Jazz aesthetic form in Toni Morrison's "Jazz"

Scientific Essay, 2014

51 Pages


Table of Contents

The Musical Aesthetics of Jazz
Morrison and Jazz
Jazz and Jazz Fiction

Writing Orality: Jazz as a Talking Book
The Relationship between the Phonic and the Graphic
Speech-based Poetics

Call-and-Response as a Model for Narration
(Author)-Narratee/Narrator-(Reader) Nexus
Narrator-Character Nexus
Violet Trace’s Responsive Rememories
Joe Trace’s Signifyin(g) Response
Dorcas’ Free, Risky Play
Felice’s Love for the New Music by Okeh
Golden Gray’s Bluesy Response




Notable artists and critics embrace the belief that jazz is intrinsically African American. Like spirituals, blues and ragtime, jazz is claimed as a new style in the African American musical tradition. In terms of the black/white dichotomy, Langston Hughes explained in his 1926 short essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” the idea behind the appropriation of jazz in his work:

Jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world [...]; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.[1]

In the same year, Hughes published his first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, which drew heavily on the idiom of race music. The collection highlighted Hughes’ literary project, which was consistent with the Black cultural renaissance by deploying the culture’s central art forms—blues and jazz. In 1939, Duke Ellington wrote in America’s first jazz-specialised magazine, Down Beat, that jazz represented the collective authentic racial identity of the Negro in America, in contrast to the white-dominated genre of swing which, having grown more and more commercial, became denuded of any aesthetic and cultural authenticity:

Our aim has always been the development of an authentic Negro music, of which swing is only one element. We are not interested primarily in the playing of jazz or swing music, but in producing a genuine contribution from our race. Our music is always intended to be definitely and purely racial.[2]

Ellington’s association of jazz with race music, as well as his interest in the social and cultural dimensions of jazz, rather than solely in its aesthetic performance, propounded the ideology that black music provided a level of cohesion and unity among black people. In 1951, James Baldwin aphoristically posited in his essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” that ever since the Atlantic Passage: “It is only in his music [...] that the Negro has been able to tell his story.”[3] A decade later, in strong defence of the socio-cultural philosophy of Negro music, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka reiterated Ellington’s reflection that jazz, besides being an aesthetic creation, is “the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world.”[4] Jones/Barak[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten]refers to the cultural attitudes that African Americans developed from the first generation of African slaves to the 1960s, when he wrote his essay “Jazz and the White Critic.” In contrast to the white musician who, surprisingly, can acculturate himself to these attitudes by committing himself to learning the deep human feelings undergirding African American culture, Jones/Baraka criticises the white critic who limits himself to the musicological evaluation of the music without grasping the social and cultural dimensions of blues and jazz:

Usually the [white] critic’s commitment was first to his appreciation of the music, rather than to his understanding of the attitude which produced it. This difference meant that potential critic of jazz had only to appreciate the music, or what he thought was the music, and that he did not need to understand or even be concerned with the attitudes which produced it, except perhaps as a purely sociological consideration. [...] The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define jazz as an art (or folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy.[5] (Italics in original)

Jones/Baraka’s point about the social and cultural context and philosophy that produce Black music is consistent with his argument that an authentic historical/Black reality demarcates itself from the white mainstream culture.

Although it can be rightly argued that these artists display different artistic projects, they meet in their support of a black essentialist critique of jazz that was ardently espoused by Black Nationalist movements and their cultural and artistic wings evolving in America for more than four decades. That said, however, it is important to state that, in contradistinction to such a monoracial view of jazz as an authentic black cultural and aesthetic practice, an alternative pluralist, anti-essentialist perspective on jazz history has begun to be heard. As far back as 1925, Jamaican American journalist and historian J.A. Rogers maintained that:

Jazz is a marvel of paradox: too fundamentally human, at least as modern humanity goes, to be typically racial, too international to be characteristically national, too much abroad in the world to have a special home. And yet jazz in spite of it all is one part American and three parts American Negro, and was originally the nobody’s child of the levee and the city slum.[6]

In connection with this, Kevin Whitehead, in Why Jazz: A Concise Guide, formulates a transcontinental understanding of culture when talking about the origins of jazz:

There’s no single African or European culture, of course, but generalising can be useful. Historically, African musicians were pioneers in the field of complex rhythms, while Europeans took the lead in developing harmony: the manipulation of chords, (any combination of three or more notes which, when sounded together, Western listeners hear as one complex sound). Jazz draws heavily on both heritages, but boundaries blur. African-rooted rhythms have been Europeanized, and European harmonies have been influenced by African American blues.[7]

Whitehead’s limitation of jazz to the twofold combination of African rhythms and European harmony needs to be revised. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature tries to provide a more comprehensive enumerative description of the art:

The music that came to be called jazz emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century from the artistic meetings of elements including ragtime, marching band music, opera and other European classical musics, Native American musics, spirituals, work songs, and especially the blues.[8]

At the heart of the Norton enumeration, the Native American element is suggested to have also contributed to the development of early jazz. Duke Ellington’s sister, Ruth Ellington, once told Dave Brubeck that “All the credit’s gone to the African for the wonderful rhythm in jazz, but I think a lot of it should go to the American Indian.”[9] In fact, Native American poetess and musician Joy Harjo draws attention to the idea that the American Indian had their share in the birth of jazz:

Creek had something to do with origins of jazz. After all when the African peoples were forced here for slavery they were brought to the traditional lands of the Muscogee. Of course there was interaction between Africans and Muscogees![10]

Jazz is also Creole. When asked why he considers Jelly Roll Morton to be musically important in the cultural history of jazz, music critic and African American historian Gerald Early answers that as a Creole Morton makes clear that jazz is a mixed music that subsumes, besides the African, European, and Native ingredients, the West-Indians descendants in the Spanish, French, then English American South.[11] Musical heterogeneity is what therefore characterises the art of jazz, though first played in New Orleans’ black communities.

