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Jazz by Toni Morrison

Jazz (original 1992; edition 2004)

by Toni Morrison

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3,347371,622 (3.64)157
Authors:Toni Morrison
Info:Vintage (2004), Edition: First Plume Printing, Paperback, 256 pages
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Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992)


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The novel deliberately mirrors the music of its title, with various characters "improvising" solo compositions that fit together to create a whole work. The tone of the novel also shifts with these compositions, from bluesy laments to up beat, sensual ragtime. The novel also utilizes the call and response style of Jazz music, allowing the characters to explore the same events from different perspectives.

The various "improvisations" in the novel are held together by an ostensibly omniscient, anonymous narrator. Unusual for this style of narration, the narrative voice is in the first person and not the third person.

One of the main themes of the novel is purgatory and the cathartic ability of Jazz music.

[edit] Characters
Joe Trace, a door-to-door cosmetics salesman and the murderer of his young lover.
Violet Trace, an unlicensed beautician. Violet is married to Joe. She is nicknamed "Violent" because she assaulted the corpse of Joe’s lover with a knife at the funeral.
Dorcas, Joe's young lover, who is shot down at a party. Dorcas is inspired by a picture from The Harlem Book of the Dead (a collection of funeral photographs by James Van Der Zee).
Alice Manfred, Dorcas’ Aunt and guardian. A conservative Christian ashamed by her niece’s behavior. Alice enters into an unusual friendship with Violet.
Felice, a friend of Dorcas’ who helps the Traces to understand each other.
Golden Gray, a mixed race man from the 1800s. Golden appears in both Joe's and Violet’s histories.
Information Toni Morrison's novel Jazz is not, strictly speaking, about jazz at all. Its very first paragraph sounds the basic theme: A woman named Violet went to a funeral to mutilate the face of a dead eighteen-year-old girl who had been shot by Violet's husband in a desperate act of misguided love. This, then, is the melody on which the disembodied first-person narrative voice improvises a story, or several stories, constantly adding, revising, inventing, shifting back and forth among various characters, going back in time as far as antebellum Virginia. The various stories and voices the narrator evokes are, as Morrison explains, designed to reflect "a jazz performance in which the musicians are on stage. And they know what they are doing, they rehearse, but the performance is open to change, and the other musicians have to respond quickly to that change. Somebody takes off from a basic pattern, then the others have to accommodate themselves. That's the excitement, the razor's edge of a live performance of jazz" ("Toni Morrison" 41). How important jazz is for her writing she had underscored in 1983, when she described her style as "hanging on to whatever that ineffable quality is that is curiously black. The only analogy that I have for it is music. John Coltrane does not sound like Louis Armstrong, and no one ever confuses one for the other, and no one questions if they are black. That is what I am trying to get at ..." ("An Interview" 153). (4)

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
I could’ve started this review with Joe Trace. Joe Trace is searching for the narrator of this tale in the same way that he was searching for his mother “Wild” in this book. Sometimes, I felt like I needed a tracker to help me track down my own ideas about this book.

At times, the book was so easy and smooth, I just got lost in its many layers. Other times, also when I was lost, I was wondering if there was a destination or things I needed to follow or if getting lost was the whole point of the book.

There was something to this book, a little like slipping, and poetry, and I suppose Jazz, where visions and revisions are not only possible but necessary. After reading the book twice, I couldn’t tell whether the book was a minor key for major emotions or something more.

The City. 1926. There were things about this time that screamed for more concreteness. And yet, we were left with The City and everything radical that that implied -- violence and more violence in the background, and the threat of more violence.

Zanna, a reviewer on Goodreads, said, “sinewy vine, hacked at in places yet blossoming out, covering itself with fresh, lush, resurgent life.” That captures what is best about this book.

I felt like the book was scratching at something that was hard to explain, never truly explicit -- but too loud and emotion-filled to be truly implicit.

Is the book improvised? I can’t say. I can only say that a first draft is often improvised. But was this a first draft, one of many trials and errors, or something that was actually worked over once, twice, thrice, never really improvised but only meant to look improvised. I don’t know that something published can truly be like true Jazz.

Just like Joe Trace, perhaps this book had to evolve. It had to reinvent itself every few other pages or else it feared it wouldn’t survive. ( )
  DanielClausen | Jul 16, 2015 |
35. Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992, 227 page kindle e-book, read May 23 - Jun 6)

This is the first Morrison book I haven't loved. I have read all her books published prior to this, and every single one left me with so much to think about, whether I wanted to or not. They tend to bring up so much to be curious about or deeply uncomfortable about, books I have been glad to read. This one, it's a complex work with a lot going on, but it didn't have much magic for me. It kind of lied flat on the page.

