Homer and Jazz

By Ralph M. Rosen

Featured Image: George Gershwin Self-portrait by George Gershwin 1934

Homer enjoys an unquestionably privileged status in our own time as one of the grand cultural legacies of antiquity, so it can come as a surprise to realize that his greatness was not always unchallenged. Even in antiquity there were signs that Homeric poetry did not suit all tastes and aesthetic standards, and some readers today still find various features of Homeric style jarring. His great works, the Iliad and Odyssey, often feel “different” from other literature—a bit “primitive,” perhaps, less self-consciously “literary” or “literate” (whatever we mean by these terms exactly), with roots in folk and mythological traditions that complicate, at least, their stature as icons of high culture.

In American cultural history of the past century, we can trace a curiously parallel

aesthetic dilemma in the case of jazz music, which, to this day, occupies an un-

stable, culturally fraught position between the high and low, the “serious” and

“popular.” I’d like to suggest that the aesthetic “problems” ascribed to each

art form, Homeric epic and jazz, have much to do with the compositional and

stylistic techniques idiosyncratic to each genre—techniques that rely first and

foremost on memory, and only secondarily, if at all, on literacy (whether ver-

bal or musical). Poetry or music that is essentially composed during the course

of a performance, as is the case for the Homeric epics and many forms of jazz,

simply look and sound different from poetry and music composed in advance

and fixed as text before a performance. It is not surprising, therefore, that such

art forms will sit uncomfortably in a culture such as ours which has come to

privilege the literate and literary over the spontaneous and improvisational.

It will be useful, I think, to consider these two disparate art forms together

precisely because they share so many features that sometimes mark them as

cultural outliers in their own eras. In what follows I hope to show that ancien

t bards (such as Homer) and jazz musicians learned and practiced their respec-

tive crafts using strikingly similar techniques of memorization and improvisa-

tional composition. This analogy will serve not only to illuminate the specific

practices of each group, but, more importantly, will allow us a clearer under-

standing of the specific aesthetic criteria appropriate to such artistic forms.

We may begin with the various “problems” imputed to Homer across the

centuries. They mostly have to do with apparent inconsistencies and discon-

tinuities of expression. There are three major categories: first, combinations

of nouns and epithets (adjectives) that don’t seem to fit the context; second,

the remarkable number of repeated lines; and third, the verbatim repetition of

whole scenes.

Anyone who has even skimmed the epics will remember some of the famous

phrases that occur over and over to describe the various Homeric heroes (transla-

tions from Homer throughout are taken from R. Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer,

Chicago, 1951): “swift-footed Achilles,” “far-darting Apollo,” “long-suffering

Odysseus,” etc. Most of the time these seem perfect for the character being de-

scribed, but what are we to make of epithets that seem to clash with the context

or the character; and there are many examples of this in Homer: how about “the

starry sky” used in a daytime context? “swift ships” when the ships are beached

on the shore? Or, perhaps even worse: why should Aegisthus be referred to as

“blameless,” when he took up with Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra after he

left for Troy, and attempted to wrest his kingdom from him?

Then there is the second category, repeated lines: time and again we hear

the exact same lines peppered throughout the poems: “When early-born rosy-

fingered Dawn appeared . . .”; or in battle scenes: “He fell down, and all

about him his armor clattered . . .”; or in scenes of recognition: “Then he (she)

recognized him (her) in his mind, and spoke.      ” As if repetition itself were

not enough of a problem for modern ears, there are often contextual inconcin-

nities: take the expression “it clashed terribly      ”; it’s one thing for this to

be used for an army advancing in battle, but the same phrase is also used to

describe Odysseus’ son Telemachus sneezing!

When whole scenes are repeated, sometimes even word-for-word, the ef-

fect can be even more disconcerting. This tends to happen in scenes depicting

activities that we might expect to find in a heroic narrative, such as scenes of

arming, ritual sacrifice, and the preparation of meals. Sometimes some 10- 

15 lines are repeated intact; other times, a passage will retain some elements

and modify others, and the passage feels like a variation on a familiar theme.

Sometimes the repetition is so common that one wonders what sort of descrip-

tive power remains by the end of the passage. One excellent example of this 

is the arming scene of Agamemnon in Book 11 of the Iliad, where we read at

lines 17-19:

First he placed along his legs the beautiful greaves linked

with silver fastenings to hold the greaves at the ankles.

Afterwards he girt on about his chest the corselet

that Kinyras had given him once . . .

It seems so vivid and descriptive, until perhaps one realizes that the same 

lines occur three other places in the poem. In Book 3.330-2, in fact, the lines

are used to describe the arming of Agamemnon’s primary enemy, the Trojan

Hector, with the fourth line altered to say that the corselet came from Lykaon,

his brother, rather than from Kinyras (who had given his to Agamemnon); at

least the poet took care of that detail!

