Up at Night with Toni Morrison’s Jazz

Context: It could have been all the hours in the car over the last few days around Christmas. The family and I hit the road to visit family in Tennessee. But for whatever reason, after many hours behind the wheel, sleep just would not come tonight. So I got up in the wee hours of the night, showered and shaved, made a pot of coffee, and completed my reading of Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz.

 Introduction to the novel/plot overview: Jazz is the story of a love triangle between a 50-something-year-old man (Joe Trace), Joe’s wife (Violet), and of Joe’s mistress (Dorcas). Joe is a cosmetics salesman in 1920s Harlem. He grows bored with his wife and commits a season of adulteries with a girl young enough to be his child. Dorcas eventually breaks off the relationship with Joe. But unwilling to accept his rejection by the girl, Joe shoots Dorcas. Dorcas dies from her wounds. But Joe’s wife, Violet, harbors ire that must be expressed, and she slashes the face of the dead Dorcas at her (Dorcas’) funeral. Violet is a wife not to be underestimated.

     So a lot is going on here. Joe is a cosmetics salesman. So we have the motif of external beauty, a veneer of attractiveness, etc. And Violet is a hairdresser. Many passages in the novel are given over to describing the texture of black women’s hair, and the shocking levels of judgmentalsim black culture places upon women’s hair. And of course, Dorcas is a biblical character from Acts in the New Testament. She was raised by Peter during the apostolic era following Jesus’s bodily resurrection and ascension. Dorcas (see Acts 9) brought relief in the New Testament. Ironically in Morrison’s Jazz Dorcas not so much brings relief as she is the vessel for bringing out others’ inner demons. 

Style: It was quite clear that Morrison emulated the stream of consciousness technique of Southern gothic titan William Faulkner. It seems no one escapes Faulkner’s massive influence. Perhaps the only writer to match and arguably surpass Faulkner has been Cormac McCarthy in his best novels—Suttree, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, and Outer Dark. Like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, Morrison’s chapters in Jazz are told from different characters’ perspectives. And time is not sequential; it flashes back and forth depending upon the characters’ various states of mind. At one moment, a character will be talking about the current events of 1920s Harlem in New York City, and the next moment, we readers are transported into 1880s Virginia where memories haunt the narrative voice of a particular character, etc.  

Voice: I think my favorite part of this novel was listening to Morrison’s ear for black speech. Because of the shameful political racialization of our day, it is nearly impossible for non-black writers to pen black speech the way it is actually used and not be labeled as racist. But Morrison was able to do so. She was faithful to speech. It was not just because she was a black woman, but she demonstrated in the novel a precision of rhythm and cadence of the spoken word in black American culture that was accurate and completely believable. 

Takeaways: Jazz plays upon several motifs: jazz as interplay and musical expression; 1920s Harlem and NYC; race; movement (from rural to urban, e.g.); a stable family (or lack thereof); and violence. Jazz as a novel is not Morrison at her best (read Beloved and Song of Solomon for that) but it does demonstrate why Morrison was so valued not just by black readers but by lovers of literature. She writes well, and illuminates very unbeautiful realities beautifully. 

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