More interestingly, W.E.B. Du Bois, an active black intellectual during the formative years of the jazz phenomenon,[12] posits in his classical work, The Souls of Black Folk, the idea of African American music as a junction between a black aesthetic humanistic sensibility and American cultural containment. Although he calls the music “Negro folk-songs” and discusses the genre of spirituals, accentuating thereby the popular and religious dimensions as well as the ethnic authenticity of the music, he still puts it into the larger context of the American society.

[B]y fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.[13]

Du Bois emotes over the way in which the authentic characteristics of the music and the historical predicament of African Americans enable them to develop and provide an essentially distinctive artistic and cultural production to the whole nation. The cultural penetration of African American music into American society presupposes an ultimate dynamic interaction whereby the two cultures undergo novel cultural transformations that result in hybrid musical forms. This transformative process is, in fact, discursively noticed in Du Bois’ tracing of black people’s musical presence and evolution in America as well as of white people’s music being influenced by black songs. In respect to blacks, he speaks of African music, then Afro-American music which he specifies as the “blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land” and as the music that mixes “elements [that] are both Negro and Caucasian” and in respect to whites, he speaks of the incorporation of “whole phrases of Negro melody” into their songs.[14] In What Is This Thing Called Jazz, Eric Porter argues that Du Bois’ discussion of spirituals implies both authenticity and hybridity,[15] which is understood as the upshot of the undeniably objective material and cultural presence of Africans in America. To Du Bois, the question of authenticity is pointed up with a view to using it as an ideological platform to resist white-centric cultural hegemony. But if, as Alain Locke recognises, that “[i]n the very process of being transported, the Negro is becoming transformed,”[16] one may likewise admit that White Americans also experience mutual intermingling cultural transformations by entering into contact with nonwhite cultures. Therefore, the model of hybridity is all there is left when two peoples, or more, of foreign cultures act together.

In the light of such model, Toni Morrison’s appropriation of the vernacular tradition of jazz music in the novel Jazz is informed by the interplay of ethnocultural essentialism and anti-essentialism. She employs jazz as a concurrent cultural metaphor for blackness and American diversity. That is, the black art form of jazz can stand both as monoracial and poly-ethnic cultural expression. She draws on jazz as an authentic vernacular to recast the cultural history of African Americans through the revision of the Jazz Era that she remaps as a site of aesthetic and cultural crossover. The multiple allusions to musicians and records in the novel, mostly left purposefully fictive, suggest the multicultural musical reality of jazz. While we can interpret some references to the Slim Bates’ Ebony Keys band or the bluesman with a peg leg—calling to mind Arthur Peg Leg Sam Jackson—as black musicians, the Okeh label refers to the white music record company. Even the title of the “Trombone Blues” record denotes the appropriation of a European instrument by an African American musical style. Thus, the novel underlines the multicultural environment within which jazz first emerged. African American jazz musician William “Billy” Taylor delivered in 1985 an address to the Black American Music Symposium with the telling title “Jazz, America’s Classical Music.” Confirming the fact that it is the distinctive articulation of African American consciousness, Taylor describes jazz an American creation that expresses American feelings and thoughts and translates the American ideals of personal freedom and democracy.[17] In echo to Du Bois’ point about the gift of the Negro music to the American nation, Taylor reiterates the idea that jazz is the contribution of African Americans to the national musical repertoire.

In much the same way, Morrison takes the music’s aesthetic hybridity to stimulate the American cultural and historical memory and, at the same time, to accent the cultural hybridity of African American identity. In Morrison’s oeuvre, African Americans are part and parcel of the national cultural make-up. In a conversation with Angels Carabi, for example, she explains that the period of the 1920s, which witnessed dramatic social, economic, political and cultural change, particularly in respect to African Americans, was somehow partially defined by mainstream hegemony. The era that came to be known in American cultural and literary history as the Jazz Age excluded, Morrison argues, “the people who enabled the core and the shape of the period [...and] whose culture was evolving different things and being constantly invented and improvised.”[18] Morrison revises and recovers the period of the 1920s, which constitutes the central temporal setting of the novel, to claim cultural recognition. In the same conversation, she clarifies that

Black music’s always called something—spiritual, gospel, jazz, boogies-woogie, bop, bebop, rap—but it’s never called music, for example twentieth century music, modern music. [...] White critics, in general, claim [black music] as American, which it is, but it’s almost as though it was made with their culture, and so black people have no part in it, except marginally, to provide the music.[19] (Italics in original)

Morrison’s demand for cultural recognition is sought to repair the cultural damage done to African Americans as well as to all Americans; for it is important to restore historical probity if society wants to evolve and move forward with sure steps towards multicultural rapprochement.