What do all these repeated lines, scenes, and epithets do for an aesthetic

evaluation of the poem? To critics and readers throughout history who have

been oriented towards poetry as literature, that is, as a written work, Homer

has seemed “primitive” and unpolished. The repetitions led some to regard

both epics as little more than inartistic pastiche, and to consider their composi-

tion reckless, if, on occasion, charming and quaint. One of the earliest explana-

tions for the alleged problems in Homer was that the poet was illiterate, that

is, he didn’t know how to write and so had to rely on memory. This seems to

have been one opinion prevalent in antiquity, and it surfaces as early as the

first-century Jewish historian Josephus.

The modern debate on the nature of Homer—the so-called “Homeric

Question”—heated up in the eighteenth century with the work of several in-

fluential European scholars—a few openly hostile to the “patchwork,” “taste-

less,” “inelegant” composition of Homer. The most influential of these remains

  1. A. Wolf’s Prolegomena to Homer, published in 1795, in which he argued
  2. that the Homeric poems were composed orally around 950 BCE, and transmitted orally until some time in the fifth century, at which time they were fixed in writing. It was in the period of transmission across centuries from an original moment of composition, Wolf believed, when changes (whether deliberate or accidental) would have been introduced into the poems, probably by rhapsodes who would perform them as part of their repertoire, not unlike the ways in which cover bands might today perform the Beatles or Elvis Presley. In the century and a half that followed Wolf’s monograph, many scholars still had difficulty believing that a single poet could be responsible for all of Homer’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, and a new model was born: that which saw the Iliad and Odyssey as products of multiple hands. In other words, these so-called “analysts” would argue, Homer may have been a real poet at one point, but what have come down to us as the Iliad and Odyssey are little more than an amalgamation of folkloric stories that were cobbled together over the centuries by any number of anonymous poets. For one thing, they would argue, how on earth could a single illiterate bard have created poems that are as long and involved as the Homeric poems? Many of the arguments used on both sides of the debate during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seem to us now naive and tendentious, often more informative about contemporary literary tastes than about Homeric poetry. But all of these critics were groping toward a new approach to Homer, one that would enable us to explain why he seems so unlike any other form of poetry that had become part of the Western liter- ary canon.

In the earlier part of the twentieth century, a major breakthrough oc-

curred, although it took several decades for people to realize its full impact. A

young American scholar named Milman Parry, inspired by his earlier discov-

eries concerning repeated phrases in Homer and his suspicion that they were

traditional and formulaic rather than composed anew for every line, went to

what was then Yugoslavia to study a contemporary form of epic verse-making.

Parry recorded thousands of performances and interviews in the 1930s, and

found that these singers, largely illiterate, relied almost exclusively on their

memory of traditional material and poetic techniques passed on from genera-

tion to generation through oral instruction, or by means of the poet’s obser-

vation of more experienced practitioners. Parry, and later his student Albert

Lord, observed firsthand how poets could take certain phrases that had distinct

rhythmical shape—say a succession of iambics—and deploy them as needed, in

a line of verse that would call for that particular metrical shape. In his Homeric

studies, Parry had referred to these repeated phrases as formulas, and his most

important realization was that nearly all of Homeric poetry can be considered

“formulaic,” composed, that is, from phrases, whole lines, and even groups of

lines that were inherited as part of a poetic tradition, memorized by the poet

without the need of writing, and modified in performance according to the

idiosyncratic aims of the individual poet. In the case of the Slavic bards, this

meant that no performance was ever identical to any other, and that it made

sense to see such poetry as in some sense “improvisatory.”

Improvisation is a tricky term, since it tends to imply complete sponta-

neity, and the creation of something entirely new on the spot. As in the case

  of jazz, however, improvisation need not (and usually doesn’t) imply a lack

  of preparation or attention to craft. In fact, the finest of Parry’s Slavic poets

spent a great deal of time in training and preparation for performance. The

fundamental concept to remember about orally composed poetry of this sort

is that it aims to reproduce a traditional story line, through traditional poetic

techniques that would be understood by an audience; but at the same time, a

given performance will be unique and unrepeatable. Albert Lord sums up this

tension well (A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, Cambridge, MA, 1960):

While recognizing . . . that the singer knows the whole song before     he starts to sing (not textually, but thematically),  nevertheless,  at  some time when he reaches key points in the performance . . . he     finds that he is drawn in one direction or another by the similarities with related groups [of songs]. . . . The intensity of that pull may   differ  from  performance  to  performance,  but  it  is  always  there and the singer always relives that tense moment (Lord, 123).

