IASPM-US Interview Series: Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards

by justindburton on July 30, 2012

Ted Gioia, Jazz Standards

Musician and author Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford 2012) draws on Gioia’s extensive experience with jazz and explores the tunes most central to the genre’s history. Here, Carolyn Graye chats with Gioia about his methodology as well as the current and future states of jazz.

Carolyn Graye: Could you say more about your criteria for including tunes in the book? Were your choices driven by the specific recordings you cite? By conversations with, or observations of other musicians re: what’s being played in clubs, concerts, sessions?

Ted Gioia: My book focuses on 252 frequently played jazz standards, and refers to more than 2,000 recordings of these songs.  That’s a fairly comprehensive survey—but doesn’t, of course, include every possible song.

How did I make the decision of what to include or exclude?

At first, I considered various quantifiable and objective measures of a song’s importance as a jazz standard—for example, the frequency with which it has been recorded by jazz musicians. Or sales.  Or placement in various popularity polls.  But these measures lead to strange, unreliable rankings.

For example, if I had based my choices on the number of jazz recordings, a forgotten song from the 1920s such as “The Sheik of Araby” would be considered twice as important as Miles Davis’s “So What.” Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days” would rank above “John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”  Clearly this doesn’t reflect the attitudes of jazz musicians or fans today.

After considering the options, I concluded that the best solution was to apply my own subjective judgment.  I decided to highlight the songs that a jazz musician today might be expected to play on a gig, or a jazz fan hear at a performance or on a recording.   I took many factors into consideration, including those I’ve mentioned, but the final decisions were mine.

Others will debate my choices—that’s part of the fun of a project of this sort.  But I do bring a lifetime of listening and playing to bear on my choices.  I think that I am fairly conversant with what musicians are playing nowadays—I’ve listened to more than 1,000 new recordings during the last 18 months.  And I’ve been studying and playing these standards since my teens.

Of the 252 songs I’ve included, I suspect that there will be broad agreement about the vast majority.  But readers will invariably disagree with some of the selections.

Has the role or function of the standard repertoire changed as younger generations of musicians carve out high-profile careers in jazz?  (I think it was Matthew Shipp who talked about the futility of playing Charlie Parker tunes in Icons Among Us.  At the same time, it seems likely that he mastered at least some of them in the process of honing his skills.)

The standard repertoire has clearly stagnated in recent decades.  It’s very hard for a new song to gain traction as a standard.  When young musicians play a standard at a gig, they almost always pick a song written from before they were born.  A few jazz artists have tried to change this, championing songs by Radiohead, Kurt Cobain, Bjork, Michael Jackson or some other more recent figures.  I applaud this effort, but these works still haven’t achieved the critical mass of performances and recordings necessary to be considered jazz standards.

Frankly, I hope this situation changes.  But the musicians need to take the lead here.  Have you noticed how reluctant jazz musicians are to play a song written by another living jazz musician?  They all want to promote their own original compositions, but pay almost no attention to the current work of their peers—unless it’s a member of their own band.  This wasn’t always the case, but it is now.   And it can’t be a healthy situation for jazz.

And yet the standards continue to be played and studied in educational settings worldwide, even as musicians develop careers based on original or newer material.  If songs by Radiohead, Bjork, and Michael Jackson lack the critical mass to be considered standard repertoire, what about older pop songs by the Beatles or Stevie Wonder?  What does it take for a song to gain traction?



The very institutionalization of jazz in educational settings that you just mentioned contributes to the rigidity of the repertoire.   I don’t think it’s a coincidence that jazz musicians became more resistant to embracing new standards around the same time that The Real Book, the first widely accepted modern jazz fakebook, started circulating among music students in the 1970s.  The codification of any art form tends to contribute to some degree of stasis.  Recall that the evolution of languages tend to slow down after dictionaries are introduced—check out the impact of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary on the English language for an example of this.

So it isn’t a question that songs by Stevie Wonder or the Beatles or Radiohead or Sting aren’t good enough to become standards—many of them are just as smartly composed as the best songs from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of American popular song.  The musicians are the stumbling block here.  Many consciously see themselves as upholding the values of an earlier day, and updating the standard repertoire is simply not a pressing concern of theirs.   Of course, there are other jazz musicians who have a more expansive view of the matter, but at the current time they haven’t brought us yet to a tipping point where a sufficient number of other players are willing to follow their lead.



What does the term “jazz” mean in 2012?

Debates about the use of the word ‘jazz’ have gone on for decades.  Someone always has an alternative they prefer.  Stan Kenton wanted to use the term “neophonic music” instead of “modern jazz.”  The AACM wanted to advance the work of “creative musicians.”  Nicholas Payton favors “Black American Music” (BAM).