By this token, Morrison seems to deploy a black aesthetic essentialism, not in affiliation with the Afrocentric project, but in challenge to wilful cultural marginalisation and forgetfulness. The1920s, she believes, “began to be the moment when black culture, rather than American culture, began to alter the whole country and eventually the western world.”[20] That said, however, it is important to argue that Morrison’s return to a black tradition is not a fall into essentialism, but a strategic manoeuvre towards the potential advantages of cultural diversity and plural aesthetic participation. If the meaning of jazz lies in the process of improvisation upon tradition, it is reasonable to assert that Morrison’s appropriation of jazz for the recuperation of black tradition is legitimately creative. First, in the sense she recovers the African American cultural identity and history; second, in the sense she incorporates the (black) art of jazz into the (white) art of fiction, contributing both to the black and white literary culture; and third, ensuing from the two previous elements, in the sense she suggests that jazz cannot be restricted within a closed tradition for it opens up onto a larger web of receptions, understandings and experiences. The musical characteristic of open-endedness is a most proper embodiment of the tradition’s openness and open-endedness. As William Sweet asserts in his study of the dialogue between philosophy and tradition:

[T])radition itself is open-ended. New experience may, for example, allow us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the tradition of which we are members; it may even force us to go back and ‘reinterpret’ that tradition. The occurrence of novelty and change does not mean that traditions have to be abandoned.[21]

Sweet’s assertion amply corresponds to Early’s thoughtful observation that “Jazz […] can’t exist solely as being tradition. It also has to innovate. Innovation is its tradition.”[22] Morrison’s reading of jazz as cultural practice, which simultaneously covers a cultural authenticity and a cultural diversity that correspond to the double accommodation of essentialism and anti-essentialism, enables her to reach new zones where the concept of tradition becomes synonymous with revision, modification, innovation and renewal.

When Morrison explores jazz music in terms of literary appropriation, she works, in fact, within two aesthetically distinct traditions: the tradition of (black) music and the tradition of (black/white) literature(s), which, eventually, merge through what can be termed, in respect to fiction, as the musical turn of the novel. The examples abound in modern American literature in its black and white parts. Arguably, Morrison speaks of her deliberate attempt “to rest on what could be generally agreed-upon as characteristics of jazz”[23] to impart in the novel the paraphernalia of jazz music, namely improvisation, call-and-response, repetition with revision, syncopation, polyrhythmicality, and open-endedness. In a conversation with Nellie McKay in 1983, Morrison spoke of her project to “recreate something out of an old art form in [her] books—the something that defines what makes a book ‘black’”, adding that “that has nothing to do with whether the people in the books are black or not.” It appears, in this respect, that Morrison has not been seeking an essentialist conception of African American literature, but involved herself in a search for a personal style “that has probably only been fully expressed perhaps in music.”[24]

The Musical Aesthetics of Jazz

Morrison and Jazz

When talking about the influences upon her writing, Morrison talks of black music. In several interviews, she repeats how in her own family “music was everywhere and all around” and how “they played music in the house all the time.” Her maternal grandfather was a violinist, her mother played piano in silent-movie theatre and sang opera and jazz, and her elder son is a flutist, guitar player, and sound engineer. Music, then, has always been a pervasive presence in her familial surroundings.[25]

Though not a trained musician or musicologist as Ralph Ellison was, Morrison worked in close association with musicians. She was commissioned to write several song cycles and librettos: Honey and Rue and Four Songs for Soprano, Cello, and Piano with music by André Previn, and Sweet Talk, Spirits in the Well together with the Beloved-inspired opera, Margaret Garner, with Richard Danielpour.[26] Morrison also wrote the lyrics of a musical about the origins of jazz in Storyville in 1917 entitled New Orleans that she eventually produced herself.[27] Morrison’s tendency to work with professional musicians is surely not to be taken as compensation for her inability to follow the example of her mother in playing music and singing or for her inability to realise her dream of becoming a dancer,[28] a vocation usually closely related to music; but rather, it is to be explained as a conscientious interest in the various possibilities that the expressive art of music can provide. She admits on several occasions that music is “an art form that opens doors, rather than closes them.”[29] It is this belief in the wide-ranging richness of music that, in part, accounts for her “efforts [as a novelist] [...] to be like something that has probably only been fully expressed perhaps in music.”[30]

Corroborating the approach to writing through sound, as in Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, or Alice Walker,[31] Toni Morrison speaks of her “efforts to make aural literature—A-U-R-A-L—work because [she] do[es] hear it. It has to be read in silence and [...] it has to sound [...] right.”[32] While writing, Morrison seems to summon up the aural quality of language so as to check for the auditory effects she wants to convey to herself first, then by extension, to readers. When once asked to reveal what her next, new novel would be about, she answered with an analogy to a musician who would silently rehearse her piece of music before final composition: “I have a sort of novel that’s humming in my earlobes.”[33] What is important to her is “to make the story appear oral, meandering, effortless, [and] spoken.”[34] It is true that all her fictions—experiments on the oral/aural mode in literary production—are informed by the characteristics of music, beside those of folk storytelling and vernacular speech.

