Study Guide

Jazz Tone

By Toni Morrison

Tone

Matter-of-fact, Sensual, Tender

If there's one thing we want you to take away from this learning guide about Jazz, it's that this book contains some serious multitudes. And when there are as many narrative perspectives and voices floating around as there are in Jazz, you just know there are going to be a bunch of tones.

A piece of jazz music doesn't contain just one tone (that would be a really boring song) and neither does Jazz. Depending on what is being described, and who is doing the describing, the tone switches around like an angry cat's tail.

One of the most notable tones is the matter-of-fact tone used to describe the violence in Jazz. It's stated as simply as changes in the weather might be noted. We've totally heard people get more riled up about incoming rainstorms than the narrators in Jazz get about shootings, stabbings, beatings, and arson.

Here are some notable quotes about violence:

"He was pulled off a streetcar and stomped to death, and Alice's sister had just got the news and gone back home to try and forget the color of his entrails, when her house was torched and she burned crispy in flames."

And:

"When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church."

These quotes aren't exactly panic-stricken, are they? The first quote gives us two acts of horrific violence—a freaking stomping and a freaking burning-to-death—and the only adjective we get is "crispy." Like bacon. That's not an adjective that conveys a lot of emotion. Why is this? Because the characters that populate Jazz have gotten altogether too used to disgusting racially motivated violence. They're numb.

The second quote gives us the whoa-now-hey-there-what-just-happened part of the sentence—"tried to cut her dead face"—as a clause in the middle of a sentence about a woman getting thrown out of church. Violence is something that is so commonplace as to be buried in the middle of a sentence. If we saw this happen, you can bet we'd write about it in all caps with fifteen exclamation marks tacked to the end of the sentence. Heck, we might even just put it as a stand-alone fragment.

There's also a serious strain of sensuality in Jazz that's hard to ignore. This novel tackles two pretty sexy things: jazz and New York City. And it definitely doesn't hold back its, er, emotion, when discussing them.

To be fair, a lot of the euphemisms used to describe jazz were a little racy to begin with. But when you collect them all, as in the following quote, you get a tone that is pretty dang raunchy:

Dorcas lay on a chenille bedspread, tickled and happy knowing that there was no place to be where somewhere, close by, somebody was not licking his licorice stick, tickling the ivories, beating his skins, blowing off his horn while a knowing woman sang ain't nobody going to keep me down you got the right key baby but the wrong keyhole you got to get it bring it and put it right here, or else.

Excuse us while we fan ourselves. The same tone is used to describe the City itself. In this quote, both a beautiful woman and architecture are described in the same yearning, lustful tone:

But if she is clipping quickly down the big-city street in heels, swinging her purse, or sitting on a stoop with a cool beer in her hand, dangling her shoes from the toes of her foot, the man, reacting to her posture, to soft skin on stone, the weight of the building stressing the delicate, dangling shoes is captured.

What is sexy in this quote is not just the woman, but also the very buildings of New York.

Lastly, for all of its depressing-as-Thanksgiving-alone-eating-gas-station-hotdogs content, the ending of Jazz is pretty dang hopeful. Violet and Joe are back together, and the tone lets us know just how content they are. Check it out:

A lot of the time, though, they stay at home figuring things out, telling each other those little personal stories they like to hear again and again…

This quote is pretty spare as far as description goes, but the choice of adjectives is tender. The stories they like to hear are "little" and "personal," and the repetition of "again" gives us the feeling that Violet and Joe aren't getting sick of their stories, and they're not getting sick of each other. Aw.

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