Dana (left) and Ted Gioia (right). (Credits: www.danagioia.net and Dave Shafer/Wikipedia)
and Ted Gioia (pronounced JOY-uh) are authors,
musicians, composers, critics, educators, and businessmen. They are also
brothers, born and raised in Hawthorne, California, in an Italian-Mexican,
Catholic family. Although both have been interviewed numerous times over the
years, this marks the first time they have been interviewed together, answering
the same questions.
the eldest, is an internationally acclaimed and
award-winning poet, and the former Chairman of the National Endowment for the
Arts. He received a BA and an MBA from Stanford University and an M.A. in
Comparative Literature from Harvard University. He has published four
full-length collections of poetry (and several shorter collections), and the
collection Interrogations at Noon won the 2002 American Book Award. His poetry has also appeared in
numerous anthologies. His 1991 book, Can
Poetry Matter?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics
Circle award. His poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in
many magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book
Review, Slate, and The Hudson Review. Dana has written three opera libretti
and is an active translator of poetry from Latin, Italian, and German. Renominated
in November 2006 for a second term and once again unanimously confirmed by the
US Senate, he was the ninth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He
left his position as Chairman in 2009, and in 2011 he became the Judge Widney
Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California,
where he teaches each fall semester. He is also a member of the College of
Fellows at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology (Berkeley). Dana has
been the recipient of ten honorary degrees and has won numerous awards,
including the 2010 Laetare Medal from Notre Dame. He and his wife, Mary, have
two sons, and he divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County,
Ted Gioia (www.TedGioia.com), seven years younger than Dana, has published eight non-fiction
books, most recently the bestselling The Jazz
Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. His book The History of Jazz was selected as one of the twenty best books of the year in 1997
by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington
Post, and was chosen as a notable book of the year in The New York Times. His 2008 book Delta Blues was also selected by The New York Times as one of the 100 most notable of the year, and
was picked as one of the best books of the year by The Economist. In 2006, Ted published two books simultaneously, Work Songs and Healing Songs, and both were honored with a special ASCAP-Deems
Taylor Award. His 2009 book, The Birth
(and the Death) of Cool, was a work of cultural criticism and a historical
survey of hipness, and his concept of post-cool,
outlined in this work, was highlighted as one of the “ideas of the year” by Adbusters. Ted’s writings have appeared
in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, American Scholar, Hudson Review, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other
publications. Ted received a degree in English at Stanford (graduating with
honors and distinction), served as editor of Stanford’s literary magazine, Sequoia. He also worked extensively as a
jazz pianist during that time, and designed and taught a class on jazz at
Stanford while still an undergraduate. After graduation, Gioia received a
degree in philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University, where he
graduated with first class honors. He then received an MBA from Stanford
University. Ted has also consulted to Fortune 500 companies, and has undertaken
business projects in numerous countries on five continents. In the 1980s he
established a formal jazz studies program at Stanford, and served on the
faculty alongside artist-in-residence Stan Getz for several years. His first
book, The Imperfect Art, published in 1988, was
awarded the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award and was named a “Jazz Book of the Century”
by Jazz Educators Journal. Ted has
recorded several jazz albums, including The End of the Open Road, Tango Cool, and The City is a Chinese Vase.
Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, interviewed Dana and Ted over the
past couple of months, asking each the same questions about their childhood,
their faith, literature and music, education, American culture, and the role of
the Church in supporting the arts.
CWR: Is it accurate to say
that two influences profoundly shaped your childhood years: your family’s
Catholic faith and your uncle, Ted, who died before you had a chance to know
him? What role did each play in your intellectual and cultural formation? What
other influences are noteworthy?
My family life and Catholicism were two sides of the same thing. I was raised in a tight Sicilian family. I went to parochial school with my cousins. Most of my relations were in the same
was a continuity of both faith and blood.
I spent 12 years in Catholic schools.
By the time I entered Stanford my sense of myself as a Catholic was
have only vague memories of my Uncle Ted who died when I was very little
(though he did live with my parents when he was not at sea.) But his books and records filled our
apartment. They were our only
décor. No other kids in our neighborhood
grew up with a den wall made up entirely of musical scores by Bach, Beethoven,
Brahms, Haydn, and Mozart. Or had a
living room lined with the works of Thomas Mann and George Bernard Shaw, not to
mention Cervantes, Dante, and Pushkin in the original languages. (There was
also a huge garage cabinet full of classical LPs.) My environment was quite
literally intellectual, even if my working-class parents didn’t quite know what
to do with any of it. While my brother
Ted was still quite small, they were pressed for cash and sold the bound scores
and most of the LPs. But there was still
a few hundred odd classical LPs left that no one wantedGregorian chant, minor
baroque composers, and the less famous operas.
I grew up taking for granted that a poor kid could love and learn about
the great works of the human imagination.