Morrison’s attachment to music is explained by the presence of music in African American culture. As it is known, African American culture characterises itself, among other features, by its emphasis on music. In the oft-cited conversation with Paul Gilroy, “Living Memory,” Morrison praises the nourishing power of black music: “Black Americans were sustained and healed and nurtured by the translation of their experience into art, above all in the music.”[35] Beyond doubt, ever since their early forced settlement in colonial America to their present day reality in the contemporary U.S., African Americans have vocalised their social conditions, in the main, through music. For example, work songs and Negro spirituals during slavery provided African Americans with palliative manoeuvres against the plantocratic burdens of overwork and injustice, as blues and jazz offered them, respectively, psychic relief from post-bellum running racism and new hopes for social and cultural integration. In short, music was used to support the resisting values of black bonding.[36]

However, following massive black urbanisation throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, music began losing its potential as a defining characteristic of cultural blackness. Jazz, for example, coinciding with the newly rising modern American metropolitan culture, with its sweeping market thrust and entertainment industry, was hailed as America’s first national modern art form and, was, therefore, expropriated from its dominantly black southern origins. And the same is true for other subsequent musical forms, such as gospel, funk, R&B, and rap. Morrison senses the need for the art of the novel as a viable alternative to the music whose socio-cultural roles and functions have been obscured. She acknowledges in her critical essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” that

[Black] music is no longer exclusively ours; we don’t have exclusive rights to it. Other people sing it and play it; it is the mode of contemporary music everywhere. So another form has to take that place, and it seems to me that the novel is needed by African Americans now in a way that it was not needed before [...]. We don’t live in places where we can hear those stories anymore; parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological archetypal stories that we heard years ago. But new information has got to get out, and there are several ways to do it. One is in the novel.[37] (Italics in original)

In an interview in 1985, Morrison acclaims the contemporary African American novel for its centrally effective cultural and aesthetic expressiveness, suggesting that it can take up the role of keeping the black communities conscious and alive, as music used to do before. However, she has not dispensed with music as either a structural or a symbolic element in her fiction. She admits that “a novel written a certain way [using the aural/oral and compositional qualities of music, beside those of folk storytelling and vernacular speech] can do precisely what spirituals used to do [or] [...] what blues or jazz [...] did.”[38]

Morrison’s cultural and aesthetic appropriation of jazz follows what African American music historian and critic Samuel A. Floyd identifies as the black musical concept of Call-Response,[39] through which Morrison tries to represent the community-oriented perspective of black culture by distinguishing it from Western tradition. The latter has been predicated on the assumption of the authority of the artist as an individual maker, able to create a self-contained, finished work of art. Such assumption is supported by the salient compositional technique of the finale in mainstream classical music which goes hand in hand with Western logics of causation and finality. In her reflections on white and black representative styles of music, Morrison observes that

Classical music satisfies and closes. Black music does not do that. Jazz always keeps you on the edge. There is no final chord. There may be a long chord, but no final chord. And it agitates you. Spirituals agitates you [...]. There is always something else that you want from the music.[40]

It is this yearning for something else, this expectancy for what is next, and this open, unfinished character of the black music that she imports into her craft of fiction. With admiration and respect, Morrison reiterates her aim to reflect the performance mood of music in her books: “[Lena] Horne and [Aretha] Franklin [...] have the ability to make you want it, and remember the want. That is a part of what I want to put in my books. They will never fully satisfy—never fully.”[41] In the Bakerman interview in 1977 Morrison reveals she “doesn’t necessarily start at the beginning of the book” since “she always knows the endings before she starts”[42] (italics in original). The same point is repeated in respect to Jazz (1992). Asked if she always knows where she is going in terms of plot, Morrison answers that she “wrote the end of Jazz very early.”[43]

Such predictable contriving of endings shows Morrison’s reluctance to provide her stories with an end in accordance with the traditional Western notions of linear process. Instead, she articulates her desire to return to the atavistic notion of time as circular, with no sense of beginning or end. Her second novel Sula (1973) is a clear illustration of her resistance to closure. The “ending” of this tale is a sort of antiphonal non-conclusion as thoughts about the moral standing of the two protagonists are left impartially inconclusive. From the point of view of the narrator, “it was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles of sorrow.”[44] Morrison’s unexpected “endings” are, on the whole, wrought to produce the impression that there is always something else not told and that the artistic product is not a finished entity but a perpetual variant or happening that never satisfies, as in jazz.

Call and response[45] is another vital antiphonic musical property that Morrison incorporates in her musical model for writing, and this functions to establish communication between players and between players and audience. In the view of Craig Hansen Werner, call and response is “a process that, by admitting diverse voices and experiences, supports a more inclusive critique than any individual analysis.”[46] Morrison repeatedly identifies the participatory quality between book and reader as one of the prominent defining qualities of her novels. Her compositional strategy is to leave something for the reader to fill in. Her novels, left open-ended, accentuate in a Barthesian sense the writerly quality that both asks for and encourages the participatory process of readers in the very act of reading. “In the same way that a musician’s music is enhanced where there is a response from the audience,”[47] Morrison’s books release their conversational, communal quality as readers find wide margins for participatory readings and interpretations. Stressing the writer-reader interaction, Morrison claims in interview with Claudia Tate in 1983 that her writing

[D]emands participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s just not about telling a story; it’s about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even some of the color, some of the sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it. He or she can feel something visceral, see something striking. Then we (you, the reader, and I, the author) come together to make this book, to feel this experience. It doesn’t matter what happens.[48]

It is clear that the participatory literary experience of the reader does not entail the latter’s absolute control over the story of the writer; but rather, it refers to a synergistic operation through which both writer and reader come to form a communal bond of knowing, experiencing and sharing. Most often, Morrison describes this totally communal relationship between the writer and the reader in terms of a sacred choral union, “like the musical experience of participation in church.”[49]

