By Nomali Cele
Author: Toni Morrison
How does jazz look on the page? How does it unfurl itself in ink? Over 229 pages, the acclaimed Pulitzer-winning American author, Toni Morrison, uses words to illustrate the heart and sound and structure of the music and the stories that inspire it. “Jazz” is not just the title of the second book in Morrison’s “African-American History” Trilogy, it also sits on the page. In most instances, the pace and feel of the words is modelled after the jazz form.
It’s fitting that a book bestowed with the title of jazz be more about the daily goings on and the grit that led and has continued to lead our greats to create the music. Violet and Joe are a married couple in Harlem. He sells cosmetics door-to-door and eventually meets a girl named Dorcas. Joe begins an affair with Dorcas and is devastated when she soon becomes bored with him. He shows up at a Harlem party – yes, picture the scene: music, dancing, beauty – and shoots her. She ends up bleeding out and dies. Violet learns about the fact that her husband shot some young girl and deduces there was an affair. She shows up at the funeral and assaults the corpse.
All this (and more) happens as Morrison also draws the reader’s attention to one one of Black America’s greatest cultural contributions: Jazz. Parts of the book read as if the reader were listening to a jazz improv, others like a meticulous composition. Some reviewers have even said the way the novel has multiple perspectives, it reads like a jazz ensemble piece with different characters taking their solo moments but still contributing to the larger narrative.
In “Jazz” the music is used to locate the time and place the story is being told in and even when the time period changes, the cadence of jazz still stays on the page.
Most of our jazz greats, the women, in particular, sang about the rage that was born out of a misguided effort in love or romantic frustration. The themes of betrayal in this novel echo those classic songs. But just as music inspires different reactions in real life, the characters in “Jazz” have different relationships with the music.
“Jazz” is a passionate examination of love, personal history and more. With a little obsession and blood sprinkled on.