The importance of jazz music in Toni Morrison's "Jazz"

Term Paper, 2008

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The setting of the story
2.1 African Americans at the beginning of the 20th century
2.2 Harlem in the 1920s
2.3 The development of a black musical culture

3 Musical elements in Jazz
3.1 Jazz structure
3.2 Jazz style
3.3 The role of the narrator

4 Jazz music as a metaphor
4.1 The impact of history
4.2 History and past traumas
4.2.1 Joe’s history
4.2.2 Violet’s history
4.2.3 The solution
4.3 The function of jazz

5 Conclusion

1 Introduction

The first reading of Toni Morrison’s novel made me wonder why the author chose the title Jazz. It describes the difficulties various African Americans have in integrating themselves into the urban context of the North. The origin of this dilemma lies in unsolved problems, unprocessed experiences and in an incomplete reappraisal of the past. Identity, as it seems, needs to reconcile history and present. Blacks in northern cities at the beginning of the 20th century still suffered from the reverberations of slavery; the Great Migration out of the Old South and into the industrialized North with its promising opportunities had not settled these problems.

In this paper, I want to examine jazz music and its function within the thematic frame of the story. Since history is of great importance in the novel, it is necessary to comprehensively outline the historical background of the story, which reaches from the late years of slavery up to the artistic blossom during the Harlem Renaissance. The development of the jazz culture then serves as a starting point for the analysis of musical elements in the novel. This embraces structural as well as stylistic parallels and also comments on the function of the unconventional narrator. The focus then turns to the main characters of the story, Joe and Violet Trace, to the problems they have with themselves and their marriage and the solution the author offers. Toni Morrison suggests that the problems of alienation and loss of identity result from a missing connection of past and present. A stable identity must be rooted in history, so the denial of one’s origin is a dangerous violation of the self.

Many studies dealing with Jazz have concentrated on the way Morrison transfers musical elements into a stylistic concept, but I want to show the connection between this narrative technique and the theme of the novel. In Jazz, jazz music is used as a metaphor for African American identity in its most productive form. The music successfully fuses African heritage and American tradition and is therefore an authentic expression of the African American self.

2 The setting of the story

2.1 African Americans at the beginning of the 20th century

The story, although continuously changing in both time and place, is largely set in 1926 Harlem. Nevertheless, several childhood memories of Violet and Joe are reaching back well into the last century, and various other events of the past do seriously affect the main characters’ lives. In 1906, Joe and Violet Trace left the countryside by train in order to start a new life in New York City. In doing so, they joined a massive movement of southern Blacks moving to the industrialized cities of the North, which is known as the Great Migration. Since Reconstruction had officially been ended by the Compromise of 1877 and the withdrawal of the remaining northern troops, the conditions in the South had become largely unbearable for the freed slaves. The crop-lien system resembled an economic enslavement, leaving African Americans hardly any more prospects than during slavery. Apart from that, the Ku-Klux-Klan, founded in 1866, spread racial violence and advanced a systematic disfranchisement of the Freedmen. In 1896, social segregation was officially legalized by the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, and lynching and mob violence became an increasing threat[1]. Under social as well as economic pressure, many African Americans decided to move north hoping to find better jobs, more opportunities for education and, most importantly, a better climate of interracial relationship.

A growing awareness of the African Americans’ problems further stimulated this movement, which was mainly thanks to two outstanding personalities of racial politics, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. In this novel, Toni Morrison directly refers to both of them. What provides Violet with sufficient confidence for the adventure of moving north is the fact that Washington had been invited for dinner into the White House. Trivial as this may seem, the dinner was very important to Blacks, because “if Booker T. was sitting down to eat a chicken sandwich in the President’s house in a city called capital, (…) things must be all right, all right” (107)[2]. In spite of this rather sarcastic description, the dinner did mark a turning point in race relations, as Washington was the first African American leader who could talk on equal terms with the foremost representatives of the United States.