Apart from the open, unfinished character of black music and the call-and-response pattern, improvisation is a property that Morrison adapts to her method of writing. Commonly related to various specifically black musical forms as spirituals, blues, ragtime and, most of all, jazz, improvisation[50] involves the double and simultaneous action of creating music while performing it. Both as an aesthetic practice and mode of being, improvisation represents a quintessential aspect of African American culture that distinguishes it from the paradigm of hierarchy as existing in the Western culture.[51] In classical music concerts, for instance, the conductor, usually holding a baton, unilaterally leads the orchestra’s musicians in the performance of the composer’s written score. In complete contrast to this hierarchical relation between composer, conductor and musicians, which tellingly parallels the political, economic and social power relations, jazz improvisers predicate their performance on the individual-cum-band spontaneous and dynamic interaction wherein no single musician “dominate[s] the whole performance.”[52] Critic Stanley Crouch relates the jazz performers’ aesthetics of improvisation to the African American aspiration for individual freedom, mutual commitment and social democracy:

The demands on the respect for the individual in the jazz band put democracy into aesthetic action. Each performer must bring technical skill, imagination, and the ability to create coherent statements through improvised interplay with the rest of musicians. […] The improvising jazz musician must work right in the heat and passion of the moment, giving form and order in a mobile environment, where choices must be constantly assessed and reacted to in one way or another. The success of jazz is a victory for democracy.[53]

Similarly, Gilroy identifies improvisation’s dialogic, antiphonal nature as “a democratic, communitarian moment [...] which symbolises and anticipates [...] new, non-dominating social relationships.”[54] It is this egalitarian, social quality of improvisation, which is defined as the call and response technique that Morrison deploys in Jazz and in other novels. By structuring her narratives in ways that enhance improvisation, Morrison asks and encourages the maximal involvement of the reader. “What I really want,” she claims, “is that intimacy in which the reader is under the impression that he isn’t really reading this [the book’s story]; that he is participating in it as he goes along.”[55]

It is clear that Morrison’s valuation of improvisation as an incredible means of democratic freedom[56] does not part with the notion of true jazz improvisation as a practice that necessitates much learning and training. As several musicologists have claimed, the improvised performances of a Louis Armstrong or a Tiny Davis or a John Coltrane are possible only after the disciplined mastery of musical communication. Though this is true, Morrison acknowledges that black people are always interested in making things appear as if direct and new. When Alan Rice observes, in his conversation with her, that jazz virtuoso John Coltrane practises for hours and hours every day so that his performances appear spontaneous, Morrison claims that

People do it in sport. It’s all style and effortless gesture. And I like to write like that, as though it were a whole clause. When I do it right it looks artless and it looks like it’s not-writerly, non-writerly.[57]

It is the use of this kind of improvisation as a natural, effortless creative act that allows Morrison to inscribe the au/oral, writerless quality of jazz improvisation in her writing.

A further salient quality of jazz, which is closely related to improvisation, involves the use of repetition and variation. According to The Harvard Dictionary of Music, the technique of variation is a process of improvisation that implies the repetition of a simple musical melody in a revised, modified form, and the technique of repetition, which entails revision, is a process of musical composition that consists of replicating in an identical form a melodic motif, theme or phrase.[58] In his discussion of the notion of signifyin(g) in connection to the black musical tradition in jazz compositions, Gates links repetition and revision with improvisation. He defines improvisation as “‘nothing more’ than repetition and revision;” it is a masterful “‘modification of ideas.’” Gates’ definition, which is predicated on his general vernacular theory of signifyin(g), highlights the fact that improvised music does in no way signify the absence of revision, variation and repetition of already used material. They are one whole process. Drawing on Zora Neale Hurston’s consideration of imitation and mimicry, which she fuses with originality, as one major aspect of great art, Gates argues that repetition, revision and variation characterise all modern art, including music.[59] In line with this specific understanding of improvisation, Morrison seems to associate the act of revisiting, revising and appropriating existing traditions—both vernacular and Euro-American—with the predicating effortlessness of the writing method and style. She tells Gilroy: “All the work [...] must go into improvisation so that it appears that you’ve never touched it. [...] it must have the ability to use found objects, the appearance of using found things, and it must look effortless.[60] This ‘effortless-looking use of found objects/things’ implies, among other things, the masterful repetition and revision of not only the Anglo-American language which is transformed by the Black vernacular into a liberation means of expression, as Alan Rice explains,[61] but also the literary genre of the novel—both in the Western and Black traditions. All her oeuvre can be read as external signification on the mainstream tools and tropes, as well as internal signification on African American cultural and artistic practices.

Morrison also appears to include the musical elements of polyrhythm and syncopation in her method of writing. Often associated with polymeter, cross-rhythm or rhythmic conflicts, polyrhythm refers to the simultaneous production or alternating combination of two or more independent rhythms in a musical composition.[62] The contrasting and overlapping rhythmic patterns of polyrhythm reflect the musicians’ act of playing against each other with a view to the creation of an antiphonal, yet complementary and communal, musical form. The musicians seek to communicate out of rhythmical differences. More than that, the technique of polyrhythm helps produce sounds that are fresh, dynamic and unpredictable. Not unlike polyrhythm, syncopation in music refers to a variety of rhythms that are normally unexpected as they are irregular. Instead of the neat succession of strong and weak beats, syncopation shows stress where an unstressed beat is expected and vice versa. In Music: In Theory and Practice, Benward and Saker state that “if a part of the measure that is usually unstressed is accented, the rhythm is considered to be syncopated.”[63] Syncopation, thus, like polyrhythm, produces musical effects that enhance uncertainty, surprise, excitement and variation. Though the two techniques are encountered in Western music—both classical and popular—as complex rhythms, they have their origins more in the African roots of the African American musical tradition than in orthodox Western music which is, in the main, more linear and regular. Being omnipresent in the various black forms of music, such as ring shout, work songs, spirituals, blues and jazz, the two techniques are re-rendered in Morrison so as to keep roots in the black cultural and aesthetic traditions.

