Oral Tradition (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Oral Tradition (Jazz Age Jazz Series) Jazz relies on improvisation and so not on the trunscription of the music, but on the oral tradition, the knowledge passed down from one musicians to the other

Jazz Age Jazz - Oral tradition

JAZZ AGE JAZZ - Oral Tradition #AtoZChallenge Passing knowledge down freely and fluidly Click To Tweet

O - Oral Tradition (AtoZ Challenge 2016)

Many early jazzmen didn’t have any formal music education and they couldn’t read music. They learned everything they knew by ear.
Their lack of formal education was one of the reasons some critics sustained the lower value of jazz in comparison to classic music. This was because they understood the term ‘know’ uniquely as a body of intellectual knowledge, but intuition and the ear can sometimes ‘know’ more than the intellect does. By listening to the bests and trying to imitate that sound, younger jazzmen intuitively learned music.

Young Jelly Roll Morton

Young Jelly Roll Morton

The roots of jazz are firmly planted in the African oral tradition. African masters of music orally handed down their knowledge to the younger generation without the help of any written information. The experience was normally very experimental and more fluid than written music education.
This experimentation and the lively interchange of knowledge and experience is at the heart of call-and-response techniques that are so vital to jazz performance.

Oral tradition encompasses African American culture as a whole. It influences Afro-American speech, folklore, literature and music – and it comes from long ago. Slaves from Africa often lacked a common language. Written literacy was greatly restricted to them and their descendants well into the XX century. This is why music served a crucial role in handing down black history and values, which then converge into many different, new forms of music. Jazz was one of them.

Participatory performance practices that relied on communal creation, call-and-response and a strong tradition of improvisation helped African-Americans  to accommodate to the dominant white culture without being completely absorbed by it.




Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

Hal Galper – The Oral Tradition
Academia – Jazz Education: methodes and difficulties of teaching music derived from an oral tradition (PDF)


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I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

28 Comments on "Oral Tradition (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

  1. Sarah: this was a WONDERFUL post in itself. But also, when I listened to the Jelly Roll Morton clip, I realized that this was exactly the kind of music that was always played in the background of Buster Keaton silent movies! Since I’m a huge Buster Keaton fan, it was an unexpected delight to hear this music! Thank you!!
    Susan Brody recently posted…N IS FOR NOSE JOBSMy Profile

    • It’s true, eh? When I listened to it, I realised the connection between jazz and honky tonk I talked about earlier in the challenge. I really like this music 🙂

  2. Hey! Great post! Very interesting, as always!

  3. Without the oral tradition, jazz wouldn’t sound like it does at ALL. Great post.
    Sabina recently posted…Morse CodeMy Profile

  4. I find oral tradition a fascinating subject, and hadn’t realized it also extends to music. So interesting. Love the clip. It sounds so happy! 🙂
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…Hazel and Holly — Dark DecisionsMy Profile

  5. Your posts have made me remember how much I loved all things jazz growing up – seeing The Great Gatsby, Bugsy Malone et al. We went through a real phase I think in the 70s of falling in love with the 20s all over again. Maybe it’s time to do so again.
    Alex Daw recently posted…O is for HMS OrontesMy Profile

    • I’ve always been into the old movies, especially 1930s and 1940s mysteries. I don’t think it comes as a surprise that I finally fell in love with the 1920s too.

      It’s a fascinating era, don’t you agree? 🙂

  6. It is a really important skill to be able to listen and reproduce what you hear, our choir master is always trying to get us to work this way as well as reading music. All the music theory in the world can be useless if you don’t have a good ear.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Murder Most Foul! – O is for Opposite – Cozy Mystery #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • I think that’s true for any field of creativity. You can know the theory perfectly, but if you don’t actually try it, you’re not a creative person. And when you try, you’re bound to do it your own way, never in the exact way you were taught.
      In this sense, I suppose a little bit of oral tradition resist in the written form too. Though ideas which are passed down orally are more fluid and more agile and reactive.

