Orality, Literacy, and Mediating Musical Experience: Rethinking Oral Tradition in the Learning of Jazz Improvisation

Author: Prouty, Kenneth

Source: Popular Music & Society, Volume 29, Number 3, July 2006 , pp. 317-334(18)

Publisher: Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group

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In this essay, I critically examine the place of oral tradition in the narrative of jazz history, as well as how and why assumptions about its development persist in the music's discourse. Specifically, I argue that the continued identification with oral tradition imparts to the jazz community a unique identity vis‐à‐vis other forms of Western music, which are often described as “written” traditions. Through a critical re‐reading of historical and contemporary texts, as well as from interviews with jazz musicians, I illustrate how certain musicians and critics position jazz as a cultural and musical system that departs significantly from the practices of the Western art music tradition, chiefly in relation to the latter's employment of written scores. Such an oppositional discourse positions jazz not only as a distinct stylistic entity, but indeed as a unique music culture in relation to Western forms, invoking binary oppositions such as “African/European” or “black/white” in laying claim to cultural authenticity. Finally, I propose that neither “oral” nor “written” can adequately describe the complex processes that have given jazz its unique character in both performance and pedagogy, and that reflect its history of assimilating and transforming myriad musical and cultural practices.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007760600670372

Publication date: July 1, 2006

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