Jazz and Jazz Fiction

Informed in aesthetic and thematic ways by the musical form of jazz, jazz fiction is one of the generic developments that African American literature has incorporated. In his introduction to the jazz fiction anthology, From Blues to Bop, Richard N. Albert defines jazz fiction as:

[n]ovels and short fiction [...] that are infused with the spirit of jazz music and jazz musicians and the jazz ambience created by the music and its participants (players and listeners) to the degree that jazz becomes more than a secondary or tertiary element. The theme of a jazz story must depend heavily on the music, the musician, and/or the jazz atmosphere. The story must do more than have a scene in a jazz club, or a secondary character who happens to be a musician, or references to jazz musicians or jazz tunes. Rather, the story must have a plot line that depends heavily on the jazz setting or a theme that evolves from the jazz musician characters—their lifestyles, their involvement in the jazz scene, the difficulty of the music and their dedication to mastering it and extending it, their struggles to cope with all of the complications that life as a jazz musician presents [...] jazz can also produce its own humor and may have a lighter side, though it is less clearly revealed.[64]

Following Albert’s definition, one might argue that Morrison’s Jazz cannot be subsumed under the genre of jazz fiction. Unlike a good number of novels,[65] Morrison’s book, though entitled ‘Jazz’, does not contain any narrative material that is structured around musician characters or big musical scenes. Salman Rushdie has noted in an interview with Morrison that “music in the novel [...] is peripheral.”[66] Though this may be true, jazz-inflected tropes, references, and narrative structure indicate that music provides strong backbone to the novel’s composition. In Jazz in American Culture, Peter Townsend reminds us that Morrison “has spoken of jazz as an analogy for her art as a novelist.”[67] Morrison, in fact, reiterates in all her conversations about her novel that jazz functions as a technique and a compositional method rather than as a substantive topic. She states that it is a “jazz gesture [...] a book about the process of its own constructions,” [68] that its “jazz-like structure wasn’t a secondary thing for [her]—it was the raison d’être of the book”[69] and that she “was deliberately trying to rest on what could be generally agreed-upon as characteristics of jazz.”[70] These statements pointedly sum up Morrison’s experimentation with fiction deploying aspects of jazz as an aesthetic model for writing. This is seen in her adoption of the jazz melody pattern, also called head or theme, to the story’s narrative line. Morrison “wanted the story to be the vehicle which moved us from page one to the end; but [she] wanted the delight to be found in moving away from the story and coming back to it, looking around it, and through it, as though it were a prism, constantly turning.”[71]

Equally important, the novel Jazz, set in Harlem in 1926, is metonymic of the era of the Jazz Age, which Morrison wants to reclaim from F. Scott Fitzgerald.[72] From the black perspective, the Jazz Age combined black people’s desire for freedom and prosperity in the context of Reconstruction as well as their dashed hopes. In one of her speeches about the novel, Morrison explains that black people during that era

[H]ad to stay alert to political changes, because [they] never knew what people (whites) were going to do at any moment. So [they] had to be always on guard and be able to adjust quickly.[73]

Emphatically, Morrison interprets black people’s double situation of hope and disappointment as a corollary to the formation of a new evolving strategic consciousness reflecting black people’s need for survival through constant inventiveness and expedience. Musically speaking, this strategic consciousness finds embodiment in the new music of jazz that is characterised, in the main, by contrivance and improvisation.[74]

Morrison counters the views that decline to see any correspondence between music and prose fiction. A graphic instance of the declining views is Alan Munton who claims, in his article “Misreading Morrison, Mishearing Jazz,” that since “[l]anguage and music do not ‘signify’ in the same way [...] jazz and fiction should be kept separate.”[75] Munton’s refusal to admit any mimetic relationship between music and literature is impaired by the fact that in all civilisations the art of poetry has always been a synthetic artistic practice fusing language and music. Rather than being simply based on verbal or linguistic systems, poetry also rests on sound systems that involve rhythm, tonality, tempo and pitch, all of which are necessarily employed in the descriptive terminology of music, contrary to what Munton suggests. Again, for Munton,

An historical justification for this [separation between jazz as music and fiction as language] is that early African American music, out of which aspects of jazz eventually emerged, was the lived alternative to a literacy suppressed by slavery.[76]

Ironically enough, Munton’s historical explanation is deflated by the ahistorical, diachronic reasoning that separates the musical and the literary or verbal. It is true that due to the exclusion of the great majority of African Americans from the rights of literacy during slavery, as well as after, music as a mode of communication outpaced the power of words—whether spoken or written, as Paul Gilroy explains in The Black Atlantic.[77] But, since illiteracy has become an anachronism for the great majority of African Americans in the present, music cannot always be understood as the only medium of black artistic expression. Music can contribute to the enrichment of literary expression as can language help achieve the refinement of musical expressivity through song. According to Kimberly W. Benston, for example, black speech would change into music when succeeding in speaking the truth about the social experience of African Americans. She believes that language “passes into music when it attains the maximal pitch of its being […and] when truly apprehended aspires to the condition of music.”[78] In such a fashion, literature and music have mutually appropriated each other’s tools. Morrison’s close work with musicians is a case in point.

