Jazz Improvisation & the Oral Tradition

“The origins of poetry are highly speculative.  The earliest poetry recedes into the vast mist of centuries of oral tradition before writing inscribed, and thus, transfixed these texts.  We do know that throughout history oral expression can and has existed without writing, but that writing has never existed without orality (Walter Ong).  There is a strong continuity between oral and written verbal art forms.  Writing immmobilizes text in visual space, allowing us to linger and internalize them, to scan them backwards and forwards, reread and study them.  It creates a space for introspection.  But it is fundamental to remember that all over the world peoples have considered words to have magical potency.  The interaction between the singer and the group provides one strong model of participation in lyrical exchange.  Writing removes us from such face to face communication.” – Edward Hirsch

In Irish oral tradition the seanchai, or storyteller, is a repository for hundreds of poems, songs and stories from his community and his country, never written down but memorized and handed down orally from one geneartion to the next.  And although he uses the same basic elements with each rendition, there was always an element of improvisation – certain events in the story emphasised over others, certain minor characters given more time in the story than on previous tellings.  In this way the seanchai would embue the story with his own experiences at that moment – his own moods and thoughts filtered through his talent as a teller of tales.

The development of written forms, as suggested in the passage above, removes that opportunity for improvisation as the story becomes fixed in space.

The same is true for music – trancscribed music created a world of opportunities that allow the listener “to linger and internalize them, to scan them backwards and forwards, reread and study them.” But recordings also lack the opportunity for the performer to vary from the form very much – and for the listener to hear those variations.


what i want to suggest:  that jazz improvisation is actually a form of oral musical tradition – using the bones of a chordal structure, much like a Seanchai would use the bones of a story, the jazz musician is charged with embuing the song with his own essence – emphasising the elements that are important to him/her, communicating his/ her own experience to the assembled audience.  In a very real sense, both live storytelling and jazz are “live art” – the creation is happening before your eyes, not just for the listener but for the soloist and the band as well!  And this is demanded night after night, and each communication no matter how similar, is never identical to the last.

What an oral rendition of a song or poem offers is a replica of that song or poem in that moment, the emotions of the listeners, the emotions and experiences of the singer, in that moment and that moment only – never fixed, never recorded, for one-night-only.  It reminds us that this moment, this moment now, is good – good enough or better than all before and to come – and there will never be any better, more perfect combination of people, sounds, ideas and places than this.  And in a joyous paradox, we become aware that the moment cannot last.  But here it is – this moment.  Enjoy it.

Jazz Improvisation & the Oral Tradition

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