Oral Tradition 19.2 (2004) 155-176
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Jazz Musicians and South Slavic Oral Epic Bards
[*E-companion at www.oraltradition.org]
H. Wakefield Foster
Albert Lord writes in The Singer of Tales (2000:13) that for the South Slavic oral epic poet, or guslar, "the moment of composition is the performance." The guslar is concurrently performer, composer, poet, and singer. In performance, he participates creatively in shaping the tradition of which he is a part rather than acting merely as a transmitter. Similarly, though in a much more restricted sense, European art music of the late nineteenth century embraced a concept of performance—as contrasted to presentation—in which the musician provided "linear tension that went beyond what could be notated . . . and freely manipulated every part of every phrase . . . to achieve a performance that was itself inherent to the process of communication" (Ledbetter 1977:149-50). Until the 1920s, students of Franz Liszt and Theodor Leschetitzky, the unrivaled moguls of nineteenth-century pianism, flourished in a veritable hothouse environment of idiosyncratic performance styles.1 Such discretionary powers today have been abrogated by the modern notion of "fidelity to the score."2 However, echoes of nineteenth-century performance practice resonate today among jazz musicians, who view their improvisatory art as a process of communication with a live audience that itself participates in the performance event. This essay explores the startling kinship that the jazz musician shares with the guslar. [End Page 155]
Comparisons between various oral performance traditions and jazz music have often been made, directly or implicitly,3 and it is logical and natural to associate these groups since each artist produces his art "live" in performance, without text, and before an audience. That one discipline is verbal art and the other musical need not overshadow the common ground that they share: both involve specialized languages. Each art form is subject to traditional rules that govern a spontaneous and ever-changing mode of aural expression. Most important, perhaps, is that both art forms share the medium of live performance, which makes unique demands on the artists and essentially defines their manner of composition.
Indeed, the comparison is so immediate and attractive that it may thereby invite hasty and inaccurate assumptions. For example, whereas the oral poet is fluent in an epic language of formulaic phrases, he does not simply stitch together ready-made formulas to produce a familiar but "new" recombination. Likewise, jazz improvisation consists not of combining and recombining memorized motivic elements but of composing, within the parameters of traditional rules, new musical phrases that resonate with and respond to familiar chord progressions, themes, or styles. Jazz musicians and oral epic bards focus upon process rather than product, which is to say that their "product" exists only as the performance event itself, which temporally frames the "process" of creativity.
A brief (and necessarily selective) review of relevant scholarship that explores creative processes in traditions of oral composition—both verbal and musical—will provide a wider perspective from which to investigate similarities between the jazz musician and the guslar. Margaret Beissinger has examined varieties of structural modification within oral composition by Romanian epic singers, or la'utari, who "are able to employ variation and innovative patterning within the traditional boundaries of epic song" (2000:110). She asserts that the smallest unit of musical composition within the Romanian epic tradition is the melodic formula, a traditionally derived element with which the la'utari construct linear sequences of larger systems that she calls "musical strophes" (101). Thus the Romanian epic singers' creative process involves an improvisatory "re-assembly" of traditional elements. [End Page 156]
In a detailed study of the transmission of Gregorian chant, Leo Treitler writes that it is misleading to consider the medieval sacred singer's improvisation a "special" practice lest it be invoked solely as a rationale for explaining the unusual characteristics of problematic transmissions (1974:346). He conceives of a practice that involves elaboration and variation upon a Grundgestalt, or "fundamental model," and explains that "the singer learns one melody and imitates its pattern in...