the lyricism of toni morrison’s jazz

The lyricism of music captured beautifully in a novel and a culture

For many of us, there’s something about music that no other art form can replicate – a feeling or a sensation that’s hard to put into words. Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz gets about as close to that experience as possible, with a lyrical prose style that reads like listening to a Charlie Parker track.

Jazz is the story of Violet and Joe Trace, a married couple whose lives fall apart when Joe has an affair with, and later kills, the 17-year-old Dorcas. Set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, the novel explores the personal implications of this pivotal period in black history by following its characters back and forth through time with their different experiences. Jazz music, which originated in African American communities and experienced a creative explosion at this time, is defined by its swinging rhythms, complicated chord progressions, improvisational licks and ‘call-and-response’ vocal techniques. Morrison incorporates these musical motifs into her descriptive prose, particularly in describing the landscape of ‘The City’, which the reader understands to be New York:

‘I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it.’

The language in this passage swings up and down through spatial indicators: the narrative travels quickly from the ‘top half’ to the shadows ‘below’, drawing a contrast between ‘the bright steel rocking above the shade’.

This sense of continual movement up and down lends a rhythm to the prose, and the exclamation ‘hep’ makes the passage feel somewhat improvisational. The swinging narrative is complemented by the way in which Morrison’s narrator shifts between describing different characters and time periods, never settling and always on the move.

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The entire book spans an ancestral history of its characters that goes back to pre-abolition era, exploring the fluctuating position of black Americans over time. Jazz music is endlessly reinventive, taking particular riffs and improvising on them many times over in the same song – as Tessa Roynon points out in ‘The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison’, this reflects the shifting experiences of black Americans in the 1920s having to reinvent themselves through new forms of expression in order to keep pace with modernity.

These shifts in narrative perspective also incorporate ‘call-and-response’, a technique in jazz music wherein one instrumentalist responds to another by modifying an established musical motif. Jazz interweaves multiple different stories that appear to be in conversation with one another. Towards the end of the novel, Dorcas describes the experience of her own death by positioning herself as the victim of Joe’s jealousy and rage:

‘”he’s here. Oh, look. God. He’s crying. Am I falling? Why am I falling? […] they need me to say his name so they can go after him.”’

However, the story is reframed just a few pages later by her friend Felice, who wants to draw attention to what she sees as Dorcas’ selfishness and arrogance in refusing treatment: ‘”she wouldn’t let anybody move her; said she wanted to sleep and she would be all right. Said she’d go to the hospital in the morning.”’ You can almost hear the siren song of the saxophone being quickly undercut by a heavy double bass, in two conflicting stories that, like jazz, make up the whole through contradiction and pause.

Toni Morrison’s Jazz is a revelation of lyrical prose, retroactively situating itself within the Harlem Renaissance despite being written over 70 years later. If you’re looking to get stuck into more black literature this second lockdown, Toni Morrison is a must-read for book lovers and musos alike.

MACKAYAN: Tony Morrison’s Jazz