Jazz as Narrative Structure
Last year, I read and taught Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif” for the first time. The title is a variation on recitative, a singing style mostly specific to opera in which the plot is moved forward by singing that “mimics natural speech.” Morrison wrote the story, the only short story that she has ever published, in an attempt to write a story without any reference to race. The title does not reflect any musical talent or aspirations for either girl; instead, Morrison mimics natural speech and historical events in an unidentifying way that causes the reader to ponder the race—Caucasian or African-American—of each girl. The plot moves forward through the narration over the course of many years without ever revealing the answer.
The publication of “Recitatif” in 1983, almost ten years before the publication of Jazz, would point to the short story as a first, or first successful, attempt at utilizing a musical style to create a narrative style. Although references are made to record albums, dancing, and some people playing music, Jazz, much like “Recitatif,” does not center around the music as an integral plot point. Exploring the definition and characteristics of jazz music, one finds qualities that sound like the narrator and the additional voices telling the story.
Most references indicate that jazz music is less of a quantitative style and more of a feeling; according to Lenora Zenzalai Helm, one knows that a musical piece is jazz when it has two required elements; the first element is swing that is created by a walking bass line. Helm describes this as a sound that is walking away, but as she demonstrates in the video, this bass line is the underpinning of the music and what provides the feel of the swing element that differentiates jazz from other musical styles. In Morrison’s novel Jazz, this walking bass line is the unnamed first-person omniscient narrator who seems to witness many of the events or be the recipient of the witnesses’ accounts. The underpinning of this narrator’s bass line gives the reader swing; in the opening chapter, the narrator describes New York City: “A city like this one make me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep” (7). The reader straightens to feel tall and realizes that the emotions expressed in the novel will not be limited to the characters but will also include the narrator’s emotions. The reader does not know what emotions the narrator has, just that emotions exist and will cause feeling, will cause swing. The pacing of the narrator’s voice is also part of the element of the bass line: “Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last” (7). Reading these lines aloud, one cannot help reading them rhythmically, emphasizing the repetition, just as those low bass notes may not carry the melody, but they are evident, dropping emphasis that the ear picks up on. A bass line is part of the music but not the melody, just as Morrison’s bass line narrator is part of the tale but the action.
Most references also describe jazz as a sound; you know it when you hear it. The Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz points out that “[j]azz musicians strive to have their own, personal sound (tone) on their instrument” (click on the audio snippets at the bottom of the page to hear how each musician plays the same instrument with personal sound), which is also evident in the later part of Morrison’s novel. The bass line narrator cannot relate the melody of Dorcas’s death; rather Dorcas relates her final evening in a first-person narration related by the narrator (189-193). The bass line narrator also allows Felice to relate her version of Dorcas’s death and Felice’s subsequent relationship with the Traces in her own voice (198-216). It is interesting to note that the narrator could not tell the stories of the two seventeen-year-old girls. Just as two saxophone players will create different sounds in their playing, the two girls sound different. One is sly and conniving; the other is wholesome and straightforward. Not only are the events surrounding the girls reflective of their differences, even with Dorcas’s overlapping death scene, but the girls’ word choice, tone, attitude, and intents are all different even though they are played on the same instrument (a seventeen-year-old African-American girl living in Harlem). The Thelonious Monk Institute describes sounds as possibly “raspy, edgy, rough, smooth, pretty, soulful, warm, dark, light, harsh, or any one of dozens of other descriptions including combinations of descriptions and an infinite number of nuances –just like the human voice.” No two jazz sounds the same.
The second required element, according to Helm, is improvisation. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz describes improvisation as “doing, saying, playing, or singing something extemporaneously, that is, not planned ahead of time” and compares it to “musical conversation” (be sure to click on the link for the jazz/conversation analogy sheet). The musician must interact with the music to, as described by Helm, spontaneously compose in a very structured way. In the opening lines of chapter six, the True Belle and Golden Gray chapter, the narrator states, “Risky, I’d say, trying to figure out anybody’s state of mind. But worth the trouble if you’re like me—curious, inventive, and well-informed” (137). The only people who would know the stories of True Belle and Golden Gray are those two, and they are not characters in the 1926 present day of the book. So the narrator has improvised. Based on information he or she has learned through the 1926 characters, the narrator has spontaneously created, within the structures provided by the histories of the characters, possible backgrounds. More importantly, the narrator admits to this improvisation, and, since this narration is jazz, the reader should expect improvisation.
To allow for improvisation within a piece, each musician is given time for an improvised solo although “not everyone has to take a solo.” As in description of jazz’s form, the piece begins with one united chorus, everything is up for grabs in the center, and the piece ends with one united chorus. In chapter one of Jazz, the unnamed narrator describes New York City and the events that have brought the characters together—Dorcas’s death and the breaks from normalcy suffered by both Violet and Joe. Each character is then given time to solo—to have one or more chapters focus on him or her including characters at the periphery, such as True Belle and Golden Boy. At the end of improvisation, the audience usually applauds the solo performer; at the end of the chapter about True Belle and Golden Gray, the readers should be applauding because the solo performances have allowed the disparate parts to come together—the mystery behind Joe’s birth is revealed. The final chapter is the narrator uniting the events through conclusion and relating what becomes of the soloists. The narrator reminds that he or she has been leading the readers through this piece of feeling with one last description: “Pain, I seem to have an affection, a kind of sweettooth for it. [. . .] And although the pain is theirs, I share it, don’t I? Of course. Of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way” (219). The narrator reminds readers that they should have felt the pain along the way, but then soothes that pain with a return to normalcy for the characters with no more improvisation or soloing.In a radio broadcast in the 1950s, Stan Kenton described jazz as “a distinct music that depends and thrives on individuality and yet the individual is not oblivious to others nor is he immune to their feelings.” Morrison’s Jazz is structured in the same way; the characters all have very different backgrounds that have influenced the individuals that they have become in New York City in 1925-1926. But their lives, regardless of their backgrounds, have become intertwined, and when one character becomes immune to the feelings of another, Joe to Violet or Dorcas to Joe, the swing ends and disharmony ensues until the jazz swing is reestablished. Morrison’s novel Jazz embodies Kenton’s conclusion that “[a]ll phases of life's emotions are felt and experienced in jazz.”
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1992. Print.