Along these lines, the majority of critics read Jazz within the compass of a jazz aesthetics and put emphasis in their analyses on the powerful presence of the basic jazz forms. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. links the narrative line of the novel to jazz patterns, comparing the use of narrative structure to Duke Ellington’s jazz compositions. The novel’s structuring principle makes the story appears as if it were playing jazz pieces. He explains that:

Both Joe and Felice’s control of the narrative are marked by quotations, markers that the narrator has allowed them to speak, in their own voices; in the same way, Duke Ellington’s jazz compositions were the first that were constructed, or scored, for his individual musicians and their peculiar timbres, their particular sounds.[79]

In the same way, Eusebio L. Rodrigues claims that Morrison’s Jazz employs a loose fluid non-Aristotelian experimental structure that resembles the form of a jazz composition. He observes that:

The first few pages, like a twelve-bar jazz ‘tune’ or set melody, tell in summary the whole story of Violet and Joe and Dorcas, a story repeated and modulated at the end by that of Violet and Joe and Felice […]. In between the beginning and the end are amplifications, with improvisations, variations and solo statements, a virtuoso display of jazz play.[80]


[1] Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 1270. First published in The Nation, 23 June 1926.

[2] Duke Ellington, “Duke Says Swing Is Stagnant,” quoted in Eric Porter, What is This thing Called Jazz: African American as Artists, Critics, and Activities (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 1.

[3] James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” in Gates and McKay, The Norton Anthology, 1639.

[4] Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), “Jazz and the White Critic,” in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 138.

[5] Ibid., 138-9.

[6] J.A. Rogers, “Jazz at Home,” The Survey, 1 March 1925. <http://www.unz.org/Pub/TheSurvey-1925mar01-00665< (14 March 2013).

[7] Kevin Whitehead, Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 19.

[8] Gates and McKay, The Norton Anthology, 55.

[9] Gene Lees, Cats of any Color: Jazz Black and White (Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 2000), 39-40.

[10] Robin Riley Fast, The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry (The Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 160.

[11] Gerald Early, “Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns,” 13 May 1996, <http://www.pbs.org/jazz/about/pdfs/Early.pdf< (12 July 2013).

[12] Du Bois gave focus to spirituals rather than to jazz as the latter was still in its inception.

[13] W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 168. First published in New York: Bantam Classic, 1903.

[14] Ibid., 171.

[15] Porter, What Is This Thing, 1.

[16] Alain Locke, “The New Negro,” in Gates and McKay, The Norton Anthology, 963. First published in New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.

[17] William “Billy” Taylor, “Jazz, America’s Classical Music,” The Black Perspective In Music 14, no. 1, Special Issue: Black American Music Symposium 1985 (Winter 1986): 21.

[18] Angels Carabi, “Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Speaks about Her Novel Jazz/1993,” in Toni Morrison: Conversation, ed. Carolyn C. Denard (Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 2008), 92-3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] William Sweet, “Philosophy, Culture, and the Future of Tradition,” in Dialogue between Christian Philosophy and Chinese Culture, eds. Paschal Ting, Marian Gao and Bernard Li (Taipei: Fu Jen University, 2002), 66.

[22] Early, “Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns.”

[23] Sheldon Hackney, “‘I Come from People Who Sang All the Time’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison/1996,” in Denard, Toni Morrison: Conversations, 126.

[24] Nellie McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison/1983,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, ed. Danille Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 1994), 153 and 152.

[25] Betty Fussell, “All That Jazz/1992” and Dana Micucci, “An Inspired Life: Toni Morrison Writes and a Generation Listens/1992,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations, 286, 275 and 281.

[26] Valerie Smith, Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 17.

[27] Fussell, “All That Jazz,” 286.

[28] Jones and Vinson, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations,179, 183-5; Fussell, “All That Jazz,” 284.

[29] Stepto, “Intimate Things in Place,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations, 28.

[30] McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” 152.

[31] Saadi A. Siwame, Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison (New York: Garland, 2000), xxi.

[32] Christina Davis, “An Interview with Toni Morrison/1986,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations, 230.

[33] Jones and Vinson, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,”185.

[34] Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margin, ed. Carolyn C. Denard (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 59.

[35] Paul Gilroy, “Living Memory: A Meeting with Toni Morrison,” in Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures, Paul Gilroy (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1993), 181.

[36] LeClair, “The Language Must Not Sweat,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations, 121.

[37] Morrison, “Rootedness,” 57-58.

[38] Jones and Vinson, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,”183.

[39] Samuel A. Floyd, “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry,” Black Music Research Journal 11, no. 2 (Autumn 1991): 276-277. It is worth pointing out Floyd’s footnote clarification that “Call-Response must not be confused with call-and-response. The latter is a musical device, but Call-Response is [...] a musical principle, a dialogical musical rhetoric under which are subsumed all the musical tropological devices, including call-and-response” 155. Also, it is to be noted that the principle of Call-Response as a cultural and aesthetic practice of Black American vernacular is not exclusively related to music; it characterizes, besides musical performances, black common speech, the art of storytelling, songs, and sermons. For my analysis of Morrison whose novel rests in its aesthetics upon the characteristics of jazz, I borrow the concept of Call-Response that Floyd develops in relation to the dancing-singing phenomenon of the ring shout because the latter contains all the subsequent defining elements of black music, jazz included.