No anxiety of influence for me.
Ted: I was named after Uncle Ted, but he died
before I was born, so I have no childhood recollections of his presence the way
Dana does. But I clearly benefited from
the things he left behindbooks, recordings, and (most important for me) an
upright piano he kept in our family home.
Also, he was clearly the role model for both of us, a working class
intellectual with a very deep grasp of music, literature, and modern thought. I
definitely felt, often subliminally but sometimes consciously, that I should
try to lead the kind of life he might have led had he not died at such a young
our home, neighborhood, and school, the Catholic faith was pervasive, a
physical presence and also a metaphysical presence. But, strange to say, I
probably became more engaged with my faith when I was farthest away from these
influences. When I studied philosophy at
Oxford in my early twenties, I wrestled again and again with deep issues and
found the answers provided by the resident philosophers unsatisfying. For the first time, I understood that the
Church’s teachings, which I had accepted as a matter of faith as a child,
possessed an intellectual rigor and explanatory power that filled in huge gaps
in secular systems of thought.
Especially in matters of moral philosophy, the Catholic tradition made
other approachesfor example the variants of utilitarianism so popular with my
professors, with its bizarre premise that goodness is the same thing as the
maximization of pleasureseem feeble in comparison.
this same time, I was developing my skills as a jazz musician. And my firsthand familiarity with the
drug-destroyed lives of many of the music’s exponents made very clear that
maximization of pleasure was hardly a path to the good life.
CWR: How did you each
gravitate to literature and music?
Ted: I am convinced that, if you have a vocation
in life, you don’t choose it. It chooses
you. The religious phrase we use to
describe this process is the right one. You receive a calling, and the only proper thing you can do is respond to the
calling. In retrospect, music had
clearly emerged as my path before the end of my teen years. My first exposure to jazz at a local club,
the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, was clearly a decisive moment in this
process. I was excited and transformed
by what I heard. From that point forward
I didn’t have a real choice. I simply
followed where the calling took me.
If you are poor, music is the only art in which you can get
serious instruction. I was lucky enough
to have Sister Camille Cecile at my grade school. For a few dollars a month she gave me two
weekly lessonsone in piano, the other in theory. She also arranged to take us to the only
classical concerts I ever heard until I got a driver’s license. By high school I wanted to be a
the meantime I always readscience fiction first but then mainstream literary
novels and poetry. In high school I read at least one or two novels every week
in addition to my schoolworkNabokov, Borges, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Huxley,
Orwell, Hesse. Meanwhile at home my mother
used to read and recite poetrypopular favorites mostlyand so I grew up
without ever thinking that poetry was some forbidding art form.
my interests shifted from music to writing. By the time I was twenty, I knew I
wanted to be a poet. I’ve never changed my mind, though I have had to do many
other things to make a living.
CWR: Both of you have had
notable success in the business world, which seems to contradict, or subvert,
the image of highly educated, cultured writers and musicians. Was it simply a
matter of having to make a living, or were you equally attracted to the world
of commerce? Did you keep the two worlds, so to speak, compartmentalized, or
did they intersect and flow into each other?
The modern assumption that writers and artists are dreamy,
impractical people is both odd and quite insulting to creative people. Sophocles was a general, Goethe a scientist
and statesman. Shakespeare was the most
successful entertainment entrepreneur of Renaissance England. I had no particular interest in business, but
I had to make a living, and I realized that I had a talent for managing
enterprises such as literary magazines and films series. So I took the plunge and went to business school. I found the business world very demanding but
also a good place for hard-working and talented peoplebetter, I think, than
let absolutely no one at General Foods know that I was a poet. I kept my two lives entirely separate. It wasn’t until years later when Esquire
featured me in a special issue of “Men and Women Under Forty Who Are Changing
America” that my secret life was revealed to my colleagues. I didn’t enjoy the sudden celebrity. It only complicated my life. Never underestimate the advantages of
Ted: After finishing my degree in philosophy, I
needed a career. I have no regrets
pursuing my MBA at Stanford and in the various experiences that followed from
that choice. Would I have done the same
thing if I had, say, a trust fund paying my living expenses? Probably not.
But I am more of a person today for the intellectual rigor I assimilated
at the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, or for doing an IPO on the New
York Stock Exchange. I could list many
benefits I gained from these experiences, but I will cite one. The microeconomic modeling and game theory
analysis I learned at the Boston Consulting Group has helped me explain
developments in the history of music that I would never have understood if I
had spent my entire life in the arts.
the other hand, I knew that I couldn’t allow the financial opportunities of the
business world sway me from my music projects.
Shortly before my thirtieth birthday I had a huge choice to make. The Boston Consulting Group wanted me to move
to New York and advise their corporate clients, and that same week Stanford
University asked me to teach jazz and work alongside artist-in-residence Stan
Getz. The consulting job paid ten times
the teaching jobI’m not exaggerating.
