Jazz by Toni Morrison

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Although I didn’t love Jazz as much as I loved Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I found it to have a similar depth. I know such depth requires me to reread it in order to truly sum up the main point of the novel. Because I’ve only read it once, I’m somewhat stumped as I go to write thoughts about it now. I am afraid these thoughts are rather jumbled and inaccurate given what the novel is supposed to be saying, so keep in mind that this is more a post about my impressions after reading it, not so much a “review.”

In some respects, Jazz seemed to capture the complexities of two different generations of African-Americans living in Harlem in the 1920s: the middle-aged and the young adult. But it also deals with redemption and forgiveness. It wasn’t a beautiful novel for me to read, but I’m glad I did read it.

Although Violet and Joe have been in Harlem for twenty years when the main action takes place (1926), we learn of their childhoods and marriage in frequent flashbacks. The novel begins brutally, by telling us what happened: Joe shot his 18-year-old lover of three months, Dorcas, and his wife Violet attacked the dead girl at the funeral, slashing her face with a knife (page 3).

The rest of the book is going back in forth in time, trying to determine what happened and why. It was fascinating to examine how memories and events in the past influence current events or our understanding of current events, and the confusing nature of the narration was a way of portraying the confusion Violet and Joe feel as they struggle to come to terms with their past and what they’ve done. Contrasting Violet and Joe’s complicated back stories of life growing up in the south is the story of Dorcas and her friend Felice, who are both young and have different attitudes toward life, death, and Harlem in general.

One aspect that made Jazz so difficult for me was the narration and writing style. The narrator is an unknown omniscient viewer of some kind, telling the story in first person. I never could figure out if I was supposed to know who or what was narrating, and that was a little disconcerting. As I went to write this post, I referenced Wikipedia and an interview with Toni Morrison and it makes more sense now, but that’s after finishing reading it. For a first time reader, it’s important to know that the narrator is unreliable. What really happened? I really need to reread it.

In the last pages of the novel (*spoilers*), the narrator says “I invented stories about them” (page 220) and talks about the healing that Violet and Joe were able to do. It really is a story of redemption. They were able to rise above their past and look toward the future, and I think (just think, because I’ve only read this once and it needs a second read) that jazz music was what helped them do that.

The pattern of the story telling is, appropriately, a “jazz” style (according to Wikipedia). I don’t listen to jazz music (except for Christmas music by jazz artists) so I missed the “call and response” side to the novel’s writing. It just felt uncomfortable to read for me. Beyond the style, though, the main characters were incredibly complex, mostly because they kept being recreated by the narrator. I struggled to follow their thought progression through the novel.

In preparing this post, I found a Time magazine interview with Toni Morrison. She is asked about jazz music and here’s her response:

I try to echo some of the basic characteristics of jazz music in that book by refusing to have a narrator or leader who knew everything and exactly how the music was going to turn out. Instead, the narrator had to listen to the characters the way Miles Davis listened while he performed with his musicians,and depending on what they did, that would affect the next solo or alteration in the music.

Now I want to listen to Miles Davis! Maybe then I’ll reread Morrison’s Jazz. And because I loved this interview, here’s another quote from Ms. Morrison about Jazz. (*Spoilers*)

I had to keep in mind, and I think readers should keep in mind, that all of it is artifice. It’s all planned, but it should look unplanned. The narrator was designed to be unreliable and to have only part of the story and to be the one that was most inaccurate by the time one reaches the end, but at the same time, the narrator learned about its own vulnerability. I wanted to explode the idea of an all-knowing, omnipotent, totalitarian, authorial voice and to parallel the democratic impulse of jazz ensembles.

I read Jazz because as I researched the Harlem Renaissance in December, I discovered that Toni Morrison had written this novel. Since I loved Beloved, which captured the 1860s-1880s era in African-American life, I decided to see how she examined the 1920s African-American. I’m very glad I read it, and I did enjoy reading it. The themes didn’t feel as universal as those in Beloved, though, so while I really should reread Jazz to full comprehend Morrison’s purpose in writing it, more likely I will be rereading Beloved again instead.

What novels have you read with unknown and possibly unreliable narrators?

Do you listen to jazz music?

