May 29


Posted by Soliloquy in Braille

Set in Harlem in the 1920s, this novel chronicles a bittersweet triangle involving a middle-aged door-to-door salesman, his mentally unstable wife, and his eighteen-year-old girlfriend. By the author of Beloved. Reprint. 150,000 first printing. K. PW. Review
Jazz embraces the vibrant music and lifestyle of 1920s Harlem, an urban renaissance of opportunity and glamour. A novel of murder, hard lives, and broken dreams, Jazz sways with a … More >>


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  • Toni Morrison’s Jazz is a book premised around love, race, violence and the city that is home to these ideas. Set in the 1920’s, Jazz is a story about a married couple’s struggles, and the entangled lives of those involved in their love. Stylistically this is a beautiful book, written almost poetically. However, this book may not be a cup of tea for a reader that enjoys a plot driven novel. Nor is it recommendable for someone unwilling to adamantly hunt for significance.

    After reading the first page, the reader is familiarized with the basics of the plot within the novel. The basic tale, which takes place in Harlem, begins with an aging man named Joe, who is unhappy in his marriage. He ends up looking for love outside of his home and finds it in the 18 year old, Dorcas. Their involvement lasts several months but ends after Dorcas, desiring a younger companion, breaks up with Joe. Unable to let go, Joe murders his youthful former-mistress. When his wife, Violet, finds out that he has had an affair, she makes an appearance at Dorcas’ open-casket funeral and mutilates the corpse. For months Joe mopes about his loss, but Violet goes outward with her emotions. She ends up speaking to and bonding with the aunt of the deceased. As time progresses, Violet and Joe work to reconstruct their marriage. The story occurs over several months, but most of this information is exposed within the first several pages. The early exposition of the plot shows that it is not the most important piece of this work’s puzzle. More important is the unique way that the plot develops.

    Different aspects of the tale develop as different narrators offer new details of the events. The story is told from one prospective, then an idea is continued by a new speaker and is analyzed through a different prospective, sometimes illustrating new information. This is effective in that it greatly enhances character development. Instead of reading about the opinions of a character through the eyes of only one narrator, several different opinions about each character are offered; often including the opinion the character has of his or herself. However, it slows the pace of the novel. Instead of telling one continuous story from beginning to end, Morrison tells the story once, then details a part of that story with a new narrator and eventually repeats the process again. This does help explain why each speaker acts the way they do in Jazz, but nevertheless makes the fleshing out of this story’s plot an arduously sluggish development. For a person that enjoys a fast-paced plot, this may not be a favorite, but its style is a redeeming factor.

    Figurative language illustrates much of this novel, and is the basis for much of the imagery. An example is, “Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. […] Nobody wants to be an emergency at Harlem Hospital but if the Negro surgeon is visiting, pride cuts down the pain” (7). There are parts when this book reads less like a novel and more like poetry. However, there are times when Morrison’s language works against her and ends up burying meaning underneath insignificant details, “Alice had picked up a leaflet that had floated to the pavement, read the words, and shifted her weight at the curb, she read the words and looked at Dorcas. Looked at Dorcas and read the words again. What she read seemed crazy, out of focus. Some great gap lunged between the print and the child” (58). Details are started and often lead nowhere. It is not entirely Morrison’s writing style that should be blamed for the loss of meaning however.

    Overall significance in this work is difficult to come by. Several ideas are present, but none are distinctly brought to the forefront of the book. The first considerable theme is the effect of racism on the day-to-day life of the African American. Whereas in books like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill A Mocking Bird racism is an issue that is brought directly to the attention of the reader. In Jazz it is not. Rather, it is hinted at throughout the novel. This is illustrated when Joe talks about his hunting teacher, “Whitefolks said he was a witch doctor, but they said that so they wouldn’t have to say he was smart” (125). Placing racism in the background is effective in this book because it shows that the treatment they were receiving from Caucasians was not on the forefront of every African American citizen’s mind always, but nevertheless was a factor in their day-to-day lives. A second theme that is not directly illustrated in the text is the importance of understanding all viewpoints in a situation.

