The numerous tangents and digressions in Jazz by Toni Morrison also indicate the idiosyncratic narrative structure of the novel and allude to the influence that the genre of jazz music had on Morrison’s development of this novel. Temporally speaking, the “Jazz” by Toni Morrison weaves back and forth between the early twentieth century and earlier times, introducing a densely populated collection of characters in two different locations whose relationships can be difficult to understand. Yet perhaps Toni Morrison’s intention and expectation is not that the reader will be able to keep track of all of these people, places, and relationships, but rather that he or she will capture a general impression or sense of them. As with jazz music, the narrative structure of Toni Morrison’s novel disrupts expectations that the reader has developed while reading conventionally written texts. The difference in the narrative structure calls for a distinct reading strategy. Again, the reader of “Jazz” by Toni Morrison can take his or her cue from jazz music in order to understand the most effective strategy for understanding Morrison’s novel. Attempt to understand the work conceptually, globally, and do not get bogged down in small details that can distract one from comprehending the overall significance of the work.
Another aspect of the narrative structure of this Toni Morrison novel that is reminiscent of jazz music is the way in which the same story is played out again and again, but in different ways. The narrator of Jazz by Toni Morrison explains the essential elements of the plot, but reworks and revises them again and again in multiple retellings. Each time she does, a new voice or new perspective emerges, layering on new meanings. Jazz music does the same, playing with a melodic or harmonic theme again and again, but tweaking it slightly and creating a variation—or many variations– on the theme. Each time the listener,–or in the case of the novel, the reader—hears the tune or reads the story, each variation yields a richness or alternate perspective that could not have been possible with a single telling. In Toni Morrison’s novel, certain words, like certain stories, bear repeating, if only to invite the reader to marvel at the sonoric properties of language. “‘Felice,’ he said. And kept on saying it. ‘Felice. Felice. Felice.’ With two syllables, not one like most people do….” (Morrison 212).
Still another way in which Morrison’s novel can be linked to jazz music and understood as the literary equivalent of a jazz composition is by examining the conclusion of Jazz. There is something ambivalent, ambiguous, and unsettling about the ending of the novel, which seems to lack a resolution according to the conventional understanding of that term and its traditional uses in literary narratives. Jazz music is the same. Endings can be abrupt and unexpected; they can also trail off inconclusively, simply holding or insistently repeating and then fading out on a certain note. The final passages in Jazz evoke the same kinds of feelings as do these highest points of a jazz music composition, and they rely upon the same kinds of techniques and resources. In fact, the concluding lines of Jazz build up and threaten to explode, but they then fade out, almost without the reader realizing that the novel, like the song, is over: “Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are now” (Morrison 272). The three sets of repeated words or phrases reinforce a sense of final urgency. Yet the reader is left to either accept the ambiguity of such a conclusion, or to attempt to make sense out of it. Either way, the experience of receiving the creative production can be fulfilling and pleasurable.
Toni Morrison’s novel, Jazz, is an experimental novel that borrows extensively from the ideas behind and the expressions of jazz music. Honoring her cultural peers from another creative genre by appropriating and adapting their techniques for her own use, Morrison creates a text that represents the hybrid of two powerfully creative and expressive art forms: music and literature. The result is an idiosyncratic narrative structure that can be challenging. Admittedly, the novel Jazz is not intended for every reading audience. However, the reader who can approach the novel on its own terms, rather than forcing conventional literary analytic frameworks to an interpretation of Jazz will be likely to have more pleasurable reading experience and a more profound one. Sometimes, a novel is not only about the events that it describes or a particular moral or lesson that its author intends to convey. Sometimes, and this is one of those times, a novel is less about the product of creation than the process that resulted in its publication. As the reading audience, we must decide whether we will accept Jazz on its own terms and improvise our reading style, just as Morrison improvised her writing style.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include :Character Analysis of Beloved in the Novel by Toni Morrison • The Symbolic Significance of the Character Beloved in Morrison’s Novel • Slavery in America’s South : Implications and Effects
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York: Plume, 1993.