Study Guide

Jazz

By Toni Morrison

Jazz Introduction

Maybe you think you know the Jazz Age: You've been to a couple of Great Gatsby-themed parties, you wore a sweet pair of two-toned shoes or some long pearls, and you've listened to a couple of old Louis Armstrong songs. Maybe you've even seen the Ken Burns documentary.

No offense, Shmooper, but until you read Jazz and wander down the seductive streets of Harlem circa 1926 with Toni Morrison as your guide, your Jazz Age education is totally lacking. Because what Morrison does in Jazz is to give a sense of both the scandal of jazz music and its historical context. The Jazz Age was the sexiest, most provocative era since the toga parties of Ancient Rome, and people of the time were super shocked. Hemlines alone rose two feet in the span of a decade. Imagine if skirts today were two feet shorter than skirts a decade ago. Scandalous, right?

This novel opens with a bang—literally. Fifty-year-old Joe Trace shoots his eighteen-year-old girlfriend dead, and Joe's wife, Violet, bum-rushes her corpse at the funeral and tries to cut her face. Mayhem ensues.

What kind of mayhem? The kind that only the Jazz Age can provide: cheating spouses and wayward women and knives and guns and illegitimate children and a lovesick parrot. Jazz, like jazz music itself, is composed of multiple voices and every character is either crazy or lying about something. Jazz, like jazz music itself, finds its roots in some of the most violent and hate-ridden chapters of American history.

Jazz was published in 1992, a year before Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Coincidence? We think not. It's also the middle book in a trilogy that explores African American history, starting with Beloved (which won the Pulitzer Prize—jeez, Toni Morrison, way to take all the prizes) and ending with Paradise.

So basically, Jazz is what happens when one of the most lauded American authors writes about the most original American musical form, the most scandalous decade of the American 20th century, and one of the most despicable chapters in American history. What's more American than apple pie? Jazz. And its prose is just as delicious.

What is Jazz About and Why Should I Care?

We always thought synesthesia—the condition where senses overlap—would be the coolest. Imagine being able to taste shapes, or smell colors, or feel odors. Or even hear music as you read. How cool would that be?

Luckily for you, luckily for us, luckily for everyone, this is exactly what Toni Morrison has given us in Jazz. Okay, you might not actually be hearing the saxophones and the trumpet solos and the velvety clarinet, but for all of us boring people without the superpower of synesthesia, this book is the closest you'll get to sweet sensory overlap.

Because this is a novel that's written as jazz. It takes the components that make jazz jazzy: the solos, the presence of distinct voices, the improvisational feel, the sadness, the sexiness, and most importantly, the defiance against traditional forms—and makes it all literary.

If this idea leaves you with a "Mind. Blown." sort of feeling, fear not. It's this cerebral ka-pow that makes Jazz (and jazz) so freaking awesome. Like jazz music, Jazz can be tricky and nonsensical, but that's the point: Jazz, jazz, and (dare we say?) life are all tricky and nonsensical.

According to writer Gerald Ealy, the three most beautiful things that American culture has ever created—what we'll be remembered for in two thousand years—are the Constitution, baseball, and jazz music. We're guessing a novelization of the Constitution would be a little dry, and the whole baseball-is-life thing is a little tired, but a novelization of the musical form that broke all the rules is not tired, and it's definitely not dry. Sex, violence, insanity, and history all vie for position in Jazz.

And when sex, violence, insanity, and history all battle in a novel by Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison, the reader wins. Oh, and the reader also gains a new and awesome appreciation of jazz. Double win for you, reader.

Jazz Resources

Websites

What Was Harlem in 1926 Like?
Here's a walking tour, led by Langston Hughes.

Make Jazz Jazzier
More essays on Jazz than you can shake a clarinet at.

High Society
The Toni Morrison society has literature on Morrison, hosts events and symposiums, and is affiliated with Bucknell University. If you love Morrison and you're looking for a place where fandom meets Lit Crit, this is the place for you.

BioSphere
Check out Morrison's biography and marvel at the life of the woman and her awesome literary prowess.

East St. Louis Riots
Learn more about the East St. Louis race riots, responsible for Dorcas's parents' deaths. It's a truly appalling chapter in American history.

Articles and Interviews

Morrison in Paris
The Paris Review is famous for its awesome and awesomely well-researched author interviews. Morrison's interview doesn't disappoint.

Women Singing the Blues in Jazz
This article is not only seriously intellectually stimulating, it's also full of that great food innuendo you've learned to love.

"Predicting the Past"
Morrison chats with the Guardian on the other side of the pond—about her books, Obama, and much more.

More Morrison, More Better
Another Morrison interview, this time with Salon. The awesomeness keeps coming fast and furious.

Jazz from Jazz
If there's any book that needs a musical accompaniment, Jazz is it. Here's the very tip of the jazz iceberg.

Video

So. Much. Morrison.
We squealed with joy when we saw just how much Morrison goodness happens in this video.

Harlem Renaissance On Film
The History channel does Jazz in its video on the Harlem Renaissance.

How Morrison Writes
Straight from Morrison herself, her thoughts on process and why she writes at all—especially about the past.

What did Harlem in 1926 sound like?
A jazzy 1926 track for your enjoyment.

Audio

Good Ghosts, Good Golly
It doesn't surprise us in the least that Morrison has had some ghostly experience. What was Dorcas if not a ghost girl?

Can't Stop, Won't Stop
Decades years after receiving the Nobel Prize, the accolades keep rolling in for Morrison and her work.

Jazz Novice No More
We couldn't let you finish up Jazz without throwing some jazz songs your way to get you started on your musical education. Here's a playlist of the greatest jazz songs of all time, compiled by thousands of voters.

Images

Wedding Belles
This is a picture of a wedding party taken in Harlem, 1926. We want to time travel now, please.

Pretty In Pink
The original cover art for Jazz was pretty awesome, and pretty pink.

Dorcas's Style Icon?
A jazzy woman in 1920s Harlem.