Study Guide

Jazz Art and Culture: Jazz Music

By Toni Morrison

Art and Culture: Jazz Music

Up there, in that part of the City—which is the part they came for—the right tune whistled in the doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot to cool. (2.45)

Jazz is pretty awesome music. It was even awesomer back when it was totally new sounding and was breaking all of the musical rules. It's so powerful and sexy that it can definitely raise the temperature in a room (bow chicka bow bow), and it can be so sad that it makes you weep.

They did not know for sure, but they suspected that the dances were beyond nasty because the music was getting worse and worse with each passing season the Lord waited to make Himself known. Songs that used to start in the head and fill the heart had dropped on down, down to places below the sash and the buckled belts. (3.6)

Cue the sultry saxophone solo. Alice is a little flustered by this newfangled music and kids these days, because her understanding of music is pious and about God instead about hooking up with a hot neighbor and wearing scandalous lipstick.

It was the music. The dirty, get-on-down music the woman sang and the men played and both danced to, close and shameless or apart and wild. (3.10)

What would Alice have thought about twerking? We think she would have fainted. But this quote reinforces why 1920s-themed parties are awesome even today: The 1920s saw the advent of the first really sexy dancing. Part of it was totally the lack of corsets, and the other part of it was jazz.

Yet Alice Manfred swore she heard a complicated anger in (the music); something hostile that disguised itself as flourish and roaring seduction. But the part she hated most was its appetite. It faked happiness, faked welcome, but it did not make her feel generous, this juke joint, barrel hooch, tonk house, music. It made her hold her hand in the pocket of her apron to keep from smashing it through the glass pane to snatch the world in her fist and squeeze the life out of it for doing what it did and did and did to her and everybody else she knew or knew about. (3.13)

You know how they say the opposite of love isn't hate, but apathy? Yeah, Alice certainly hates jazz music, but it's totally getting to her—she's not quite liberated enough to appreciate the sexy side of jazz, but she is aware enough to feel the anger in jazz. Why would jazz musicians have anything to be angry about? Uh, check out our thoughts on violence elsewhere in this section, guys.

Wondering at this totally silent night, she can go back to bed, but as soon as she turns the pillow to the smoother, cooler side a melody line she doesn't remember where from sings itself, loud and unsolicited, in her head. "When I was young and in my prime, I could get my barbeque any old time." (3.15)

Pro-tip: "Barbeque" in this context doesn't mean a delicious brisket sandwich; it means sexytimes. If you hear any food references in jazz, consider these to be references to sex. If you hear any nature metaphors in jazz, those are also about sex. If you hear any references to snakes… You get the idea. A cigar is never just a cigar, everyone.

While her aunt worried about how to keep the heart ignorant of the hips and the head in charge of both, 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. (3.16)

So Dorcas is not like her aunt Alice. She thinks that jazz is exciting and sexy, and the idea of proximity to jazz players is thrilling. And with lyrics like this, and metaphors for playing instruments that are this scandalous, we can't really blame her.

And when "Wings Over Jordan" came on he probably turned the volume down so he could hear her when she sang along with the choir instead of up so as to drown out her rendition of "Lay my body down." (4.9)

New love is sweet: It's that period of romance when you want to hear your BF or GF sing more than you want to hear an actual recording. Violet has been married to Joe long enough that he just wants to hear professional musicians do their thing.

Young men on the rooftops changed their tune; spit and fiddled with the mouthpiece for a while and when they put it back in and blew out their cheeks it was just like the light of that day, pure and steady and kind of kind. (9.2)

Jazz isn't just about sexytimes, it's also about the entirety of life, man, so it can be pure and bright, too. Someone should tell Alice that.

Somebody in the house across the alley put a record on and the music floated in to us through the open window. Mr. Trace moved his head to the rhythm and his wife snapped her fingers in time. (9.55)

You know your relationship is back on track when you can dance again after arguing. So even though Joe and Violet are both a little nutso, and even though their marriage was on the rocks for a little bit after following a little touch of cheating 'n' murder, it looks like clear skies ahead in the Trace household.

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