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Ted Gioia on discovering the paragon of authenticity in his own home
Ted Gioia is one of our most penetrating and important writers on jazz and culture. When I started working at Substack in the summer of 2020, Ted was one of the very first people I called to suggest that he might consider writing on the platform. I’d read and reread his great books—The History of Jazz among many others—and I’d published him years before when I ran a small music and literature magazine called Radio Silence. When I called Ted to discuss Substack, he was intrigued but hesitant, though we kept talking about it over the next many months, and finally he launched what has emerged as one of the great publications on the platform,.
Ted and I met almost a quarter-century ago on Thanksgiving. His older brother, Dana, had been my poetry professor and soon became a close friend and mentor, and I was invited to spend the holiday with the Gioia clan at Dana’s hilltop house in Sonoma County, since my own family lived thousands of miles away in Upstate New York and I couldn’t afford the plane ticket home. The Gioia family is big and rambunctious, of Mexican and Sicilian origins, and the house was filled that day with all the delicious food, engaging debate, and familial love that I would come to enjoy whenever I was lucky enough to be among them.
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I was only 22 then, not long out of college and new to the West Coast, and I’d never been around a family that was so accomplished, so thoroughly Californian, and so electrically intelligent. Amid the whirling energy of the room, their father, Michael, exuded a calm and kind presence from the head of the table.
The passage below is an extract from Ted’s unpublished essay “Authenticity in Music,” which he hopes to share in the future on The Honest Broker.
The most important thing I inherited from my dad
by Ted Gioia
After my father died, I took on the melancholy responsibility of organizing the objects he left behind. I dreaded the moment, but it proved to be a much simpler job than I expected.
My dad, as it turned out, owned almost nothing.
The closet in his bedroom, where he stored most of his personal possessions, was tiny—especially in comparison to the huge walk-in storage areas (really more rooms than actual closets) of my home. Yet even this small space he failed to fill.
Living in an unprecedented age of conspicuous consumption, Dad barely lived up to the status of entry-level consumer. The only expensive heirloom I inherited from him, a gold watch, was actually a gift he had received from me a few years before his death—I can’t recall a single lavish expenditure he made on himself during his 84 years on the planet.
The way I look at it, I ended up giving myself this gold watch. It’s somehow fitting that the pricey gift came back to me as his heir—almost as if Dad couldn’t keep something so ostentatious. It wasn’t the right style for such a simple man. But having it returned in this way gave me no joy, as you can imagine.
I’ve now owned this glistening Rolex for more years than my father did. But I don’t wear it—somehow I’m shamed by the thought of doing so when I contrast my own possession-filled life with his austere one. I will give that family heirloom to my oldest son (who was named after my father) in a few years’ time. Maybe he will make better use of it than I have or Dad ever did. I hope he does.
In any event, that timepiece isn’t the most important thing I inherited from Dad. Not even close.
In fact, when I recall my father’s simplicity, I don’t think of any of these matters first. Instead there was something intangible in his character, hard to describe, that stood out even more sharply, a certain translucent quality to his actions and demeanor. This was where his true simplicity resided, not in his half-filled closet.
At first glance, it almost seemed like a character defect, because it was most easily defined by the long list of skills my father lacked. The most obvious was Dad’s complete and total incapacity for irony. He couldn’t make an ironic comment if his life depended on it. Nor did he ever show awareness of the irony others used, no matter how thickly they laid it on. In the kingdom of words, he lived on the surface level, refusing to take even the most cursory peek at submerged meanings that might reside in the basement.
This would have been noteworthy under any circumstances, but especially in the context of our household. My siblings and I gave an ironic twist to everything that came our way, and Mom joined in happily in this wry banter. Like my father, she had grown up in poverty and never attended college, but had a sharp wit and enjoyed the equalizing power of irony.
Our social betters were knocked down a few rungs by the sly twists we imparted to our critiques. Elites weren’t quite so elite after one of our rejoinders hit the mark—rarely delivered to their face but imagined in vivid detail in the course of our sharp repartee around the dinner table. My father may have presided, in some symbolic manner, as head of the household at these repasts, but in reality it seemed as if he was an oblivious onlooker at a performance he never quite comprehended.
Ah, but irony rarely shows up alone at any conversation. It usually is accompanied by its close associates—sarcasm, smugness, and cynicism. And somehow my father managed to avoid these bad boys as well. I look back on all my various interactions with him over the years, and can’t recall a single sarcastic or smug remark. In his universe, things were what they were, and it would never have occurred to him to reframe his narrative (as we might say nowadays) with these potent tools that serve as both protective layers and assault weapons for the rest of us.
I rarely thought about all this back in those days—in our early home life, we tend to accept the quirks and quiddities of parents as basic facts of the natural world—but if someone had asked me point-blank during my teen years, I would have admitted that these huge gaps in my father’s toolkit were serious deficiencies. Not only was he defenseless, at least from a verbal standpoint, in a hostile world, but he was also missing out on much of the fun.
I’m not so sure anymore. Nowadays I often envy my father’s obliviousness to the ironic postures of the rest of his family. It’s almost as if he had been born with immunity to a disorder that was infecting everyone else. Thinking back to those times I am reminded of that charged family moment in Hamlet when the protagonist’s mother asks why he seems so upset—and he responds, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is; I know not seems.”
There are certain people incapable of adopting the roles and poses prevalent in their time and place. They are, not seem. It’s not that they have renounced the advantages of ironic distance; rather they don’t know how to make the trek there—in the case of my father, he sometimes appeared unaware that there was even a journey that might be made.
I think about these things more often nowadays, and oddly enough in the context of considering music and the arts, and especially that fraught term authenticity that keeps recurring in our discussions of artists. I’ve come to wonder whether the true benchmark of the authentic isn’t precisely this same kind of obliviousness my father demonstrated again and again. The musicians who strike me as most authentic never realized that inauthenticity was even a choice—they wouldn’t know how to arrive at that destination, even if you gave them a map and GPS coordinates.
Discovering this kind of authenticity is a gift, but it’s an unusual kind of gift—defined as much by what you relinquish as by what you gain. Most people in the music world find about it from some old blues singer or an antiquated folk song or in so-called world music from far, far away.
In my case, I learned about authenticity at home, and from the best possible teacher. Even now, so many years after his death, I’m still learning from Dad’s example. And if I could somehow manage to pass it down to my children, it would be worth a whole lot more than a gold watch.