“Expectations” for Morrison’s Novel “Jazz”

Okay, I wanted to make a post before I started reading Jazz. It has taken slightly longer to write than I thought it would and most of that time was spent on making it coherent. I want to try and talk about “expectations” for Toni Morrison’s novel. I put the word “expectations” into scare quotes because I want to make it clear that I am referring to the definition, “A strong belief that something will happen or be the case” and not “A belief that someone will or should achieve something” (my italics). This post is going to be about some things that I think might happen in the book, not plot wise (by which I mean I’m not going to talk about the plot, but the ideas I’m going to present could still manifest in the plot), but more along the lines of the novel’s form and structure. It’s probably even more accurate to say that I’m not going to talk about thing that I believe are going to happen, but things that I’m going to pay specific attention to throughout my reading. I’ve never read the book before, so I’m drawing these “expectations” from the Morrison books we have read so far, some scholarly articles I’ve read for Dr. McCoy in the past, and my very limited understanding of Jazz Music.

 

INTERPOLATION (Not really necessary to read)

It would be accurate to say that I was raised on “The Great American Songbook.” I used to believe that my Father had raised me on Jazz, but I have since amended that belief. The Jazz that played in my house from the time I was born was mostly big band Jazz such as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Glen Miller. From my limited understanding of Jazz history, this type of Jazz became less popular in the 40’s as Bebop Jazz became more popular. Bebop Jazz is more improvisational than Big band jazz and involves less players (this was apparently one of the reasons it became the primary form of Jazz; less players meant it was less expensive.) Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane could be considered bebop. I’ve only been listening to Bebop Jazz for about a year, but I’ve listened to enough of it to confidently say that it is not quite like any other music I’ve ever listened to. Bebop is the type of “jazz” I will refer to throughout this post.

END INTERPOLATION

 

There are four main categories that I’m going to pay attention to while reading this novel. These four categories are: Movement, unpredictability/accident, time/rhythm, and repetition/recursion.

These four categories do not operate according to the same dynamics that govern oil and water. These categories will blend. One of the main sources I’m drawing from is James A. Snead’s “On Repetition In Black Culture.” This essay will be familiar to those of you who have taken African American literature with Dr. McCoy, however the essay also reappeared this semester in a footnote in Dr. McCoy’s “The Archive of The Archive of The Archive.” The quote Dr. McCoy references in her paper is, “Whenever we encounter repetition in cultural forms” we are viewing the, “willed grafting onto a culture of a philosophical insight about the shape and time of history.” Snead’s claim about the significance of repetition is applicable to both jazz music and to Toni Morrison’s novels. In his paper Snead explains some of the different ways that different cultures have historically interpreted repetition. The concept of Repetition cannot occur without some concept of Time. Snead writes that within European history there has been a, “debate in Western culture over the question of the shape of history”—History and Time aren’t necessarily the same thing, but in this quote Snead is using them almost interchangeably. Over the course of hundreds of years, the dominant European model of Time became a linear one. However, a linear system is one that is not friendly with the idea of Repetition. According to Snead, the linear European model dealt with this by viewing repetitions with a “quality of difference” that allowed them to conceive Time and History as something that was both linear and “progressive”. Now, more importantly for our purposes (although I believe the entire concept is important and the essay should and can be read here), Snead holds that “black culture comes to terms with its perception of repetition, precisely by highlighting that perception” and that “Black Culture highlights the observance of such repetition, often in homage to an original and generative instance of act.” This perception of Repetition can be seen in Jazz music. Snead addresses this, “in the musical meaning of the ‘cut’ as an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series.” The idea of a “cut” is important because it is a tool used by Black culture in order to “comes to terms” with Repetition.

Not only does European culture refuse to view Repetition as anything other than progress or regress, it also views “accidents and surprises” as completely incompatible to any concept of progressive history. Again, Snead points out that “European culture does not allow ‘a succession of accidents and surprises,’” unlike Black culture which builds “accidents” into its culture, “almost as if to control their unpredictability.” So, instead of maintaining “the illusions of progress and control at all costs” Black culture “attempts to confront accident and rupture…by making room for them inside the system itself.” This is another concept that is clearly expressed in jazz music through the usage of improvisation.

In the paper, “African-American Women’s Quilting” by Elsa Barkley Brown (another paper we looked at in African American Literature, and it can be found here). The paper is worth multiple readings, but for the purposes of this post I’m only going to call attention to a small portion. In the paper, Barkley Brown addresses the visual aesthetics of African quilts, some of the phrases used to describe these aesthetics are equally applicable to jazz music. Such phrases include: “Afro-American quilters control their improvisations” (Barkley Brown attributes this quote to Maude Southwell Wahlman and John Scully) and “creating the impression of several patterns moving in different directions or multiple rhythms within the context of a controlled design.”

Barkley Brown goes on to describe the conversational tradition of gumbo ya ya, “a creole term that means ‘Everybody talks at once.’” She relates this term directly to jazz, “In jazz…each musician has to listen to what the other is doing and know how to respond while each is, at the same time, intent upon her/his own improvisation.”

Okay, now, how does any of this relate to Toni Morrison? Well, obviously repetition has occurred throughout both of the Morrison novels we’ve read; a recent example being consecutive chapters in Beloved that begin, “I am Beloved and she is mine” (248/253) the latter chapter is filled with repetition and ends with, “You are mine/You are mine/You are mine.” (256) The more specific repetitive tool of the “cut” is used in A Mercy where every alternating chapter is written Florens’ point of view. I’m not going to go into extreme detail about the concept of time (I’ll save that for a later post), but I think I can comfortably say that neither of the Morrison novels we’ve read in class have regarded the concept of time as being strictly “linear.”

I feel like this post has somewhat lost its line of thought. But I hope have made some sort of vague point. Basically, I think there are some interesting and important similarities between the structure/form of Morrison’s novels and the structure/form of jazz music. With that being said, I’m going to pay specific attention to these similarities in a Morrison’s novel Jazz.

If I’ve done anything successful with this post it’s to bring both Snead’s essay and Barkley Brown’s into our class discussion.

Finally, a couple examples of songs that I think demonstrate some of the concepts addressed in this post. John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C” and Kamasi Washington’s “Re Run Home.”

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