The story is based on a true detail Morrison came across in 1920's Harlem where a woman dying from a gun wound is asked who shot her, and she replies, "I'll tell you tomorrow", so protecting her murderer. Here she becomes a young (18 years old?) orphan from East St. Louis, Dorcus, and her murderer is her jealous married lover, Joe Trace, from rural Virgina. Morrison recreates the migrant black community in a booming Harlem, and Jazz music sets the tone and background atmosphere. The theme of migrant blacks from the south heading to the cities, especially the northern cities, is prevalent. As is the energy they bring, especially in the music, and the violence created merely by their presence. Dorcus is orphaned during the East St. Louis riots, which I had never heard of, but were real. The whites of the area rioted mainly in response to an influx of southern blacks looking for work in the city. They ended up burning down sections of the city. The death toll has never been established and estimates range from 40 to 200.

As is typical with Morrison's books, her characters become both representative of larger groups and individuals of their own. We learn to like Joe Trace, the hunter and child of the wild woman in Virginia. This curious wild women seems to be Beloved, which makes this book a sequel both in time and story lines. All these characters are struggling with the changes of their times, with the adjustment from rural challenges to big city charades and promises.

A lot of reviewers make a big deal of Morrison's prose. It's interesting here but it's not necessarily Morrison's strength. Her prose tends to stay honest to her story and perspective. Up to this point it has never wandered out on it's own, even in Beloved, but it also has always been up the challenging tasks she sets it up for. This is no exception, except that this book seems to have been designed to be carried along by the prose. For me, for this read, is wasn't quite enough.

I had this idea that the historical aspects strangled this book by mistake. She brings in so much history and she is so upset by it, that the book becomes that story. She can't jump from 1876 to 1926, she has to cover all the times in between, accurately. What is lost is room for the creative freedom that makes a book like Song of Solomon or Tar Baby or the end of Sula so captivating and magical. The music is supposed to carry Jazz, but that means her prose must carry the facts. Something gets lost along the way, or at least something is different, less sparkling magic of concept and more of prose. It's not the same.

I make this sound like a bad book. It's not. It is again an ambitious and complicated and angry work, with a great deal going on. It has its importance. And it is and was generally highly regarded and was published the year before she won her Nobel Prize.* Still, my own response pales in comparison to what she had done before.

*As a side note, I really liked a NYTimes review from 1992 by Edna O'Brien that had different complaints from mine, but somewhat along the same lines, namely the flat prose. Since the book is dependent on the prose, reviewers' praise tends to be based on whether that worked for them or not. ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Jul 1, 2015 |
While I loved the lyric quality of the writing (definitely living up to the title), the story itself didn't speak to me...I was a little disappointed, not because the book wasn't good (it was) but because I've had such strong emotional responses to other books by Toni Morrison.

It's possible I'm at the wrong age to read this book, though.... too old to be Dorcas or Felice, too young to be Violet. If I'm going to give the story another chance, I think I need to wait about 20 years. ( )
  ratastrophe | Jan 3, 2015 |
In the opening scenes, Joe shoots the woman with whom he'd had an affair after she ends the relationship. His wife Violet attacks the corpse at the funeral. Much of the rest of the book deals with the aftermath and with trying to put the pieces of the relationship back together. The characters are very flawed. The writing is excellent. It's one of those novels that has to be re-read to be fully appreciated. It's a book that would create some excellent discussion in book groups or classroom situations. I'm not certain I enjoyed it well enough to commit to a re-read. ( )
  thornton37814 | Apr 14, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0452269652, Paperback)

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 lyric medley of voices and human consciousness.

Narrated by the author, Toni Morrison, this is an intense but gratifying three hours of tape. Background jazz music enhances the feel of '20s Harlem, a city that attracted thousands of black southerners hoping for better lives. Joe Trace and his wife Violet were part of this migration; madly in love with each other and the idea of this urban mecca, they "traindanced into the city." But like so many of the marriages in Morrison's novels, this union crumbles, and the dreams for a better life fade away. Joe finds another, a love "that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going."

In Jazz, time ebbs and flows like human memory, traversing between recollections of the past and expectations for the future; likewise, jazz music is often wild and chaotic. Here Morrison once again exemplifies herself as both a superb writer and a masterful storyteller.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:14 -0400)

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In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe's wife, Violet, attacks the girl's corpse. This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of Black urban life.… (more)

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