In short, in oral poetry singing, composing and performing are essentially

united as one act. In a dynamic performative context such as this, it is under-

standable how the need for mnemonic devices would give rise to verbal and

metrical formulas that could be memorized as stock poetic building blocks. As

Parry argued, such familiar phrases as “swift-footed god-like Achilles” (po-

darkes dios Achilleus) or “long-suffering god-like Odysseus” (polutlas dios

Odysseus) evolve to fill in a particular slot within a dactylic hexameter line

  of poetry whenever those characters are mentioned. In the case of the two

examples I just cited, the poet could refer to these heroes at the end of a hex-

ameter line by using those formulas, because they have the correct meter for

that purpose: ˘ || – || – ˘ ˘ || – –. The Greek hexameter line, in other words, can be

divided into any number of metrical components, and the metrical component

into which a poet wants to fit a phrase will determine the shape of that phrase

. If, for example, the poet wants to say “swift-footed Achilles” in the genitive

case at the end of a line—say, “the shield of swift-footed Achilles . . .”—he’ll

need to alter the phrase podarkes dios Achilleus somewhat because the genitive

endings of those words alter its metrical shape. As Lord put it in the context of

the Slavic poets, the art of the bard ultimately “consists not so much in learn-

ing through repetition the time-worn formulas as in the ability to compose and

recompose the phrases for the idea of the moment on the pattern established

by the basic formulas” (Lord, 5). The singer thus distinguishes himself from

someone who merely recites memorized texts by his ability to create new songs

at every performance.

When Parry and Lord applied by analogy the principles formulated from

their experiences in Yugoslavia to Homeric epic, many problematic aspects of

Homer began to make more sense. Repeated phrases and scenes now could 

be explained as formulaic, mnemonic devices in a tradition of oral composi-

tion. And it was no longer necessary, or especially legitimate, for us to assume

that Homeric poetry ought to read like highly literate poets such as Virgil or

Milton. The Homer we think of as the author of the Iliad and Odyssey may

or may not have been a real person—this we’ll probably never know—and

these epics almost certainly do contain elements that were added on during the

centuries of dissemination before they were fixed with writing. But we can now

at least understand how a single poet might have gone about composing such

elaborate epics. Since the articulation of the oral-formulaic model of composi-

tion, many other examples have been studied in both the ancient and modern

worlds, across a diversity of cultures (Africa, for example, is especially rich in

oral traditions, and the Old English epic Beowulf has been shown to be highly

formulaic). But one of the most immediate examples of a traditional poetics

that does not require literacy, that relies on the use of mnemonic formulaic

devices, and that aims for the creation of a new work at every performance,

can be found in jazz.

I would hardly want to claim, of course, that Homeric poetry was any-

thing like jazz in its cultural or performance contexts, or even, for that matter,

in its artistic medium. Jazz, after all, is a musical form; Homeric poetry, though

probably chanted in some way to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument,

was verbal. The final product of each kind of artist is obviously different. Yet

both are involved in a form of improvising, of composition in performance,

and both are concerned with some form of a traditional narrative, telling a

story, whether in words or in musical notes. To tell this story through per-

formance in front of an audience, both need a knowledge of the appropriate

building blocks, the formulas that worked within the rhythmical parameters

of their chosen form.

Beyond the poetry and music itself, there is the question of the educa-

tion of the performers: how they learned their respective crafts, when literacy

(either verbal or musical) was unnecessary and at times undesirable. This is 

an area in which the evidence from Parry’s Slavic research reveals fascinating

parallels with the jazz musician, and if the analogy between the Slavic bards

(or guslars) and ancient Greek epic holds, we can see Homer, the Slavic gus-

lars, and the jazz musician as participants in a fundamentally affiliated artistic

enterprise.

The most striking connections among these forms arise when we consider

the actual accounts of the performers themselves on how they learned their

art. We have, of course, no ethnographic-style narratives of this sort for any

ancient Greek epic poet, but there are occasional glimpses within the poetry

itself which suggest that the model of the Slavic guslar’s education was valid

for antiquity as well. Lord documents three basic stages in the guslar’s training:

1) sitting aside, 2) application, and 3) performance before a critical audience.

While the poet is young, he sits aside while others tell the stories. He has al-

ready decided that he wants to sing, and he is eager to learn. So he works early

on at learning the basic stories of local heroes, their names, their genealogies,

traditional themes (rescue, homecoming, etc.), and places. While observing

skilled poets in action, he assimilates the rhythm of the songs, the pacing of

ideas and phrasing. Through it all he is absorbing formulas. In one account, a

young shepherd describes how in the evenings he would listen to the guslars.

Then, “the next day when I was with the flock,” he says “I would put the song

together, word for word, without the gusle, but I would sing it from memory,

word for word, just as the singer had sung it         Then I learned gradually

to finger the instrument, and to fit the fingering to the words, and my fingers

obeyed better and better ” (Lord, 21).