His accomodationist course was soon opposed by Du Bois, who believed in more active and militant means for racial uplift. At the beginning of the 20th century, segregation and racial violence was no longer a problem only of the South. The great number of Blacks in northern cities gave rise to an increasing tension between white and black citizens, as the newly developed urban landscape brought about unknown social problems and labour conflicts. Those African Americans who had left the South in order to escape racial violence, were largely disappointed, as only a few decades later, lynching and race riots also began to disrupt the peace in the cities. In response to such a development, Du Bois, along with fellow intellectuals, founded the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People[3]. This biracial organisation was working to fight segregation, racial violence and social marginalisation in order to achieve equality of conditions for black Americans. In 1917, they organised the “first major protest march in the history of the United States”[4] in response to the race riot in East St. Louis. This had been one of the most violent outbursts of white aggression, in course of which 40 African Americans were killed and about 6.000 were left homeless[5]. In Morrison’s Jazz, this incident plays an important part for the development of the story, for Dorcas’ parents are both killed in the riot. Since then, she is raised by her aunt Alice, with whom she then witnesses the protest march organised by the NAACP.

In the following years, labour shortage and inflation intensified economic as well as social problems and boosted mob violence against Blacks. The sad climax of this development was the so-called Red Summer in 1919. In a period of only several months, as much as 26 race riots erupted all over the United States, thus killing and injuring hundreds of African Americans. Race relations had become more critical than ever.

2.2 Harlem in the 1920s

So after World War I, many African Americans were left disillusioned, as they had been hoping for more racial solidarity in the aftermath of the war. Like Joe Trace, many Blacks had faithfully supported the United States during wartime and took a great pride in this contribution (cf. 129: “the coloured troops of three six nine …made me so proud it split my heart in two”). Considering the fact that the United States had exploited black people for centuries, this was by no means a matter of course. But as the riots and racial tension of the post-war period showed, America proved to be rather ungrateful. Instead of causing despair, this was perceived as a sign that it was necessary to become active in order to advance the rights of Blacks in America; racial equality would not occur on its own. Harlem then developed as the centre of this new political awareness, which was partly due to its diverse but mainly black population, but above all because of the great number of educated and socially conscious African Americans who chose to settle down in the district. Harlem therefore emerged as the political and cultural centre of America as a whole, and as such brought about new ways to respond to the continuing discrimination.

The first thing to emerge as a consequence of the political awakening of black Americans was an increase of black militancy. The Back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey was one of the most popular ways to express the increasing resignation concerning multiracial society, although this approach was followed primarily by the uneducated part of the African American population. The more sophisticated response was the development of a new racial pride in a cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Black Americans began, for the first time in their history, to overtly express a pride in their heritage and traditions, and they turned to various ways to exhibit this attitude.

The writing of literature, the composing and performing of music and the production of visual arts was no longer seen simply as an act of creativity; it was a means of “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have been so largely responsible”[6]. This citation, uttered by one of the most prominent figures and forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke, states the central motivation for the development of such a powerful cultural movement. Black Americans had entered a new state of racial confidence and felt they had to find alternative ways to refute the ancient prejudices that prevailed in America. The educated part of the African American community was convinced that they could oppose the stereotype by proving their intellectual competence; they hoped that an increased cultural output would work against the American notion of white supremacy and show that Blacks were no longer willing to accept their alleged status of an uncivilized people without culture. Many held the opinion that white Americans would not treat them as equals unless and until the former slaves proved themselves to be equal, so the importance of culture experienced a huge increase during the early 1920s. The topics that prevailed during the Harlem Renaissance reflected that feeling of marginality and alienation that African Americans were facing; these themes occurred in literature of that period as well as in arts and music. Still, the Harlem Renaissance was as diverse in its cultural expression as the people that created it.

However, what the producers of music, poetry, arts and public speeches of that time had in common was the confidence that their work could bring about a change. Literature became one of the most important means to fight stereotypes and to create a more positive perception of Blacks in the United States, and Black Music quite rapidly turned into mainstream. Musicians and artists made it their ambition to rebuild African American self esteem and racial pride by giving them a reason to be proud of their race. And the great success of Negro art seemed to prove them right: In spite of racial tensions, the white population was, for the first time, really interested in the cultural output of the former slaves. The universal recognition of African American arts during the 1920s seemed to suggest an increasing respect for black people, which boosted African American self confidence.


[1] Cf. Moore 2003, p. 12

[2] The page numbers in brackets all refer to Morrison 1992

[3] Cf. Carnes/Garrety 2006, p. 599

[4] Kubitschek 1998, p. 141

[5] Cf. Encyclopedia Britannica 2007. < >

[6] Nadell 2004, p. 38

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The importance of jazz music in Toni Morrison's "Jazz"
University of Kassel
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Toni, Morrison, Jazz
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Elena Kramer (Author), 2008, The importance of jazz music in Toni Morrison's "Jazz", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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