Bill Evans said, “Jazz is a mental attitude rather than a style. It uses certain processes of the mind expressed spontaneously through some musical instrument.” Although a relatively new genre of music, jazz developed quickly and swiftly gained popularity. Jazz defied the conventional styles of music because it used a distinct relationship with time and focused largely on improvisation. Furthermore, a melody or tune is rarely interpreted in the same way. Instead, each performer creates a unique variation based on his or her perceptions. The different interpretations allow performers to create their individual music. While the novel Jazz, by Toni Morrison, does not focus on this beautiful genre of music, it still utilizes a number of qualities distinctive to jazz music to develop the characters to a deeper level and the effects of racial oppression on love. Similar to jazz, Morrison strays from conventional uses of language, incorporates effects of improvisation, portrays vivid and sensual imagery, and utilizes the power of retelling the story through different vantage points.
In her novel, Jazz, Morrison avoids the use of conventional English language, which is shown through her punctuation and incomplete sentences. Throughout the book, she incorporates fragments into her work rather than complete sentences. On the first page, she uses the fragment “Know her husband, too,” which lacks a subject (1). Furthermore, towards the end of the book, she writes, “Caught midway between was and must be” (226). By leaving out the subject, she requires the reader to infer or interpret the desired meaning. Because she does not explicitly state the subject, there is greater emphasis on the overall meaning. The reader is less focused on minute details and focused more on the important thoughts, which allow for better understanding. It requires the reader to follow the flow of the book rather than read everything sentence by sentence. There is no need to deliberately scan each line; instead, the reader must follow the rhythm set by the phrases and passages. Jazz follows a flowing, rhythmic patter, much like jazz music. It lacks inhibition and reeks of spontaneity. Jazz focuses on improvisation rather than arranged scripts and Morrison attempts to capture this quality through her unconventional use of the English language. Furthermore, by using incomplete sentences, the text appears more similar to a stream of thoughts that ooze out without any inhibition or filter. This allows for a greater focus on the deeper meaning of the novel and the effects of racial oppression on love. Morrison uses a unique and unconventional writing style similar to that of jazz music, which is unique in almost every way. There are clearly jazz influences in Morrison’s work and they allow her to develop her story to a deeper level.
In addition to her unconventional use of language, Morrison also uses little organization and events in the novel are presented out of sequential order. There is a lack of sequential order in the novel, such as how part 1 is after Violent slashed Dorcas’ corpse while part 2 focuses on how Joe and Dorcas meet and their affair. Morrison warps time and decreases its importance. This shift in time again allows for less emphasis on developing a plot event by event but rather painting a more cohesive image of the characters. Morrison jumps around and warps time by not telling the events in sequential order and having one event lead to another event. By doing so, she is able to expand the dimensions of he characters by constantly shifting from their past to the present and vice versa. The decreased emphasis on sequential order increases the importance of the story as a whole. Rather than understanding how one event led to another, the reader is able to understand the situations and feelings of the characters. This allows for a deeper and extensive development of the characters. Although time is warped, this peculiarity of her writing style works. There is less emphasis on portraying details and developing characters through conventional methods, such as leading up to the climax. After all, the most climactic moments of the story are when Joe shoots Dorcas and Violet mutilates Dorcas’ corpse, which are both presented in the first chapter. Instead, Morrison uses more of a rhythmic and musical way to unload and transfer the story to the reader. This transfer of information is similar to how music conveys its messages to the audience. Similar to jazz music, there is more focus placed on the larger picture and general moods and feelings elicited from the work. This lack of organization in the novel allows Morrison to create a similar effect of emphasizing the deeper development of characters rather than focusing on the superficial events.
Along with the effects of improvisation, Morrison also uses vivid and sensual imagery, which is similar to the sensual tones and melodies found in jazz music. When describing the nightclub that Dorcas went to, Morrison used “But there is enough dazzle and mischief here, where partners cling or exchange at the urging of a heartbreaking vocal” (188). She fills the book with vivid and descriptive language that paints a picture rather than simply describing something. It allows for better understanding of the settings and situations that the characters experience. The imagery aids the reader in creating visual representations and greater comprehension. Jazz music is bold and sensual, a quality that she captures in Jazz. “Silhouettes kiss behind curtains; playful fingers examine and caress” (193). The sensual images of the nightclub paint a better portrait in fewer words. The reader is able to better grasp the situations in which the characters interact. They have a musical quality that is compelling. Jazz music is able to present emotions and feelings effectively and the vibrant imagery helps achieve this. It has sensual tones and melodies that create an amorous ambiance.In music, there is a need to feel the music and embrace it. Through the incorporation of vivid imagery, Morrison effectively creates a picture in the readers mind and allows the reader to “feel” how the characters feel. Characters, such as Violet, might appear deranged at first, but there is greater understanding of her situation. Furthermore, the emphasis on sensual tones reflects that of jazz. There is a sort of soothing and stimulating feature of jazz music that Morrison utilizes well. Jazz stimulates the reader in terms of achieving understanding and forcing the reader to abandon conventional approaches to reading. This along with the rhythmic flow of the text creates a more in-depth understanding and also has a stronger affect on the reader. She is able to tackle the issue of racial oppression by using her unique style. Her time period required something drastic and strong to break the racial barriers and injustice. Just as jazz had much success, Jazz is appealing for its similar use of language and imagery.
Finally, Morrison includes multiple versions of the same general story but each has slight variations and revisions. This is similar to how there can be many interpretations of jazz songs. How one person interprets a jazz song can be different than how another person interprets the same song. One can interpret a certain meaning of sensuality, while another can perceive a means of expression. In Jazz, the story of Joe’s affair and Violet’s violent actions of mutilating Dorcas’ corpse are told a few times, but from different perspectives. Each recount has a slight variation and place emphasis on different elements. For example part 1 focuses more on Violet while part 2 places more emphasis on Joe. Later in the novel, Morrison presents a narrative that is more revolved on Dorcas and the moments leading up to when she was shot. Although the story is generally the same, the variations differ in their focus of how the events impacted each character and the factors that affect each character’s actions. It creates multiple versions of the same story that when combined to create a story with many dimensions. The resulting effect is that by the end of the story the reader understands nearly every aspect of the characters. There is greater understanding of the forces that compelled characters to act in the way they did, such as why Joe had an affair with Dorcas and why he shot her. He felt an absence and felt that Dorcas filled that space. But when she broke off the arrangement he felt the same sort of abandonment as when his mother left him. The different versions of the story are from different vantage points. Jazz performers tend to recreate and modify a tune in distinct ways. The same tune is often never repeated. This is similar to Morrison’s novel where although the story, or tune, is repeated, there are a number of variations that show the different vantage points. Toni Morrison’s Jazz utilizes distinctive jazz qualities. Jazz is every bit as unconventional as jazz music. Both stray from norms in their respective fields and both achieve a great amount of success. By incorporating jazz characteristics in her writing, Morrison is able to capture the spontaneity created through improvisation. She does this through less emphasis on grammar and organization. Furthermore, she adopts the sensual qualities of jazz and meshes them into her writing. Finally, a key component of jazz is the variations that allow for multiple interpretations of a tune by both performers and listeners. Morrison is able to show the different perspectives of the characters as well as leave room for the reader’s judgments. The influence of jazz music on her writing is undeniable and makes her work that much more compelling and effective.