    Throughout the novel, the usage of multiple viewpoints allows the reader to truly understand each event and understand each character’s motives. An example is when a picture of Dorcas is placed in Joe and Violet’s home and they each tip toe to this picture and look at her face. “If the tiptoer is Joe Trace […] then the face stares at him without hope or regret and it is the absence of accusation that wakes him from his sleep hungry for her company. […] But if the tiptoer is Violet the photograph is not that at all. The girl’s face looks greedy, haughty and very lazy” (12). Though the reader does, neither Joe nor Violet understand how the other feels about this picture. Instead of talking to each other to try to understand why the other acts the way he or she does, they hoard their emotions inside themselves. Lack of communication leads to perpetual displeasure in their marriage. Morrison shows that it is necessary to communicate and understand all viewpoints before formulating judgments.

    Overall, this novel is unsuitable for someone that enjoys quick plot developments. But for someone looking for a book with colorful language and underlying themes, Toni Morrison’s Jazz is and enjoyable book.

    Rating: 3 / 5

  • For many African-Americans, the period from 1860 through 1930 was a particularly challenging one. The formal slavery of the South transitioned into a vulnerable rural economic existence, dependent on the weather and the price of crops. The promise of the city lured many to leave their homes, and adopt city life-styles that put new social pressures on them and their relationships. Jazz tells this story through the microcosm of one marriage, that of Joe and Violet Trace.

    Unlike many books about marriage, this one is a love story. Although it bears no relationship to any romance novel you have ever read, it reveals the way that the need for love develops from within each of us and allows us to grasp its potential when we respond to the yearnings of those we care about.

    Music was important in the lives of many people during those years. Churches and music halls vied for the attention of most people in the cities. Jazz was a new influence, bursting on the scene with a combination of extreme freedom and mutual respect for the other players. In this book, jazz is represented both as a symbol of freedom and as a source of base impulses that can lead people astray. Ms. Morrison also pays homage to jazz by building her narrative around the individual stories of those involved taken in solitary order, much like the solos in a jazz piece. The narratives all weave together, but you have to hear the whole piece to understand how. Be patient with what seem like digressions. They are really transitions into new perspectives, like when a horn does a riff before returning to the theme.

    You also get the metaphor of jazz used in the relationship of the two Traces. They were originally in rhythm with each other, then fell out of rhythm, and then regained their ability to improvise together. It’s very nicely done!

    To me, the best part of the book was that Ms. Morrison does not permit her characters to fall back on misfortune, fate, and heredity as excuses for misbehavior. Clearly, those factors affect us, but we all have the potential to rise above them. We need only open our eyes and start responding to those closest to us. Then, we can build a better life together.

    The family background of the two Traces is a rich tapestry as well of the social history of African-Americans during this period. Ms. Morrison’s imagination is quite remarkable in the variety and vividness of these characters!

    For those who are interested in understanding more about the roots of the Jazz Age, this book will also be very appealing.

    After you have finished thinking about the lessons of Jazz, you should consider where you display the good characteristics of a jazz player . . . and where you do not.

    Feel the rhythm around you!

    Rating: 5 / 5

  • As a child of fine artists and a classical and jazz musician, I had no idea or understanding as to why many of the churches- from the turn of the century to almost the present day in many areas- consistently referred to jazz as the devil’s music, or dangerously secular, until after reading this book. Toni Morrison becomes the metaphor herself, along with her invented characters, as a story of love and passion, anger and rage, sorrow and grief, hunger and lonliness, acknowledgement, and quiet, earhty epiphany unfolds as uncontrollably as the tides,with all the simple complexity of a jazz riff- and with as much freedom from judgement. Toni Morrison’s descriptive powers sweeping across the landscape of history and the landscape of the individual character’s lives is frightening in its ability to overwhelm. She brings out the raw, triumphant humaness of each character with such lyricism and painful joy. The novel can at times feel like a giant denoument, yet its slowly building climaxes are what make it more than readable; they make it exciting, sublimely predictable and unpredictable simultameuosly. It almost makes one understand better why the story of Christ is called a “Passion”; passion, as exemplified in this novel, is not just a sexy or damaging thing, but also the way to come to know God.

