Toni Morrison’s Jazz is a simply titled novel, but this simplicity belies the complexity of the narrative structure to which the word “jazz” alludes. Toni Morrison’s novel “Jazz” is experimental in that it challenges the conventions of the American canonical literary narrative. Toni Morrison incorporates elements of the genre of jazz music as a way of both honoring African American modes of expression and creative and cultural production, as well as creating new, hybrid forms of expression. The result is a novel that can be frustrating and difficult, at times, for the reader to follow. Morrison’s narrative is, by turns, tangential, digressive, and improvisational and like other novels by Morrison reliant on symbols, it can never be taken at face value. Nevertheless, understanding the underlying structural and thematic significance of this narrative approach by analyzing the novel’s structure through the lens of jazz music helps the reader to not only develop a tolerance for the novel, but to adapt himself or herself to its expressive power. As a result, new possibilities open not only for Toni Morrison as an author, but for the reader as well.
Jazz the novel by Toni Morrison, like the origins of jazz music itself, is situated primarily in the 1920s, and its focal point is Harlem, New York. Establishing a sense of place, as well as the mood that pervades it and the characters that populate it, is crucial to the “plot” of the jazz tune, whether with or without lyrics, and the same is true for Morrison’s novel. In the novel, Morrison describes “the city,” New York City, in vivid and descriptive visual terms. The narrator says in one of the important quotes from “Jazz” by Toni Morrison, “I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces…Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place….” (Morrison 5). This speech is not normal speech that one uses to communicate; it is highly visual, imagistic, and sonorous. The speaker does not necessarily hurry to proceed from this description to the next point; she riffs on her meditation about the City for as long as she likes, and only then does she proceed with her narrative. This narrative technique in “Jazz” by Toni Morrison is unusual for literature, but is entirely familiar to the genre of jazz music, which wanders and improvises, plays with the relationships between sounds, and juxtaposes seemingly incongruent musical ideas in innovative ways. In Jazz, Morrison does the same.
There are other elements of speech in Jazz that are reminiscent of the musical genre yet represent an experimental foray for literature. Consider, for example, that the characters do not always speak in formal or complete sentences. At times, there are just enough words to convey a general idea or impression, and the reader must fill in any perceived gaps. The astute reader picks up on this fact on the very first page of the novel when scanning through the quotes from this first part. The narrator is describing a woman and she adds, “Know her husband, too” (Morrison 1). The absence of the subject, “I,” mimics colloquial speech; extraneous details are omitted and the reader has to pick up the narrative “beat” or lose the novel’s rhythm completely. “Proper” English is rejected as false in this novel; instead, Toni Morrison’s characters must express themselves with their own authentic voices, even at the possible expense of losing the reader. In a sense, like jazz music, the creative act of production becomes more important than the fact that the work will be received by an audience.