This account closely parallels the stories told by jazz musicians of their

initiation into the art form. The great alto sax player Charlie Parker often re-

counted how he used to watch Lester Young closely playing the tenor, and then

try to imitate his solos and fingering. Jazz historian A. B. Spellman (Four Lives

in the Bebop Business, New York, 1985) writes of another great alto player,

Jackie McLean, how he was given an alto saxophone on his fifteenth birthday,

had some rudimentary lessons on it, and began by copying “licks from tenor

saxophonists Lester Young and Ben Webster” (Spellman, 185). He tried to imi-

tate his elders in every conceivable way: “I was trying to make [my alto] sound

like a tenor because I really wanted a tenor before I heard [Charlie Parker].  

  I would go to my room, and I had a little hat that I fixed like a porkpie like

[Lester Young’s] [T]rying to imitate Lester Young and Dexter Gordon on

an alto saxophone is what got my sound to be the way it is,” he says (184-5).

Spellman records a similar path for Ornette Coleman, one of the most influen-

tial modern sax players (84-5): “His cousin, who had been giving saxophone

lessons, often would leave his instrument around the house, and Ornette would

pick it up and experiment with it until he was able to play by ear saxophone

solos from whatever records there were on hand at the moment.”

The young Yugoslav shepherd trying his hand at songs in the fields repre-

sents Lord’s “application” stage. This is a period during which he experiments,

as Lord puts it, with the

primary element of the form—the rhythm and melody, both of the song and of the gusle or the tambura (a two-stringed plucked instrument). This is to be the framework for the expression of his ideas. From then on, what he does must be done within the limits of the rhythmic pattern (21).

That pattern, in this tradition, was a line of ten syllables with a break after the

fourth. For the jazz musician, this would be the period during which he ex-

periments putting melody to rhythmic patterns, and improvising around them.

Consider, for example, Jackie McLean’s account of his “lessons” with the great

pianist Bud Powell. As Spellman writes (191): “Bud did not teach Jackie har-

mony or theory, but worked specifically on his ear. He would call a tune, have

Jackie play it, and play the chord changes behind Jackie until his student could

improvise freely around those chord changes.” In jazz, as in oral poetry, the

goal of early training is to cultivate one’s memory to the point where the vari-

ous building blocks of the musical or verbal line remain at the instantaneous

disposal of the performer.

Lord’s final stage of initiation for the Yugoslav poet occurs when he is fi-

nally ready to perform in front of an audience. As Lord quotes his young bard

saying: “I didn’t sing among the men until I had perfected the song, but only

among the young fellows of my circle, not in front of my elders and betters”

(21). When he finally did break into the big time, he would find himself either

at informal gatherings, coffeehouses, or festivals. At least in the earlier history

of jazz, the best analogue for this is the nightclub or bar, the standard venue

for jazz’s most discerning audiences. The history of jazz is replete with stories

of that “first gig,” when the young musician is summoned by a bandleader  

to perform in front of a serious audience. And when that moment turns out

not to be a success, as the story goes for Charlie Parker, the experience could

be profoundly humiliating. Performances in jazz, especially for inexperienced

musicians, often turn out to be proving grounds where an individual’s impro-

visatory skills are pitted against others.

In this century the aesthetic evaluation of jazz has suffered from the same

prejudices that plagued Homeric poetry for many centuries. Despite the rich-

ness, charm, and even profundity, of each art form, both have periodically

been denied the status of “high art” within Western culture. Now, I have little

interest in such labels myself—I’m not on any sort of crusade to “rehabilitate”

such forms in the name of a so-called “high culture”—but I find it interesting

that the main reason they stand apart from other types of artistic production

is because of their origins as non-literary, non-textual, orally transmitted arts.

People who are used to the highly self-conscious, finely polished style of a liter-

ary text or a musical score, are often unnerved by the unpredictability of an

improvised performance. When Homer repeats whole lines, or uses the same

phrase for a hero time and again, it is easy to see how a culture accustomed

more to silent reading and fixed on originality and novelty, might find this un-

sophisticated and “primitive.” When we appreciate, however, the fact that the

compositional dynamics of Homeric poetry and jazz are in fact affiliated with

one another—as they are with any number of other improvisational art forms

cross-culturally—we are in a better position to evaluate them according to an

aesthetic more appropriate to their poetic goals.


Ralph M. Rosen is Vartan Gregorian Professor of the Humanities and Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He publishes broadly in various areas of Greek and Roman literature, with a focus on comic and satirical literary genres, comparative poetics, ancient aesthetics, and ancient medicine. Recent books include ‘Making Mockery: The Poetic of Ancient Satire’ (Oxford, 2007), and ‘Aristophanes and Politics’ (Brill 2020) co-edited with Lesley Dean-Jones.

Originally published in NOR 2010.

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