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 unstable, 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 verbal 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 ancient bards (such as Homer) and jazz musicians learned and practiced their respective crafts using strikingly similar techniques of memorization and improvisational composition. This analogy will serve not only to illuminate the specific practices of each group, but, more importantly, will allow us a clearer understanding 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 discontinuities 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 (translations 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 described, 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 inconcinnities: 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 effect 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 descriptive 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 composition reckless, if, on occasion, charming and quaint. One of the earliest explanations 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 influential European scholars—a few openly hostile to the “patchwork,” “tasteless,” “inelegant” composition of Homer. The most influential of these remains 1) 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 literary canon.

In the earlier part of the twentieth century, a major breakthrough occurred, although it took several decades for people to realize its full impact. A young American scholar named Milman Parry, inspired by his earlier discoveries 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 generation to generation through oral instruction, or by means of the poet’s observation 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 spontaneity, 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 understandable 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” (podarkes 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 hexameter 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 learning 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 composition. 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 composition, 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 anything 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 performance 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 education 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 guslars, 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 already 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 recounted 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 imitate 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 influential 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 represents 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 experiments 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 harmony 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 various 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 finally 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 improvisatory 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 richness, 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 literary 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 unsophisticated 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 7

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