz, as you went through your revision, was there a little bit of realizing, "Hey, maybe I missed something here"?
To some degree, I was sensitive to this issue even in the early stages of writing the book in the 1990s. But clearly, there was a need to dig deeper and to broaden what I did both for historical accuracy and also to understand the traditions and experiences that set a platform for what women are doing in the current day in jazz. To give one example, in the previous editions of the book I talk about John Coltrane but I don't talk about Alice Coltrane. In this edition, I was given the opportunity to do that. Part of the validation for this is that Alice Coltrane is having an influence now to a degree she didn't have 20 years ago. Part of it is Ted's getting wiser about how to write the history of the music, but the needs of the present day also change how we look at the past.
Is there anything that you cut?
There's very little that I cut — occasionally I would read a sentence I didn't like. It's rare for me to remove somebody from the history of the music. Mostly, I'm trying to expand my coverage rather than narrow it. That said, if the book becomes too bulky, it's no longer readable. If I ever do a fourth edition, I might set myself a rule not to expand it any longer. I don't want this to be a reference book that people just put on the shelf, I want them to be able to read it from cover to cover.
I mean, it took me a while to read it, but it was really easy to read — I was surprised by that.
The biggest challenge in writing a book of this sort is taking a complex historical situation involving thousands of musicians and recordings, and having it read smoothly like a story. My goal has always been to achieve that. Anything I can do to make the experience of jazz and music in general fun and exciting is a high priority for me. That may seem frivolous to some people, for a music historian. But to me, it should always be part of the equation.
As I get older, my attitude towards music and my vocation as a music writer has gotten stranger. I've become more mystical, more spiritual, more metaphysical. This presents a challenge to me, because I want to be a thorough, scholarly writer. I'm constantly battling with my instinctive feel that the music is magical, and needing to present this in a way that's analytical and suitable for a university press. Much of the battle in my advanced years is to rein in my own mystical tendencies and anchor myself in empirical reality. But still, anyone who reads my books will understand that for me, music is a strange and wonderful experience.
One of the most important things I did in my life was writing a book called Healing Songs, where I looked at whether music can enhance our health and well-being. I started that book with no predetermined notion of whether that was true, and the more I researched it the more I found that music is capable of doing things beyond our ability to explain them; as a music writer, that's sobering — but it needs to inform my practice.
The only time that I felt a little befuddled as I was reading was when I came to where it seemed jazz-funk and jazz-R&B fusion would fit. How do you go about determining what to include and exclude?
That's a fair criticism. Most of my books have been broad surveys. Every time, I realize that some people are going to get a whole section or chapter, some people are going to get just a paragraph, some in a sentence or part of a sentence, and some will be eliminated entirely from the narrative. I take that responsibility seriously, and work hard to do what is fair. But I can't promise that what I do is flawless, or that other people wouldn't have different priorities. When people come to me and say, "You left out such-and-such artist," I usually just nod my head, because I know more than anyone what I've left out.
Now, probably more than in 1997 when the first edition was published, it feels like the word "jazz" is increasingly fraught. As you were revising this, did you have any reservations about continuing to use it? Is it still a useful term?
I know people who dislike the word jazz because they feel it casts a negative light on the music. Frankly, I'm mystified. Even at the start, the word "jazz" was applied to the music with a positive intention. The first uses of the word jazz, more than 100 years ago, were in the context of describing something exciting, different, out of the norm, invigorating, exhilarating ... and people used it to describe the things in their life that were most transformative. It made sense to apply it to this music. I don't believe it's ever been applied negatively, and to those who want to abandon it, I caution them that it will be taken up by other people who will not respect it the way we do.
To that point, though, do you think there's a way in which the term has become so broad — even within the expansion of the music, and how it describes so many different sounds — that it becomes meaningless?
It's always hard describing things that are vibrant, alive and evolving. Something that's dead and never changes is easy to define. The fact that it's hard to define jazz and people will debate its meaning is a positive thing. The London scene has music that some might argue isn't jazz — but the fact that that argument is taking place is the healthiest thing you can imagine. Same thing in the 1940s when people were saying Charlie Parker wasn't jazz. That was great for the music. The day may come when people no longer argue about jazz and they're all in agreement; I fear that day, because it will mean that we're a fossil.
Do you feel like there's been a substantive shift in the way you look at documenting history, in your approach, since you published the first edition?
Absolutely. My process as a historian has changed dramatically since the '90s. I'm more interested now in how music changes the life of the listener than I was before. Previously, I had been fascinated with the performer. Nowadays I'm very concerned with what music is like for a listener or student or community or other stakeholders. My writing style has changed, and I'd like to think it has gotten freer and fresher. It's still going to be more of a historical survey than Ted Tellin' Tales, but my whole approach to writing about music has become livelier. Finally, my faith in music as a source of enchantment and catalyst for change in human life has grown dramatically since I did that first edition. That informs everything I do.
If I could truly understand what created something as amazing as Kind of Blue, or Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, or made Buddy Bolden decide to start playing jazz, if I could really get to the heart of that and put it in a bottle, people would want to buy that right now. If instead I can make my history book that bottle, that would be my dream.
Natalie Weiner is a freelance writer living in Dallas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Billboard and Pitchfork.