Speakin' The Blues

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"Unlike, for instance, the Reverend Homer A. Barbee, whose earlier speech at the protagonist's college is a tightly rehearsed repetition of other similar speeches..., Wheatstraw's eloquence is an off-the-cuff, organic eloquence, an eloquence that foregrounds the possibilties of improvisation as opposed to strict recitation."

-Hanlon, 86

 As I read this article about the speech utilized within Ellison's novel, I came to realize just how much the speaking styles of the characters relate to the jazz characteristics of the 1930s and the ensuing movements.  Improvisation, a widely used technique in jazz literature, is seen in a light of courage and honesty.  As a jazz musician, myself,I can relate to this feeling.  I know that when I'm playing a chart and the director points at me to take a solo I feel very gratified when my solo expresses some idea that is passing through my mind: the chords line up and some rhytmic lick that I've stored away in my mind comes forward and sounds from my horn.  When I finish and pull the instrument away for a short rest, I feel accomplished: I have expressed my thoughts through music and not relied on a script.

Much of the same phenomenon can be said of the improvisational speech.  It's one thing to be able to write a beautiful speech in much the same way that it is to compose a piece of music, but the work is even more gratifying and accomplished when it is adapted and modified on the spot.  It's one thing to memorize a speech or read from a jazz chart, but it's another thing to permit one's emotions to be read by the tongue, itself.  Hence, the characters that makes use of the improvisational style are better accepted by the crowd since the crowd provides the inspiration for the words: a tailored fit, so to speak; as opposed to a canned speech that runs dry and seems generic.



Alyssa Sanow said:

Speaking, like composing or playing music, is undoubtedly a talent. If you look at politicians, for example, those with the ability and talent to express themselves have been able to succeed far more than those who simply read off of the teleprompter. Clinton and Obama are both "personable" people to whom others feel they can relate and this feeling is translated into their ability to communicate successfully with the public. According to Hanlon, Ellison saw the value of "composing [the audience] as a social organism" and feeding off the energy they produce.

I agree. Although I haven't had much experience with improvisation as an actor, I've seen how it can be a very difficult yet rewarding skill to master. Improvisation, from an acting or I imagine from a musical or oratorical perspective, requires you to know the material you want to get across much better than you would if you had just memorized and delivered it word-for-word from a script. You need to be able to invent on the spot while still maintaining control over your message and not let the situation completely run away with you and undermine what you initially intended for the character or the speech or the piece of music. The narrator in Invisible Man meets with varying levels of success with this; he lets the crowd take over in his speech at the eviction, but he has them going where he wants them to go in the first speech he gives in the Brotherhood. It's really interesting the way this article examined the degree of control the narrator has over his public speaking and it reflects the degree of control he has over his life.

Christopher Dufalla said:

Knowledge of the topic material is key. Without fervor and accumulated knowledge a topic will lack interest and clarity to an audience. Hence, the narrator's emmotionally moticated speeches lend to the spur of the moment attitude with prior experience used as a blueprint as opposed to an actual standing frame. The jazz-like blueprint can be modified before it's built, but the dusty memorized speech is already built and will buckle and fall apart if one tries to tweek any part of it...the rhythm of memorization is gone.

Alicia Campbell said:

Since I am no musician whatsoever, I appreciated your interpretation. I have given speeches (which have been pre-written), but I can understand how improvisation, in both music and speech, would be more effective. One can speculate, but cannot predict exactly the response and emotions of an audience. Nor can one predict his own response and emotions in that moment, as he is delivering and engaging in an interplay with the audience.

Joshua wilks said:

This is a very interesting idea that didnt really jump out at me when i was reading. Particularly the thing about Rev. Barbee, I didnt really make the connection. The description of his speech is so powerful and when you compare that to a improvisational music it makes sense. however I think that a lot of improv. in speeches comes as you are giving it and you know the information so well that you cant help but add little bits here and there. I think that in most cases there is at least a small idea of an outline even in improv. that guides it so it makes sense, even in Jazz.

First, Christopher, thank you for reading my essay so carefully. Second, I also play an instrument, but have never been able to improvise (not really, anyway), a fact that gnawed a bit at me as I wrote and eventually published this essay. So I'm gratified to see an actual musician who is also an improvisor allowing me to pass muster, in a sense, in affirming what I'm trying to express about how improvisatory speech might relate to music. Once again, thanks, and I hope the essay was useful.

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Recent Comments

Christopher Hanlon on Speakin' The Blues: First, Christopher, thank you
Joshua wilks on Speakin' The Blues: This is a very interesting ide
Alicia Campbell on Speakin' The Blues: Since I am no musician whatsoe
Christopher Dufalla on Speakin' The Blues: Knowledge of the topic materia
Matt Henderson on Speakin' The Blues: I agree. Although I haven't h
Alyssa Sanow on Speakin' The Blues: Speaking, like composing or pl