Tag Archives: Vintage

Review: Jazz

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Title: Jazz
Author: Toni Morrison
Published: 1992
ISBN: 1400076218
Publisher: Vintage Books International
Publisher’s Blurb:  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.

“… it’s hard to match the superstitious for great expectations.”  (p9)

I enjoy music and love books, but I don’t know how to put the two of them together.  It confused me when Jack Kerouac wrote about going to the clubs and listening to bebop, then using the beats in his writing.  I really wanted to approach Jazz from this perspective but I haven’t a clue.

Morrison explains how she approached Jazz in the Foreword, “Romantic love seemed to me one of the fingerprints of the twenties, and jazz its engine. (p. xviii)”  I understood that, but translating that into my words?  An incantation I can’t follow.

Also in the Foreword she writes, “I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy, its history, its range, and its modernity.  (p. xix)”

All my life I’ve been surrounded by creative people.  And a lot of them talk about beats.  Theatre people, musicians, poets, writers.  I know the basics of music, I can find the beat, but that’s not what writers mean.

Morrison’s unidentified narrator uses phrases like, “clarinets and lovemaking,” and talks about the rhythm of the trains on their tracks, and the drums of the men who marched in silent protest to the massacre of East St. Louis in 1917.

I can imagine the drummers marching in line down the street filled with onlookers who show their anger in complete silence.  The solemn rhythm a heartbeat connecting all to bear witness to the pain and tragedy.

More, I can imagine the smoky jazz halls filled with the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Earl Hines while people danced to the rhythm.  I can even imagine the sounds of jazz coming from windows on a hot summer day through open windows.

But in the story of Violet and Joe Trace and his young girlfriend, Dorcas, I don’t hear it.  In this story, I feel the pain of trauma, the suffering from unfulfilled expectations and the nervous energy when Violet walks into Dorcas’ funeral and slashes the corpse’s face.

I feel the pain of those who don’t know who their parents are, or who were lied to about their parentage.  The anxiety of being squished into a few blocks by people who don’t know a thing about you and your community.

There is a rhythm to the laughter of women who gather for cards and shamelessly flirt with Joe Trace, the Cleopatra beauty products salesman who just happens to pop by.  So too is there rhythm to the teen-aged dance in someone’s apartment where liquor is surreptitiously served to boys and girls nervous about their bodies and their sexuality.  And then there’s the shock when Joe walks in and shoots Dorcas, and Dorcas telling her friends to just leave her alone.

Toni Morrison addresses big themes I could never identify with fully simply because I am white in a world that, no matter how misogynistic, will always privilege me over a woman who is not white.  Yet it is in reading Morrison both in Jazz and Beloved that i get a feeling of what it’s like to have suffered inhumanely from those who don’t see humanity, only skin color.

Maybe knowing more about the rhythms of jazz would have helped me get deeper beneath the surface.  Maybe.  What I know is the pain I felt for these characters and this sad, sad story so beautifully written.  What I know is how hard it is to look ugliness in the face and give it a name, to wrestle with demons no one can bear, and what it is to live with heartbreak and despair so many days of a life, one wonders if it’s even worth going on.

I know Toni Morrison writes so that people like me can begin to try to understand the suffering of people we would never have known otherwise.  She writes, I read, and then offer prayers of gratitude for her gorgeous words.