But this was an easy decision to make.
A few weeks later I started teaching at Stanford. I always lived modestly so I could make these
kinds of choices.
CWR: You have focused on
artistic and musical formspoetry and jazz, specificallythat were once very
popular in American culture, even central to its everyday life, but have now
fallen to the fringe, as it were. Why have poetry and jazz become relegated to
the edges of American culture? What do these cultural shifts suggest about the
United States as a society?
Ted: Dana has spoken eloquently on this
subject. Anyone who hasn’t read his
commencement address at Stanford on the visibility of arts
and culture in our society really should check it out. I will simply add that people are just as
hungry for serious culture as they ever were, but are stymied by
entertainment-driven media that refuse to give a platform to anything deep,
challenging, or sophisticated. But let me make a prediction. Popular
entertainment of the current sort will not satisfy this hunger. And the hunger is growing, not
shrinking. The music industry is already
paying a price for trying to minimize the role of musical talent in its
business model. How long before
Hollywood learns that the tenth or twentieth remake of a comic book superhero
movie no longer satisfies its customer base?
By dumbing down their offerings, these businesses will inevitably spur a
renewed interest in art that offers more than just escapism.
jazz and poetry became too academic and intellectual. This is not unique to these two arts. It
reflected the general isolation of the arts in our society. They have been relegated to small subcultures
and cut off from the general audience that once supported them. That separation has hurt both the arts and
the general culture.
CWR: One day you meet
someone who says, “I simply don’t like poetry. I don’t get it. And I never will,”
or someone who states, “I can’t stand jazz. It’s boring. I’ll never listen to
it.” What do you say?
I meet this sort of person all the time. I have two reactions. First, I don’t necessarily care if someone
likes poetry or not. Their indifference
doesn’t influence my own love for the art or diminish the pleasure I find in
it. On the other hand I do believe that
most people have a natural appetite for poetry, by which I mean a natural
appreciation for language memorably and pleasingly shaped by form and meter.
Most people love to hear a good poem well recited. (By the same token not all that many people
wants great gobs of poetry, however fine, all at one sitting. Such
gourmandizing is an appetite limited to the literati.) I’ve seen countless instances of average
people taking real and immediate pleasure in a poem that they didn’t think they
Ted: Anyone who wants to understand jazz, or any
other art form, at a deep level, must start with patience and humility. Wynton
Marsalis has offered the comparison of food.
If you take youngsters who have only eaten at McDonald’s and bring them
to a Michelin three-star restaurant, they will hate the food, because they don’t
have the educated palate necessary to appreciate the culinary arts. Yet the more experienced gourmet understands
that a world of difference exists between fast food and fine dining. The arts are no different. Anyone who wants to appreciate their riches
must be willing to develop a different sort of taste, and that takes time. But when they have succeeded in this process,
they will experience an enlightened enjoyment they could never have achieved
with short cuts and our McNugget-sized culture.
CWR: Dana, in the Stanford
commencement address, you said, “I don’t think that Americans were smarter
then, but American culture was.” You also spoke of the difference between mere
entertainment and the recognition of artistic value that transcends
entertainment. As educators, how do you each work to help students understand
these differences? Put another way (and borrowing from that 2007 address), how
can we resist the temptation to be passive consumers and instead be active
citizens? And how can we help others do the same?
We need to take responsibility for creating the culture we
want to live in. That means to express
our valuesaesthetic as well as ethicalin our daily lives.
own response was, at the age of sixty, to become a teacher at USC. By my own choice, I teach a large
introductory lecture class called “The Art of Poetry” to undergraduates. I don’t teach it to the English majors but to
students across all subjects. My aim is
to bring poetry to young men and women who have never really connected to the
art. I work the students very hard. They read poetry, write papers, take tests,
memorize, and recite in public. My aim
is to make them experience the art as well as to analyze it intellectually. The class is quite popular. I am not an academic by temperament, but I
felt it was important for me to demonstrate in the classroom my own vision of
what literary education should be.
Ted: Too much of arts education treats culture as
though it is a kind of mental medicine.
Listen to jazzit’s good for you!
Or, read Shakespeareit’s good for you! Culture is marketed like a
multivitamin. I’m not surprised youngsters (and adults) block out this
propaganda, or simply pay it lip service.
