Jazz and the Art of Storytelling by Robert Washut
Note: This article first appeared in a slightly altered form in the Jazz Educators Journal in October 1994.
There exists in music an obvious parallel to both linguistic and literary modes of expression. Consider how the elements of linguistics are mirrored, however vaguely, by the “building blocks“ of music: syntax by phrase and rhythmic structure, semantics by the context of harmony and meter, word forms by motivic permutations, and phonology by timbre. Similarly, the processes of literary and musical composition bear a resemblance: writing a verse of poetry is not wholly unlike assembling a melodic phrase; the unfolding of a plot is remotely similar to the development section of a sonata.
The conversational character of some improvised jazz solos invites the comparison of jazz to storytelling. This particular analogy is made vivid in Lester Young’s remarks regarding his impressions of Frankie Trumbauer’s playing style: “He always told a little story.”1 Referring to Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey, Young stated that they were “…the only people who was [sic] telling stories that I liked to hear.”2 Young’s perspective suggests that storytelling may well be the “literary” analogue of jazz.
The Jazz Musician as Storyteller
The first storytellers were the ancient cave dwellers who, using a visual medium, depicted the mystery of life and death on the walls of dark caves. As our linguistic traditions evolved, stories were eventually transmitted orally and gave birth to the myths and legends still residing within our souls. Throughout the ages, the story has been used as a vehicle to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, transform, and elucidate.
With roots in their respective folk traditions, jazz and storytelling share more than a few attributes. Most obvious, perhaps, is that both utilize principally an oral/aural medium: there is little reliance on the notated page. The storyteller who has learned his story “by heart” is much more likely to convey its message with deep feeling. Regarding this most necessary preparation, Elaine Ward, in The Art of Storytelling, states “The difference between memorization and learning by heart is in the motivation…learning by heart presupposes interest and love…we learn what we love.”3
Similarly, the jazz musician who has cultivated a strong affinity with a given song is more apt to internalize its structural components and assimilate its meaning. This level of preparation, motivated by love or deep attraction, subsequently allows her to play with conviction, to play “from the heart.”
According to Ward, the purpose of a story is to share. To tell a story properly one must not only communicate the story’s message but invite participation as well. This sharing aspect of jazz improvisation is eloquently illustrated in the post-performance comments of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, following his American debut: “This audience came not to judge or to hold the music out at a distance from themselves. They were there to communicate and support. What was beautiful was the everybody was making music. It was the biggest band I will ever have.” 4
Jazz is traditionally presented in an intimate setting, much like the cozy environs in which a story is told. This kind of milieu is usually more conducive to personal exchange, or sharing, between the performer and listener. Just as a child may feel compelled to interrupt a storyteller to offer a comment or question, the reaction of a listener may evoke a response from the improvising jazz musician. An indifferent audience inhibits; a supportive audience inspires.
Since storytellers share and reveal themselves through the stories they choose, Ward suggests that the art of storytelling involves selecting the “right” stories. The jazz musician, too, divulges a great deal about himself in the material he chooses to perform. Finding the right vehicles to build a distinctly personal repertoire is an important step in developing the ability to express oneself honestly and convincingly.
In addition to grammatical and organizational idiosyncrasies, each storyteller possesses unique traits of rhythm, pacing, dynamics, vocabulary, and dialect. The way in which these elements are manipulated determines how compellingly the story is communicated. Similarly, each jazz musician’s style is unique. Like the storyteller, the jazz improvisor must artfully construct and connect her phrases, continually altering dynamics and range to prevent a dull, monotonal delivery. The skillful use of the “pause” allows the listener to absorb what has been played while simultaneously creating a sense of expectancy. The improvisor may then confirm, deny, or delay the expectation. Moreover, an awareness of the importance of climax enables the jazz musician to control the pacing of her “story.” Ward posits that the storyteller who tacks on the story’s moral (climax) to the ending commits a cardinal sin. So, too, does the jazz musician who plays one “chorus” too many. She must “know when to say when.”
Finally, where each storyteller possesses unique vocal characteristics and inflections, the jazz musician, too, “speaks” with an individual sound, striving to “sing” through the instrument. Vocally derived expressive devices have long been an integral part of the jazz language. As a result, jazz musicians, like storytellers, can express themselves in a very personal and direct manner.
The Solo as Story
He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who work with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist.
-St. Francis of Assisi
The story is a marriage of head and heart, a “weaving of words and imagination with visualization.”5 It is a link between the conscious and the unconscious. A deep love of the story, coupled with great skill, enables the master storyteller to convey its message with passion. Similarly, a great improvised solo is a rapprochement of intellect and soul, a confluence of physical and psychic forces. It is a magical union of content with the manner of its expression.