  7. Oral tradition is at the heart of most of my writing. As a kid I loved nothing more than hanging around the grownups and listening to them tell stories. I worry that in this electronic age that form of communication is being lost.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends
    Kathleen Valentine recently posted…O is for Oshiro: Blogging the #AtoZchallengeMy Profile

    • You know? I don’t think so. Oral tradition remains a very important part of our life, only its form is changing, like it should be. But just think about it. People at work will teach you how they do the job so that you can develope your own way to do it. That’s ora tradition, after all.
      Members of groups inform each others of everything happening and recount events happened to them and to others they know. That’s oral tradition too, I think, even if it happens on a chat.
      Just because the oral tradition is fluid and versatile, it’s normal that it changes very fast over time. It probably changes faster than we can ajust to the change 😉

  8. I always think of nursery rhymes as typical oral tradition, but I’d not considered Jazz, although it makes sense given the nature of how jazz is passed on from player to player. In the era of instant digital messaging, I wonder what oral traditions will be left to teach the future generations.
    Interesting post, thank you.
    Raesquiggles recently posted…Orford: keeping the wild man #atozchallengeMy Profile

    • As I mentioned above, I think the oral tradition still resist in our time, only it is changing in the way it is practiced. But there are fields (and creative fields sure fall into this) that still rely a lot on the oral tradition and knowledge passed down by word-of-mouth. Think to craftmenshit, sport, dancing. Even cooking. I learned everything I know about cooking from my granddad and my mother and I’m still learning most of it from friends, swapping recipes.

      Before I wrote this post, I too would have thought to oral tradition only as people sitting around and exchanging stories, but I realise now the practice of oral tradition is a lot more complex and diverse than this.

  9. Fab. And also, not having to stick to criteria laid down in a textbook and received wisdom, experimentation is free! ~Liz http://www.lizbrownleepoet.com

    • That’s the point of oral tradition: it’s fluid and when you put it on practice, it will never be exactly like you were told to do. You’ll always put your twist at it.

  10. You need to write more, Dearie
    When you get to Z, start over and do another set in Jazz 😀

    Sir Leprechaunrabbit

    • LOL! 🙂
      You never know, my good Sir. But you will always find articles about the 1920s on my blog, and you’re very welcome to stop by any time you feel like it.

  11. This is so interesting. I think the ‘oral tradition’ is such a pure way to pass things on–I wish there was still some of it left today!
    Megan Morgan recently posted…O – OnomatopoeiaMy Profile

    • I think there is still a lot of oral tradition going on today, only we have a stereotyped idea of it, and we don’t realised what other forms of it are around us.
      It was sure the case for me. Only after writing this post, I realised there are a lot of different forms of oral traditions and a lot of them are still very important to us.

  12. Oral tradition is so important in so many fields. Things often aren’t the same by the time they finally get written down or recorded, but they can pick up new aspects along the way and emerge even better.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Grand Duchess Olga NikolayevnaMy Profile

    • I totally agree. I think we don’t realise how much of our life is still dependent on oral tradition, because we have a stereotyped idea of people sitting around telling stories.
      I’ve realised writing this post that oral tradition is a lot more that this.

  13. The oral tradition is amazing really – all that information carried in people’s heads and passed on by ear. Of course coming from the opposite end I have this awful fear of what might have been lost over time. My brain always flicks to archaeology where we know lots about people who chiselled everything in stone, but little about other cultures who has no writing :).
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
    Tasha recently posted…P – Pam Ashbury & Pocong – Fictional Phantoms #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • Well, as Tolkien said talking about fairy stories, we worry a lot about what was lost, when in fact we should worry more about what it has been preserved and carried on to us – and why.
      I agree with him that what has come down to us speaks a lot about us as well as about people who came before us, where what it was lost may speak more about people long gone.

  14. Oral tradition was present in other fields, too. I loved Wolverine Blues 😀
    Zeljka recently posted…Palace Square St PetersburgMy Profile

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