[Because this book is out of my normal reading]

Read the Nobels

Reviewed on January 22, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I should really give Toni Morrison another chance – but it doesn’t necessarily sound like this is the one for me! Plus, I really hate jazz. I never liked it much, and then my at-the-time-boyfriend convinced me to go to this club where there was a jazz quartet that was supposed to be really good; and we got mugged on the way home. So I think I may be off jazz for life. 😛

  • I admit, this is one of Morrison’s novels that I’m least interested in reading, just based on the title alone! What a superficial reason, right? 😉 I do really want to read Beloved though, and I have a copy all ready for me to do so! I think that she’s absolutely an author who pretty much necessitates re-reading, whichever novel you pick up. Then again, given how luxurious and rich her prose is, I never consider that a hardship!

  • I’ve read Jazz years ago and had a hard time with it so I was looking forward to your post to see how you got on with it. It is a hard book. I knew a little about jazz music when I read it but have learned a bit more since then as I had a friend for awhile who was a jazz saxaphonist. I think you are right in saying that it is definitely a book that needs to be read more than once.

  • Hmm, looks like I’m in the minority listing Jazz as one of my fave Morrison novels! Funny how everyone seems to have a different favorite with her. My reaction was predictable, though – I grew up listening to jazz, and love an unreliable narrator. The final few pages totally blew me away! The tone, and that passage you quoted about how the narrator “invented stories about” the main characters, seems so fitting for a period that’s become somewhat idealized in retrospect, but which was rough at the time (sort of similar to the air of questionable nostalgia in books like The Great Gatsby). I should re-read this as well, since, as you say, it’s one of those that benefits from going back with knowledge of the end.

    Anyway, it’s too bad that it wasn’t up to Beloved‘s standard for you, but it’s certainly an apt read going into the Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit.

  • If you begin looking for unreliable narrators, after awhile all of them will seem unreliable. So that’s my answer to your first question: All of them.

    As to the second, yes, every day. If your library has the Ken Burns Jazz – Miles Davis CD, that’s the way to get a great overview of his career. There will be something on there you’ll hate, I predict – his music changed a lot over time – but there might be something you really like.

  • Yes, I listen to jazz a lot, although less now that I have little kids (not less jazz but less music in general).

    I have to reread Jazz because it was my first Morrison and I’m afraid didn’t get a good grasp of it although I’ve a vague recollection that I really liked it. I do remember the first word: Sth. Am I right? Lol. Anyway, I’m hoping I’ll love it more than I remember on the second read.

  • I read and appreciated Beloved a long time ago, but haven’t read any more Morrison. I should, definitely. I’m not a jazz fan, though, so I’m not sure this would be the best choice, but the structural issues you write about sound intriguing. I like authors who use complex structural techniques.

  • Stephanie, I read both of those Morrison books but I think I missed the point of them….I need to read more for sure!

    Tami, aw, thanks! 🙂

    Jenny, it’s probably rather mean of me to lol at that story. Sorry Jazz isn’t for you :/

    Steph, BELOVED is universal in ways this isn’t! But I’m probably missing it, and need to reread it. At any rate, YES go read BELOVED!

    Stefanie, I’m glad to know that I wasn’t alone in struggling with this book. Reading the analysis of it makes me want to reread it since I see how much I missed!

    Emily, It sounds like loving jazz might really help make this a favorite read! I’m glad you enjoy it and yes, definitely a reread would probably be worthwhile. I’m so glad I read it in terms of the Harlem Renaissance tour. It is perfect timing!

    Amateur Reader, Great point about unreliable narrators. I’ll have to look for that CD. Although I am a bit scared of jazz overall, I really should give it more of a chance….

    Claire, lol yes Sth is the first word. Very odd. Anyway, I hope you do enjoy a second read. Hard to get into the book but once you reach the end, it’s like Emily said: time to reread it!!

    Dorothy W., I LOVE Beloved, so it’s a bit embarrassing I haven’t read more Morrison. Time to remedy that!! This may not be the best next Morrison for you. It is confusing but then, it’s also deep.

    Eva, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

  • Jazz doesn’t beat out Beloved for me but it’s my second favourite book by Morrisson I think. As for unreliable narrators I just read the crazy kid sister of all unreliable narrators in ‘Liar’ by Justine Larbalestier.

  • All that Toni Morrisson has to say is interesting and exciting to me. Poetry to my ears. Life is too short to have time to reread books but I would with hers. Deep and thought-provoking. I landed at your blog while googling “First word of Jazz” and trying to understand what Sth is all about. Any ideas on that? Thanks.

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