But the word ‘jazz’ is still around, and will still be here many years from now.  And if it did disappear, musicians would suffer as a result.  For the general public, the term ‘jazz’ has a mysterious and almost magical flavor.  That’s why you see it also used as a brand name for a car, or a software program or to market other products.  Recently two NBA teams got into an argument over which one could call themselves the Jazz—hardly the sign of a tainted label, no?   Concert promoters who have stopped booking jazz acts still want to call their event a ‘jazz’ festival.  See, the rest of the world outside the inner cliques of jazz understand the allure and power of this name.  They understand its resonance and economic value.  Those who want to abandon it have their reasons—and these reasons are worth hearing.  But actually implementing this kind of re-naming would be both impractical and commercially disastrous.

If I may use a business term, I would say that the term ‘jazz’ has enormous brand equity—brand equity that has been accumulating for a century.  That kind of value can’t be replaced, no matter how clever or more accurate your new proposed name might be.


The word ‘jazz’ definitely has brand equity in terms of marketing.  At the same time, it’s also a powerful source of cultural identity for musicians, listeners, presenters, and scholars who are passionate about it.  Do you see the dialogue surrounding the renaming of this genre as being driven primarily by commercial interests or a desire for historical and cultural representation?  Or both?  Or other factors?

A host of different reasons have been offered by various people for giving the art form a new name, but I think that the most typical motivation has been the belief that a different name would offer more respectability or legitimacy or historical depth to the music, and enhance the status of its practitioners.

But have the advocates for this rebranding exercise considered the negative impact of all the ensuing confusion?  Would they ask all the jazz festivals to change their names?  Would the jazz magazines remove the word ‘jazz’ from their masthead?  Would dictionaries be lobbied to change the definition of ‘jazz’ in their pages?  Would record labels remove the word from the covers of tens of thousands of recordings they have released over the decades?

To me, this whole debate has a kind of unreality to it—and reminds me of the folks who advocated everyone learning Esperanto a half-century ago.  Let’s applaud the ideals at stake, but move on to more practical matters—such as growing the audience for this music, and ensuring that it has some visibility in our mainstream culture.


You have identified several examples of racial inequality, including the exclusion or stereotyping of African-American musicians in film, the enduring irony of Paul Whiteman as the “King of Jazz,” etc.  Do you see racism or cultural appropriation happening in the performance, teaching, marketing, or study of jazz today?

Jazz is now a global phenomenon.  As such, the racial and cultural tensions today are different than in the past.  Let me give you some examples, European jazz festivals—which are a major source of income for American jazz musicians—are now booking more local acts.  Compared with twenty years ago, Italian jazz festivals are more likely to book Italian musicians.  French festivals are more inclined to book French artists.   Asian jazz festivals have now started booking many European jazz acts, instead of relying so heavily on US artists—and before long they will also be promoting a larger proportion of home-grown talents.   I lived in Britain when I was in my early twenties, and the jazz scene at that time was based on following trends and role models from the US—but that’s no longer true, or not as true as it once was.  Jazz has become multi-ethnic, multinational, and every group wants to advance its own interests, expand its own opportunities.

You can assess this change in many ways, and attitudes towards race and nationality are part of this assessment.  But so are many other factors.  African-American and other American-born jazz players lose economic opportunities from this process of globalization—in music just as in manufacturing or other areas.  On the other hand, this spread of jazz beyond the African-American community that gave it birth is also a sign of the music’s appeal and success.  When jazz is played by a Norwegian band in Oslo, you can view this as the usurpation of the African-American heritage or as testimony to the black contribution to global culture.  We are invited to see the glass as half-full or half-empty.   I’m probably more of half-full kind of person.


So given all of that, what do you see happening with jazz in the next few decades?


Some areas of the jazz world will prosper, others will struggle.  Jazz has more support in colleges and universities today than at any point in the past.  That’s a positive for the music, despite the downside that comes with the institutionalization of any discipline.  The rise of large umbrella organizations such as Jazz at Lincoln Center and SF Jazz is also a mostly positive development.  The healthy, confident jazz scenes outside of the US are also a cause for celebration.  Never before has so much top notch, innovative jazz been performed in so many places around the world.

But other areas of the jazz world give me cause for alarm.  The audience for jazz is smaller than it was in previous decades.  Commercial jazz radio has virtually disappeared from the airwaves, and even non-profit radio is presenting less jazz.  Jazz almost never appears on television.  As I’ve already noted, jazz festivals are booking fewer jazz acts.  The result may be a further marginalization of jazz in the context of the broader American culture.  In some places, jazz may even become a quasi-underground movement—as has occasionally been the case at earlier points in the music’s evolution.

Ted Gioia is a musician and author who has written extensively on jazz and also produces fictions and is active as a business consultant. You can follow his activities at his website, tedgioia.com, and follow him on twitter, @tedgioia.

Carolyn Graye is a jazz singer, pianist, teacher, and scholar in the Seattle area. You can follow her activities at carolyngraye.com.

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