    There are small pars of the novel that are a bit too detailed in the rendering of lesser character’s lives. Yet her rendering of the time period- Harlem in the 20’s, and the community is incredible. This is more, or different, than a novel. It is an epic poem- an epic jazz poem that has you hearing the music as it mildly, painfully, poignantly and triumphantly ends. Toni will not let you down with this one.
    Rating: 4 / 5

  • Set primarily in Harlem in 1926, when jazz was bursting forth from the traditions of gospel and blues, this 1992 novel is one of Morrison’s most experimental and least accessible. Written from multiple points of view, it uses the patterns of jazz itself for its structure. A series of overarching themes connects the work, but these are seen in individual characterizations and episodes which flash backward and forward, twisting and turning as they connect, misconnect, change, and ultimately create a unique world larger than the sum of its individual parts.

    Focusing primarily on middle-aged Violet Trace, her fifty-year-old husband Joseph, and Dorcas Manfred, his teenage lover, whom he believes shares his passion, Morrison explores issues of love and fear, sex and obsession, violence and passivity, and strength and dependence, in addition to her big issues of color and gender. At the outset of the novel, Joseph has murdered Dorcas, fearing that his love for her will never be as great as it is at the moment just before her death. His wife Violet, distraught, is forcibly removed from Dorcas’s wake, and though she believes herself to be strong and indestructible, she shows her own vulnerability, sometimes seeing “that other Violet” who inhabits her soul.

    Gradually, the individual stories of Violet, Joe, their families, and Dorcas and her family, some members of whom go back even into the 1800s, flesh out the characterizations upon which this novel depends. For much of the novel, however, the reader must be patient, not sure exactly how all these characters are connected to each other, like the most experimental improvisations in jazz. Gradually, they do connect, and gradually the theme of redemption emerges triumphant.

    Brilliant in its construction and thematic development, the novel requires the reader to make many connections which other authors (and Morrison in most of her other novels) make or suggest as a matter of course. Her complex, spiraling structure (which Faulkner also often employs) in Beloved, Song of Solomon, and even an early novel like Sula, for example, seems more effective in these, perhaps because these novels have smaller casts of characters, and the importance of particular episodes and the relationships of many characters are clearer. For me, this was a novel to appreciate, rather than to love. n Mary Whipple



    Song of Solomon

    Tar Baby (Contemporary Fiction, Plume)

    Conversations with Toni Morrison (Literary Conversations Series)

    Rating: 4 / 5

  • Morrison has done it again. The story of a twisted love affair gone awry, Jazz takes you through the streets of an up and coming Harlem in the 1920s. It bares the souls and psyches of Violet, a 50-something black woman going through a midlife crisis, and her husband Joe, who falls in love with a teenage girl in an attempt understand his disjointed past.

    If you have read any of Toni Morrison’s works, this book follows the exact same pattern of her others: no visible pattern at all, but somehow coming together throughout the various narratives in various times and places within history. Although many questions are left unanswered, you still feel as if you have been immersed in a dream, a fantastic journey into the past that you never want to end. Morrison’s writing is both beautiful and complex. There literally are no words to describe it. There is no one else out there like Morrison.

    I suggest that first-time Toni Morrison readers start off with Sula, which is her shortest and least complex work, but still one of her greatest, and then pick up Jazz after you have read a few others including Beloved, Tar Baby, and Song of Solomon.
    Rating: 4 / 5

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