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Dialogue, Softness, Fire and Elegance: Jazz Music and Literature

Updated on March 13, 2018

Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and Wynton Marsalis: Speak The Same Musical Language.

Music and literature. Two forms of artistic and imaginative expressions, yet both in union with America’s finest and most distinct art form; Jazz, creates a clear literary bond. Jazz is a musical form of wisdom that is generated through the free-flowing spirits of passion that drives an individual to forge no boundaries. Toni Morrison, a flamboyant and stylistic African-American writer, brings these two genres together in her Nobel Prize winning novel, Jazz. Morrison writes Jazz continuously like a structured musical composition. Not too many writers, particularly African-American literary artists, who construct Jazz in to their writings as Toni Morrison does. Ralph Ellison and Leon Forrest are some of the more prominent scholars in affiliating with Jazz and literature. By observing their beliefs and knowledge on Jazz, concerning the elements that Jazz accommodates, we can elaborate on the diversity of Jazz music and literature. Through Morrison’s novel, the radiance of the blues, call and response, and improvisation take shape. Also, not only do writers and Jazz scholars contribute to the shaping of Jazz and literature, Jazz musicians forge ahead of literature to create profound musical compositions like that of Jazz writers.

The way Morrison manipulates her phases with urban, southern voices is like the low, laid back radiance of the blues. She provides the stories of City and country, loneliness, and the loss of a loved one is entangled through the texture of words displayed by creative overtones. By moving her readers with the blues, Morrison, with her use of language, uses what Jazz and blue musicians use as the ‘AAB’ form. This pattern makes music produce off one another. From an educational standpoint, for example, this form can be looked at in the ‘grammar’ perspective. When an incomplete sentence is formed, it is a fragment. As the sentence becomes full, the sentence becomes a complete sentence. After the evolvement of the sentence, the sentence is then reworded and becomes a more complex sentence. For example, this passage from Jazz illustrates the ‘AAB’ form: “Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help out” (Morrison, 7). In one sense, it is reminisce of the use of the call & response and in another sense, this passage pass as words from a written blues song. In the call & response mode, the narrator can be looked at by shouting this phrase on a busy Harlem sidewalk like that of a Black preacher during his sermon on Sunday. The blue player, who is sitting on an empty vegetable crate, does the same. The use of improvisation is expressed by Morrison’s language, the narrator’s freedom, and our friend, the blues player’s howling. Does everyone recognize these phrases of words are composed in a free flowing style of improvisation?

Ralph Ellison, one of the most influential scholars of Jazz music and literature, could call upon this with his term “True Jazz” (xxi). True Jazz, defined by Ellison, “is an act of individual assertion with and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition” (xxi). Toni Morrison’s Jazz projects under the concept that Ellison has formulated. She gives her characters the individualism that each deserves and within a Jazz context. The narrator and our blues player are in “solo flight and improvisation.”

One of Morrison’s most outspoken and obsessive characters is Violet or eventually Violent. The character of Violet and her fanatic mood of laughing and shouting or perhaps her obsessive rage early in the novel is similar to big-mouth cry of the call & response of Jazz form. Morrison agrees that Violet “Tickled by the pleasure of discovery she was soon to have, threw back her head and laughed out loud” (21). The call or cry of Violet in an unpredictable way reflects also the environment of the City life. Stephen Henderson helps us to think of Violet’s character in a blue’s sense. He suggests that “Blues can be evoked by . . . a general attitude toward experience” (151). Coming from the country to the City life, as Morrison recalls, produces a transition that in time will gradually begin to be substantial. The way, in which blues and call & response interact with one another in Jazz, Morrison sums it up here:

Up there, in that part of the City --- which is the part they came for --- the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can “change” the weather. From freezing to hot to cool. (51)

This possession or invokement of Violet’s character to certain extremes helps to identify with the way music of Jazz calms it all down as presented in Toni Morrison’s jazzy form of lyrical style.

Leon Forrest, a notable literary artist and scholar, “[imagines] the African-American

Novelist as a kind of jazz preacher” (256). Point well noted, due to the existence of both the player (writer) and the audience (reader). The call of the musician or preacher to his assembly or audience thus requires a response from this occurrence fostering the notion of Jazz in literature. Morrison is a ‘jazz preacher’ to her readers. Her narrator carries that melodic lines and blues to awake the response of its readership. Certainly, the writer’s own response was overwhelming and Morrison’s Jazz spoke to the writer, not only in musical tones, but also in literary imagination.

Jazz musicians, also as artist in composition, provide to the effectiveness of Jazz form and literary composition. Wynton Marsalis’s Blue Interlude: The Bittersweet Sage of Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie, for example, respectively connects a ‘fictional mythic love story’ with a musical composition relevance to the call & response, improvisation, and blues of Jazz. The similarities, in the opinion of the writer, of Jazz and Blue Interlude are in their storylines. Marsalis presents his audience with a love story that involves musical dialogue between his characters Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie. Morrison, on the hand, also gives us a love story-triangle-obsessive people-type relationship of a story among Violet and Joe Trace. Musically, Marsalis expresses that call & response very well throughout the entire piece. The various uses of the different horn players in Blue Interlude help distinguish the modes being created in the saga. Morrison always makes reference to players and terms associated with Jazz and her players (characters) recall their side of their passions with the novel. However, the narrator in Jazz controls this passion or uplifting of Jazz musical form. Morrison is the rhythm section controlling the pace of the storyline while Violet, Joe Trace, Dorcas, and the narrator provide us with vocals and language joined into one; Jazz music. It is believed that Marsalis encompasses the jazz element of musical composition and literature by say it is all with “That sudden groove of illumination” (Monologue Blue Interlude).

In retrospect, Jazz music is a complex, yet free-forming without boundaries, type of art that is unique in its own sense. Literature and Jazz music erects a new perception of the ability in combining two uniquely diverse art forms. Langston Hughes did a wonderful job of performing his Jazz poetry with Jazz music. Nowadays, no one seems to continue this grand tradition, except for a few Latinos (aka Taco Shop Poets, San Diego, CA). Jazz is more than the ‘so-called’ great history of the United States of America. Perhaps in the coming millennium, Toni Morrison’s Jazz will become a Jazz opera that will be sung and not just read at a conference for African-American Literary Jazz artist. From a Latino artist, Andy Gonzales, the use Blanca Vazquez’s quote liberates Jazz musically by saying “It’s not just rhythm; it’s a language” (13).

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