Just as a master storyteller would not try to rescue a weak story with his verbal skill, the jazz artist eschews mere technical display in the pursuit of discovering something new; spontaneity is vital. Disraeli, the great English orator, was once complimented on an “off-the-cuff” speech delivered to Parliament. In response he stated: “I have spent the best part of twenty years preparing that speech.”6 Like Disraeli’s speech, the typical improvised jazz solo, although perhaps a manifestation of years of practice, ironically involves negligible true, spontaneous invention. Far too often, spontaneity and true invention yield to premeditation and deliberateness. The improvising soloist, in effect, imparts a microcosmic tale of her cumulative knowledge and experience. As such, she is apt to draw from an inventory of familiar and reliable devices, often repeating herself quite literally from one performance to another, from one “story” to the next.
It follows, then, that from the standpoint of creativity, the ordinary jazz improvisor is like the laborer. His lack of originality limits him to little more than the level of mere mimicry. Thus, he tends to tell the same old story in more or less the same old way. On the other hand, the improvising craftsman is like a gifted athlete. Equipped with greater skill and perhaps a more fertile imagination, he can adeptly channel more original ideas through his instrument, adapting his story to suit the occasion by embellishing and altering it on a moment’s notice. Despite all his impressive skill, however, the craftsman rarely tells an entirely new story.
It is only the jazz artist who holds spontaneity and invention as vital and requisite virtues. The artist strives to discover new themes and develop new “plots” as she navigates the realms of her imagination. Only by harrowingly traversing that bridge between conscious and unconscious can the jazz artist succeed in revealing a new story with each telling. In the art of jazz, the truly improvised solo remains the ideal. It is a unique story, a kind of spontaneous interior monologue shared with the listener, a single entry in an ongoing diary of discovery.
The Jazz Artist as Hero, His Story as Journey
The story…[informs] by symbol, symbols…that say one thing in order to mean another.
A symbol causes us to think and feel whole… [by representing] realities
that are seen with the heart and touched with the spirit. 7
The truly inspired improvised solo may be viewed as symbolic of the Hero’s Journey. It is a metaphor for a universal tale, the cyclic adventure of the Hero, who by confronting and overcoming adversity, “learns to experience the supernormal range of human spirituality and then coming back with a message.”8 As “hero,” the improvisor attempts to cross the formidable trestle to the subconscious. If his mission is successful, he returns with subliminal treasures.
This kind of quest is not undertaken by all, however. Like the telling of a story, the improvisational journey may assume the form of an entertaining jaunt, or that of a singularly profound experience, a recreational adventure, or an illuminating sojourn within. Where the common jazz musician’s improvisational trek might be represented by a sporting match or a casual afternoon outing to familiar environs, the rare journey of the improvising artist, when undertaken with the utmost urgency and integrity, is symbolic of a much loftier excursion. It is a temporal journey into uncharted waters, into the “land of dreams,” wherein the artist moves, self-effacingly, into the empty circle of the primordial state. 9 It is here where technique and imagination coalesce as art. The improvising artist, like the shaman, may well disclose something of the Self--our collective unconscious. Perhaps that is why we, as listeners, are tempted to “ride along,” vicariously accompanying the artist on his spiritual quest. We become willing participants in the unfolding of his unique tale, subconsciously seeking a glimpse of that rare epiphany.
We have not even to risk the adventure alone…We have only to follow the thread of the hero’s path…
where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our existence.
And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.
Like the story, the improvised jazz solo can be appreciated on many levels. Because of our natural fascination with pyrotechnical display, we tend to marvel at the technical virtuosity of a soloist much the same way that we stare in awe at a spectacular show of fireworks. Nonetheless, where we may be dazzled by display, we are touched, forever, by the magic the Story.
- James Lincoln Collier, The Making of Jazz (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1978; Delta Books, 1970), p. 229.
- Lester Young, tape recorded interview with Francois Postif (place and date unknown).
- Elaine Ward, The Art of Storytelling, (Brea, CA: Educational Ministries, Inc.), p. 20.
- Howard Mandel, “Gonzalo Rubalcaba: I’ll Take Manhattan,” Down Beat, September 1993, p. 21.
- Ward, The Art of Storytelling, p. 3.
- , p. 19.
- , p. 12.
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p. 152.
- Eugene Herrigel, Zen and the Art of Archery, p. 47.
Robert Washut is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Northern Iowa, where he taught for 38 years. He is an accomplished jazz composer/arranger, jazz pianist, and educator.