[40] McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” 155.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Jane Bakerman, “The Seams Can’t Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison/1977,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations, 32.

[43] Elissa Schappell, “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction/ 1992,” in Denard, Toni Morrison: Conversations, 80.

[44] Toni Morrison, Sula (1973; repr., New York: Plume, 1982), 174. If ever Morrison’s stories seem to close, it is out of editorial obligation.

[45] It is worth mentioning that the pattern of call and response is not exclusive to music since other non-musical, verbal practices, namely sermons, storytelling and speech are informed by the technique.

[46] Craig Hansen Werner, “Jazz: Morrison and the Music of Tradition,” in Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, eds. Nellie Y. McKay and Kathryn Earle (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997), 86.

[47] Morrison, “Rootedness,” 59.

[48] Claudia Tate, “Toni Morrison/1983,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations, 164.

[49] Charles Ruas, “Toni Morrison/1981,” in Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations, 101.

[50] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 63-64; Jon Panish, The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), xvii. It is noteworthy to state that improvisation in music is not solely connected with the African American music, as it is commonly held. For, music all the world over has always been purely improvisational. Even though the repeated usage, customs, rules, and traditions, all the music was in one way or another improvised, before any system of (musical) writing saw light, and in many cultures it always exists. Indian music, Balinese, ragas, Chinese, Japanese, Arab, though considered folkloric, are also classical genres.

[51] It is to be noted that in Western music, there are some exceptions to this paradigm; for example, in the 17th and 18th cc. Baroque concertos, some parts in the score were left in the blank for the musician had thus to improvise. Also, many genres of Western classical music were improvisatory in origin: preludes, toccatas, and some fantasies.

[52] Hackney, “‘I Come from People Who Sang All the Time’,” 126.

[53] Stanley Crouch, “Blues to Be Constitutional: A Long Look at the Wild Wherefores of Our Democratic Lives as Symbolized in the Making of Rhythm and Tune,” in O’Meally, The Jazz Cadence, 161.

[54] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1995), 79.

[55] Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in Denard, ed., Toni Morrison: What Moves, 78.

[56] Micucci, “An Inspired Life,” 275.

[57] Alan Rice, “‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing:’ Jazz’s Many Uses For Toni Morrison,” in Siwame, Black Orpheus, 166 and 171.

[58] Don Michael Randel, ed., The Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 938 and 716.

[59] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 63-64 and 118.

[60] Gilroy, “Living Memory,” 181.

[61] Alan Rice, Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic (New York: Continuum, 2003), 170.

[62] Randel, The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 646.

[63] Bruce Beward and Marilyn Saker, Music in Theory and Practice, Vol. 1, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 12.

[64] Richard N. Albert, ed., From Blues to Bop: A Collection of Jazz Fiction (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University, 1990), 1-2.

[65] Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter (1930), Julian Street’s “The Jazz Baby” (1936), Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn (1938), Eudora Welty’s “Powerhouse” (1941), J.F. Powers’ “He Don’t Plant Cotton” (1947), Elliot Grennard’s Sparrow’s Last Jump (1948), Ralph Ellison’s “Coupla Scalped Indians” (1956), James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), Ross Russell’s The Sound (1961), Amiri Baraka’s ”The Screamers” (1967), Toni Cade Bambara’s “Medley” (1977), Donald Barthelme’s “The King of Jazz” (1979), Willard Manus’s “Hello Central, Give Me Doctor Jazz” (1989), Phil Kawana’s “Dead Jazz Guys” (1999), Jack Fuller’s The Best of Jackson Payne (2001) and Wanda Coleman’s “Jazz at Twelve” (2007).

[66] Salman Rushdie, “An Interview with Toni Morrison/1992,” in Denard, Toni Morrison: Conversations, 51.

[67] Peter Townsend, Jazz in American Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 144.

[68] Christopher Bigsby, “Jazz Queen,” The Independent, 26 April 1992, sec. 28.

[69] Schappell, “Toni Morrison,”81.

[70] Hackney, “I Come from People,” 126.

[71] Schappell, “Toni Morrison,” 80.

[72] Ann Hostetler, “Interview with Toni Morrison: ‘The Art of Teaching’/2002,” in Denard, Toni Morrison: Conversations, 204.

[73] Carabi, “Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison,” 93.

[74] Hackney, “I Come from People,” 127.

[75] Alan Munton, “Misreading Morrison, Mishearing Jazz: A Response to Toni Morrison’s Jazz Critics,” Journal of American Studies 31, no. 2 (1997): 251.

[76] Ibid., 251.

[77] Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 76.

[78] Kimberly W. Benston, Performing Blackness: Enactments of African American Modernism (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 416.

[79] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Review of Jazz,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Anthony Appiah (New York: Amistad Press, 1993), 53-54.

[80] Eusebio L. Rodrigues, “Experiencing Jazz,” in Toni Morrison, ed. Linden Peach (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 155-156.

Excerpt out of 51 pages


Jazz aesthetic form in Toni Morrison's "Jazz"
University of Nottingham  (School of Canadian and American Studies)
American Studies
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ISBN (Book)
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Toni Morrison, essentialism, anti-essentialism, jazz, fiction, race, gender, aesthetics
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Mohamed Sghir Syad (Author), 2014, Jazz aesthetic form in Toni Morrison's "Jazz", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/318632


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