The Arts—Agents of Change and Source of Enchantment

Dana and Ted Gioia discuss literature, music, education, business, culture, and the Catholic Faith.

Dana 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.

Dana Gioia (, 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, California.

Ted Gioia (, 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?

Dana: 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 parish.

It 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 ineradicable.

I 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 wanted—Gregorian 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 behind—books, 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 age. 

In 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 approaches—for example the variants of utilitarianism so popular with my professors, with its bizarre premise that goodness is the same thing as the maximization of pleasure—seem feeble in comparison.

Around 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. 

Dana: 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 lessons—one 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 composer. 

In the meantime I always read—science 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 schoolwork—Nabokov, Borges, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Huxley, Orwell, Hesse.  Meanwhile at home my mother used to read and recite poetry—popular favorites mostly—and so I grew up without ever thinking that poetry was some forbidding art form.

Gradually, 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?

Dana: 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 people—better, I think, than the university.

I 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 anonymity.

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.

On 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 job—I’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 forms—poetry and jazz, specifically—that 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.  

Dana: Both 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?

Dana: 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 would like.

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?

Dana: We need to take responsibility for creating the culture we want to live in.  That means to express our values—aesthetic as well as ethical—in our daily lives.

My 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 jazz—it’s good for you!  Or, read Shakespeare—it’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 invigorating. 

If 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 most classrooms. 

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 and education?

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.  

Dana: 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?

Dana: 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 also—until recently—been 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 functional—not quite ugly, but barren, perfunctory, and abstract.  Artists went elsewhere.  In the process both the Church and the arts were diminished.

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. 

This was the single greatest lesson I learned from my years studying philosophy at Oxford—namely 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 years.

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.

Dana: 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.

Poets 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 ballads—“Summer Storm” 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 love—which I hope, fulfilling the words of First Corinthians, will be the greatest of these. 

Dana: 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.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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