by Rhonda Cooksey
Tony Morrison’s novel, Jazz, is not a single performance piece but an entire concert with narrators as fascinating as the characters. Their narrations are instrumental—instruments of storytelling that lead us through various riffs, solos, movements, and cacophonies to end in a somewhat harmonious rebirth of a marriage. The narrators might be male, female, a character, the City, jazz, or Toni Morrison, but they skillfully play out stories that make us like Violet, who tried to steal a baby and stab a dead girl, and Joe, who killed a 16-year-old girl for dumping him for a younger man. The narrative structure leads us to celebrate their love story. By starting with a condensed version of the facts, Morrison creates a mystery, not about what is going to happen but why things happen. The whys take us on side trips through Joe and Violet’s pasts to reveal the instability of the Black family in the Jim Crow era due to the legacy of slavery.
The characters are like members in a jazz band. Viola’s grandmother, True Belle, was a slave who had to leave her husband and family behind to accompany Vera Louise Gray, the disgraced daughter of her owner, to Baltimore. Vera Louise was not just unwed and pregnant, but pregnant with the child of a Black man. Slaves like True Belle had no legally binding marriages, and spouses were often sold away from each other and told a substitute would be provided. Frederick Douglas explained in his narrative, that he seldom saw his working slave mother but was raised by a granny who could no longer work the fields. Most slaves had no concept of a stable family life, but they did know the pain of watching their children and loved ones sold away. Violet’s father travelled for work and cared for his family but failed to provide a stable home life. Her mother, Rose Dear, had been abandoned when True Belle left for Baltimore and was often abandoned by her husband for long periods. When Rose Dear commits suicide, the children have to make it on their own. Neither parent could create a stable home life for Violet and her siblings. Violet claims not to want children but mourns her miscarriages, and, when she tries to walk off with a baby in her arms, a narrator tells us, “comfort settled itself in her stomach and a kind of skipping, running light traveled her veins,” and she thinks, “Joe will love this.”
Failed by their parents, Violet and Joe fail to become parents. Joe’s mother, Wild, had been about to deliver him when Golden Gray rescued her. We never learn if she was born with a mental disability of destabilized by rape, but she wants nothing to do with her child and is unable to live in society. Joe looks for both parents but becomes obsessed with his idea of the wild mother who rejected him. We are told, “There are boys who have whores for mothers . . . boys whose mothers who stagger through town . . . mothers who throw their children away or trade them for money. Joe cannot abide being abandoned by the wild Dorcas who symbolizes both the lost mother and the lost daughter. When Felice asks him why he killed Dorcas, he says, “Scared, didn’t know how to love anybody.” In that simple line, Morrison brilliantly sums up so much human tragedy that makes no sense. Under the oppression of Jim Crow, many Black Americans struggled to create the healthy family life they had never known. By interweaving the fragments of Joe and Violet’s childhood traumas, the narrators lead readers and characters alike to a state of forgiveness.
I see the characters as movements in a long jazz piece that repeats a similar musical phrase but in a different chord or sequence or on a different instrument. Dorcas knows Joe is coming. It is repeated over and over: “He is coming for me. He is coming for me.” It’s a refrain that she can’t escape. Honor is a 13-year old boy working for Joe’s father, Hunter, who helps Wild, the wild girl who gives birth to Joe. In the next section, 13 years have passed, and Joe is the thirteen-year-old boy. The themes repeat but never in the same way. Echoing Homi Bhaba’ s concept of mimicry, the discourse of the colonizer is repeated but in a discordant way. Alice and Joe want the American Dream–family, friends, a home, a comfortable living, and to be comfortable in their own skin, but they fail to appreciate their inherent value in a society that has devalued them since birth. Music helps them do that, and that’s the best part of the story. Frederick Douglass spoke about slave songs and how the white masters mistook their singing for happiness when they were filled with sorrow. Those songs gave birth to the blues. The slave songs were often messages and warnings for workers in another field. They were a way of bearing the pain and asking God for help to bear that pain. Jazz is a musical force that bends the blues and points to the possibility for music to heal the broken in heart and spirit. There is still pain, but there is a sense of power that is building and promising to set them free to live outside of domination and oppression. They are empowered by improvisation that moves them through cacophony to harmony.
The narrator in the final section seems “to have an affection, a kind of sweet tooth for” pain.” Pain for the characters and for the City.” Morrison as narrator tells us, “It was the City that distracted me and gave me ideas. Made me think I could speak its loud voice and make that sound human. ” The City plays an important role in this postmodern tale. In modernist texts the city represents alienation, isolation, and the loss of coherence, but Morrison’s postmodern characters love the City and celebrate its contradictions . . . “the range of what an artful City can do.” Anonymity among strangers and the possibility of danger is part of the allure. Even for Alice Manfred, fear becomes a well-known friend that leads her to war-thoughts. Black women in the City had to be armed, armed against policemen who put fists in their faces to break their husband’s spirits. Even unarmed women were armed by churches, “leagues, clubs, societies, sisterhoods,” because “any other kind of unarmed Black woman in 1926 was silent or crazy or dead.” Disarmed women and girls like Dorcas might end up with a bullet to the head. Morrison turns arms into a disturbing symbol. Not just pistols and switchblades, but the dead arm of Neola Miller. Her arm froze when her fiancé deserted her, leaving her to tell tales of moral decay “made more poignant by this clutch of arm to breast.” Men could also end up one-armed. Worried about meeting his father, Golden Gray thinks, “I thought everybody was one-armed like me . . . I am not going to be healed, or to find the arm that was removed from me. I am going to freshen the pain, point it, so we both know what it is for.”
In the final chapter, Morrison refers back to the pain that is like the loss of a limb, like the loss of an important part of the self, when the narrator claims to be in the hands of the very characters she invents her stories for. Stories that end up revealing the author’s own helplessness, as “the characters danced and walked all over [her]” even as she made them busy, “busy being original, complicated, changeable—human.” Morrison’s final chapter represents experimentation in the way she steps into and out of her own story. She pauses her authorial narration long enough to tie a bow on the ending; Violet and Joe get a sad bird that, like them, learns to harmonize with the music of the City and find pleasure in life. The narrator that is also the authorial voice turns back into an instrument and riffs about true love. It could be a saxophone, a piano, or a typewriter talking to a page that says: “But, I can’t say that out loud; I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able, I’d say it. 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.”
I have read other books by Toni Morrison and worship the pages she walks for her incredible literary art. I do not believe she intends to excuse Joe and Violet’s bad behavior but wants us to consider how disfunction gets passed from generation to generation. For some reason, Joe’s foster mother made him feel like an outsider, which added to his longing for his biological parents. Dorcas represents the troubled child Joe and Violet would never have. In a way, not bearing children breaks the cycle of poor parenting passed to Joe and Violet during their own childhoods. They had no way to learn to be good parents. For me, hope comes from the fact that Alice and Joe show kindness to Felice. They heal enough to break the cycle, and they listen to music and nurture a young woman who is the right age to be their daughter. Reading Jazz, makes me ask: What cycles of gender and racial oppression are we continuing to repeat in our own lives in the twenty-first century?
Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself, Life Empowered Publishing, 2020.
Morrison, Toni. Jazz, Vintage International, 2004.