I never saw music or the other arts as a vitamin. It was a feast. I embraced jazz because it was exciting and
you asked me to sum up my view of music in one sentence, I could do it: music is a change agent and a source of
enchantment. When people start
understanding the arts in those terms, you don’t need to sell them on
culture. They come out of curiosity,
desire, and self-interest. Teachers can
help spur this process, but it’s a different kind of teaching than you find in
CWR: Americans, it seems,
like to think they are the best educated and the most sophisticated people in
the world. As educators and as men who have studied a wide range of cultures,
what is the actual situation? What is the good, bad, and ugly of American culture
Ted: We are victims of our own success. The biggest advances in American technology
over the last forty years have almost all been in the area of consumer
entertainment. We haven’t cured
cancer. We never went back to the
moon. But movie special effects, digital
music, big-screen TVs, video games, and a host of other “innovations” have
revolutionized entertainment and made it pervasive in our day-to-day
lives. I believe that this has squeezed
out culture that isn’t entertainment-driven.
On the other hand, the inevitable emptiness of an entertainment-driven
culture will certainly create a backlash.
People may think that reality TV is better than poetry or jazz, but we
will see if they feel the same way after the tenth season of Duck Dynasty.
American education is mediocre, at least in the
humanities. There are many reasons for
this situation, but the greatest problem is our ignorance of the past. Today’s students have only a vague and mostly
abstract sense of human history. They
know the right theories (which is to say, the expected clichés), but those
opinions are completely unconnected to any specific facts, and they are unable
to see through the easy generalizations.
Except for students from immigrant families, few students know foreign
languages. The younger generation also
read very little. They spend most of
their time with commercial entertainment. They live almost entirely in the present
tense, and, alas, mostly in the marketplace.
CWR: What should the role of
the Catholic Church be in the realm of the arts? How would you assess the
general attitude that most Catholics have toward the arts? What can be done?
The Catholic Church has historically been both a patron and inspiration for the
arts. It would be impossible to discuss
the growth of the arts in the Western world without constant reference to the
Church. Artists have alsountil
recentlybeen drawn to Catholicism for its sacramental vision of the world and its
rich tradition of ritual, symbol, and liturgy.
This long relationship broke down in the twentieth century, and then
collapsed further after Vatican II when so much of the Church defined itself
mostly in terms of social action. But
man does not live by bread alone. When
the Church gave up its mission of inspiring through beauty, so much of its
activity became merely functionalnot quite ugly, but barren, perfunctory, and
abstract. Artists went elsewhere. In the process both the Church and the arts
Ted: Those committed to a spiritual life
understand what popular culture hasn’t yet learned (or is afraid to
admit)namely that the hunger of the soul cannot be satiated with sugary sweets
and shallow entertainments. Somewhere
along the way, many people got the idea that the religious sphere and artistic
sphere are at odds with each other. I
believe the opposite is true. Both the
arts and spiritual discernment broaden our perspectives and enrich our lives,
and in very similar ways.
was the single greatest lesson I learned from my years studying philosophy at
Oxfordnamely that the pervasive empiricism of modern life, which only accepts
what it sees and quantifies, is ultimately a brutish philosophy. The most important things in life cannot be
seen with the eyes or measured with charts and numbers. They
are love, trust, faith, friendship, forgiveness, charity, hope, the soul, and
the creative impulse. You cannot live as a
human without these, although you can’t even prove scientifically that any one
of them actually exists. They are metaphysical (a word used as an insult
by my philosophy teachers, but their scorn was mistaken, in my opinion). To
embrace these crucial aspects of our life, we must turn to art and religion.
This hasn’t changed in the last two thousand years. Nor will it change in the next two thousand
CWR: You have both produced
an impressive body of work, especially in writing, but also in other artistic
forms. If someone asked you, “Where should I begin with your work?” what would
you tell them?
Ted: If someone wanted to know what my life’s work
is about, they should probably start with the opening chapter of my book Work Songs, or read its companion book Healing Songs. In those works, I explain (or perhaps “celebrate”
is the better word) the role of music as a source of enchantment and
transformation in our day-to-day lives.
Begin with a single poem. If you find
pleasure or comfort in that poem, then read more. I hesitate to recommend any poem of my own. A
poet is never a reliable judge of his or her own work.
are delusional. We think everything we
write is a work of timeless genius. You’re better off asking someone else’s
opinion of my work. The Oxford Book of American Poetry chose two
and “The Archbishop.” The Norton
Anthology chose two other works“Prayer”
and “The Next Poem”.
CWR: What are some of the
current projects you are each working on at this time?
Ted: My next book is a history of love songs. It will be published by Oxford University
Press. This book will complete my
trilogy on the role of music in everyday life.
I started with Work Songs and Healing Songs, and finish with
lovewhich I hope, fulfilling the words of First Corinthians, will be the
greatest of these.
I have just finished a long
essay I’ve mulled over for years”The Catholic Writer Today.” This piece will probably annoy everyone, but
I felt that there were some important things that needed to be said about the
collapse of American Catholic culture over the last 50 years. I’ve also just written a new opera libretto
based on the Grimm Brother’s tale, The Three Feathers,
for the composer Lori Laitman. It will be premiered in Virginia next year.
My most important work, however, is to write whatever poems the Muse gives me.