Writing to the Tune of Jazz

By Saoirse ’20

The following work was created for ENG 214: Intro to African American Literature and Culture II.

When writing Jazz, Toni Morrison “was interested in rendering a period in African American life through a specific lens—one that would reflect the content and characteristics of its music [Jazz music]…and the manner of its expression” (xv). In order to render the musicality of Jazz into the literary structure of the novel, Morrison “integrate[d] freedom with structure, spontaneity with forethought [and] individual expression with collective interplay” (Grandt xiii). Just as Jazz music allows the individual artist considerable freedom from the strictness of written notation, the structure of Jazz allows Morrison’s narrator and characters freedom from the traditional novelistic structure of movement towards resolution. Instead of a strict progression from past to future, from cause to effect, Morrison’s novel is focused on the repetitive performance and improvisation of the present tense, particularly illustrated in her repeated improvisational performances of the central climactic scene—Violet’s failed attempt to cut Dorcas’ face at her funeral.

The narrative voice of Morrison’s novel is constantly engaged in the process of inventing, improvising, and changing the narrative they are sharing with the reader. In a departure from the traditional novelistic form, Morrison’s narrator summarizes the entire story of the novel in the first few pages of the first chapter (Morrison 3-6). In the compressed space of the opening paragraph of the novel, the unnamed narrator establishes both Joe’s murder of Dorcas and his wife’s attempted cutting of Dorcas’ face at her funeral:

He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church (3).

By establishing the triggering action of her plot in such a succinct manner, Morrison establishes this as the initiating riff of the song that is the rest of the novel. This scene acts as a call to the characters, and the rest of the novel is a performance and improvisation in response to this scene. The novel, or the characters, never really move past this scene. Morrison wanted the structure to equal meaning in this novel (xix). The narrative constantly circles back to the scene, re-performs it with the instruments of different characters, contextualizing it in a succession of conversations, and every soloist’s retelling of this scene repositions it so the reader “digs back” to this scene with an enhanced understanding of the character. Thus, the reflexive movement of the structure mirrors the reflexivity inherent in the characters as well as the narrator, and ideally the reader.

Morrison’s characters are marked by their relationship to time and their quest for resolution from the past. Joe is so afraid of change and the potential for loss inherent in change that he is willing to kill Dorcas “just to keep the feeling [their relationship gives him] going” (3). After her death, “he thinks about her all the time. Nothing on his mind but her. Won’t work. Can’t sleep. Grieves all day, all night” (15). Joe’s blues are a result of the inertia of his life and his wish to preserve the moment of his intimacy with Dorcas into a constant present. Violet, on the other hand, is haunted by the specter of Dorcas in a different way. Following her failed attempt at mutilating Dorcas’ face, she takes a picture of that very same face and “put[s] it on the fireplace mantel in her own parlor” (6). Violet is obsessed with Dorcas’ face, her mannerisms, and her choices because she feels that if she understands Dorcas, she will understand what Joe saw in her that Violet could not provide. Thus, “a dead girl’s face [becomes] a necessary thing for their nights … [and] seems like the only living presence in the house” (11-12). Joe and Violet, along with other characters from this novel, are obsessed with Dorcas’ death and funeral. They are unable to move on from it and constantly “dig back” to this moment in time to make sense of it, and they do so by improvising and re-performing it.

Violet’s interiority is saturated with a diverse range of improvisation on her memory of this scene. Having placed Dorcas’ image in her parlor, where she also does the hair of her clients, Violet constantly has the picture in front of her as she works. When one of her clients points out that Violet’s idea that “a young girl messed over [her] and [Joe is] not to blame” is flawed and that she “can’t rival the dead for love,” Violet agrees that “not only is she losing Joe to a dead girl but she wonders if she isn’t falling in love with her [Dorcas] too” (14-15). On remembering Dorcas in her coffin, Violet remembers that “the girl needed her ends cut … Just a quarter-inch trim would do wonders, Dorcas. Dorcas” (15). Despite this being a violent memory, and a time when Violet clearly held a lot of rage and resentment towards Dorcas, when she remembers it in the context of this conversation, Violet reconstructs it in an image of fondness and care. Following her obsession with Dorcas and investigation into her life, Violet’s emotions towards her in the context of this conversation convert the violent memory of her attempting to cut Dorcas into one of concern and sensitivity inherent in her desire to give Dorcas a haircut.

