For some time now, Ted Gioia has been one of our leading jazz and music critics.  He, along with Gary Giddins, Bob Porter, Marc Myers, Bill Milkowski, Will Friedwald, and several even younger critics and historians like Ricky Riccardi, has gradually taken over the important and tricky work of chronicling America’s music, a mission first undertaken decades ago by such luminaries as Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Whitney Balliett, Dan Morgenstern, the Frenchmen Charles Delaunay, Hugues Panassié, and André Hodeir, and other inspired and highly informed insiders who wrote in depth of the world of jazz through the middle years of the 20th century and beyond.  A number of these were musicians themselves, and Feather, Hodeir, Panassié, and several others also functioned as producers and promoters, organizing concerts, seeing to the recording of musicians they knew to be important and then publicizing these efforts—exuberant and devoted conflicts of interest that served the world of jazz handsomely.

Gioia and his older brother, Dana, to whom this new book is dedicated, are both talented men, and both are class acts.  Dana is a prizewinning poet, translator, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, and currently California State Poet Laureate.  Ted has written elegantly about the West Coast Jazz scene, the Cool Jazz scene, the phenomenon of Delta Blues, and authored several other important books including a general History of Jazz.  More than that, he has for years contributed thoughtful commentary on the repertoire to include not only down-home blues but work songs and love songs.  Another previous book, The Jazz Standards, is an alphabetical survey of some 250 tunes—from Turner Layton and Henry Creamer’s 1918 oldie “After You’ve Gone,” to Miles Davis’s 1959 classic “So What,” and on to Cole Porter’s 1942 movie theme “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”—that have for many years served as what he calls the “cornerstone” of the jazz repertoire.

In the spring of 2014, Ted Gioia helped to precipitate a bit of a row in the music world by suggesting that music criticism had evolved into “lifestyle reporting,” with far too much attention paid to musical performers’ clothes and fashion accessories, marriages, love lives, and drug and alcohol problems.  Gioia has hardly been the only knowledgeable insider to point this out.  Bill Werde, editorial director of the 120-year-old music-industry magazine Billboard, made much the same claim around the same time—“it is a sign of the times that celebrity trumps actual culture”—before resigning in disgust.

Given the nature of this day and age, it was hardly surprising that Gioia and Werde were reviled as “elitists,” but they were definitely on the mark.  In jazz as in other serious forms of music—and jazz is most definitely a serious musical form—it is hardly elitist to suggest that it should be not a performer’s attire or jewelry that matters but the music itself.  A certain amount of glitz and pomp has always been part of performance art, but what matters most of all in jazz are the basics—harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, soloing skills, that elusive element called “swing,” and of course the basic repertoire.  That repertoire has grown stale in recent years owing to excessive repetition and limited skills in composition among younger jazz performers.  Star tenor saxophonist Houston Person has stated unequivocally that the ideal tunes for jazz are “tunes that swing, have a nice melody, are danceable, and have elements of the blues.”  Yet there are too many tunes that it seems everyone has played again and again—the Gershwin standards “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm,” the Cole Porter classics “Night and Day” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and “Blue Monk,” and then “Satin Doll,” “All the Things You Are,” “How High the Moon,” “Summertime,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy”—all fine, melodic tunes.  But there are thousands more by quality composers, a great many of them excellent but lost in the shuffle and seldom played.  It is also unfortunate that, over the past 30 years or so, many jazz musicians, critics, and fans have come to regard the blues—long a vital and colorful part of jazz—as an “enemy,” as Ira Gitler complained years ago, or that others fuss over “original compositions” lacking any shred of originality.

If Gioia’s The Jazz Standards was a fan’s companion to the repertoire, his new book, How to Listen to Jazz, is what the title suggests: a would-be fan’s guide to getting into the music, understanding the intricacies of the art form, and then just rolling with it.  He brings pleasurable simplicity to his approach, interestingly helped, he says, by his earlier dips into computer analyses of rhythms and the intricacies of wine culture to enhance his own critical sensibilities.  He is convinced that nothing is more important than simply to listen, and to feel the music rather than attempt to intellectualize it.  There is an old story about a member of the audience at the original Birdland in New York in the early 1950’s telling bop pianist Bud Powell, just coming off the bandstand, that he didn’t “get” a certain tune, to which Powell mildly responded, “Well, if you didn’t get it, maybe it wasn’t for you.”  The average music fan doesn’t “get” jazz because he hasn’t the slightest idea how to feel it, to understand what the musicians are doing, to hear how the solos work off the chord changes, to sense its vitality and swing, its unexpected surprises.  Gioia, himself a first-rate jazz pianist as Leonard Feather was years ago and Ricky Riccardi is today, advises new fans to listen to student bands and hear how tense and sluggish they sound, “like a car that needs a tuneup,” and you can almost hear him chuckle when he writes of their mistakes that, as a beginner struggling to learn how to play years ago, “I made every one of them myself.”

His quick guided tour through the various styles of jazz, from deep in the past to the present, is exemplary in the way he describes, concisely and even poetically, why each sounded the way it did and points out that, even with the critics’ “jazz wars” of the past and the nervous coexistence of the different camps today, every jazz style in the book “is still alive and flourishing on the bandstand.”  The comparisons of various locales are pinpoint perfect—New Orleans jazz sounded the way it did because of its blend of French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, while Chicago’s musicians of an earlier era tended to be of European ancestry, and Kansas City’s freewheeling, homegrown, largely African-American style could be many things: bouncy, bluesy, edgy, and even romantic, but always suggesting sociability and fun.

His portraits of ten important innovators—Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman—make clear why each was important to jazz: Satchmo’s invention of “countless syncopated phrases” still used today; Young’s light, easygoing melodic phrasing; Holiday’s intimacy with a lyric; the surprising juxtaposition of Parker’s fiery and groundbreaking uptempo and nonpareil blues-tinged ballad performances; Monk’s individualism that defied category.  He quotes Ellington’s composer-arranger sidekick Billy Strayhorn, who said of the band’s individuality of sound that “in Ellington’s band, a man more or less owns his solos until he leaves . . . you never replace a man, you get another man.”  He recounts a Miles Davis comment that he stopped playing ballads because he loved playing ballads so much.

In this thoroughly enjoyable book is every tip the uninitiated will need in order to learn how to listen, to understand, to become a fan.  Gioia stresses the importance of solo phrasing, spontaneity and individuality, the personal qualities of improvisation, dynamics, the dangers of repeating clichés, the trickiness of playing slow-to-medium-tempo numbers, and of how fewer played notes can be a plus, indicating that the band is in synch.

Listening to more than a thousand new releases a year has convinced Gioia that there is more outstanding music available than ever before, if unfortunately more difficult to find, and that there are so many fine jazz performers around that beginners today have trouble knowing where to begin, but that this proliferation is a good thing.  One might hope that his speculations about the future, of the alarming possibility of audience members taking part by means of their smartphones or other handheld devices in the band’s improvisations, or robots perhaps taking the stage to wail on uptempo blues tunes, are merely playful conjecture.  But who knows—jazz, as saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk liked to point out, is a “spontaneous improvised music.”


[How to Listen to Jazz, by Ted Gioia (New York, NY: Basic Books) 272 pp., $24.99]