When Violet remembers the same scene in a different narrative context, her emotional response to it is significantly different. Drinking malt in a drugstore, having just left Alice Manfred’s home after an intense cutting session, Violet ruminates on the difference between herself and “that Violet” who is not afraid to use violence to assert her right to what is hers—a Violet who was not softened by working in the City, and who is willing to go into the funeral of Dorcas to cut her face and fight the usher-boys who threw her onto the floor. Violet remembers the moment in excruciating detail:

But that Violet knew and went right into it…these hands were reaching toward the blade…now aimed at the girl’s haughty, secret face.
It bounced off, making a little dent under her earlobe, like a fold in the skin that was hardly a disfigurement at all. She could have left it at that: the fold under the earlobe, but that Violet, unsatisfied, fought with the hard-handed usher boys and was time enough for them, almost … They had to wrestle her to the floor before she let go. And the sound that came from her mouth belonged to something wearing a pelt instead of a coat.


Having just come from an intense conversation with Alice, in which she called Dorcas “[her] enemy,” this particular improvisation on the first scene in the novel allows Violet to dissociate her present self from the Violet who interrupted Dorcas’ funeral and ruminate on her hatred and anger in excruciating detail (85). The scene, in this particular iteration, is improvised upon based on the narrative context of the novel. The basic form of Morrison’s novel resists composition. Just as Jazz music may take a written composition as its base but constantly riff on it, the characters in Morrison’s novel consider their personal history to be the predetermined composition on which they feel free to riff in their memories.

Morrison recognizes that if her work is “to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity,” the structure of the novel must provide resistance to the traditional structure of a plot-based novel where characters move forward in time. Jazz instead focuses on specific past actions, rendered into a constant present via constant repeat performances, all of which offer a new perspective due to the unique improvisations inherent in it. Thus, even though her narrator “saw the three of them, Felice, Joe and Violet [as] a mirror image of Dorcas, Joe and Violet” (221), and in keeping with traditional novelistic conventions, assumed that their stories would parallel each other’s: “what turned out different was who shot whom” (6), the actual events of the novel resisted that predetermined composition, and the improvisations of each character cumulatively led to an ending free from formulaic restrictions. The novel’s constant refusal to move into the future and instead dwell on the past converts what should be the past into a constant present, always being revised and rewritten. “When I see them now they are not sepia, still, losing their edges to the light of a future afternoon. Caught midway between was and must be. For me they are real. Sharply in focus and clicking” (226). Toni Morrison’s Jazz offers several instances of performance or remembering that offer multiple renditions of the same tune by individual characters, all placed within the context of other characters. Her narrator may have once seen the characters as part of the past (in sepia), but their constant repetitions problematize the functioning of time within the narrative as the characters refuse to let go of what was to enter what must be. They crystallize themselves in a constant present.

The novel does not ask the reader to accompany the narrator on a traditional journey from exposition to rising action, climax, falling action, and finally a denouement. Instead, they introduce the climax during the exposition and constantly return to it at every stage. The narrator does not ask the reader to witness but to “make me, remake me” and assures the reader, “you are free to do it and I am free to let you,” encouraging them to join the song as one more soloist, reading these characters’ pasts to their own jazz tune (229). Reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz to the tune of jazz music offers unique insights into the characters but also into the structure of the novel. If the novel is a diachronous art form based on the linear progression of cause-and-effect, Morrison’s novel progresses by constantly rendering the past into present tense through performance and improvisation.

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