Literary Free Jazz? Mumbo Jumbo and Paradise: Language and Meaning

By Omry, Keren | African American Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Literary Free Jazz? Mumbo Jumbo and Paradise: Language and Meaning


Omry, Keren, African American Review


Ishmael Reed's novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Toni Morrison's Paradise (1998) stand as two crucial signposts identifying the trajectory of an African American aesthetic. Central to the aesthetics of each is a subversion of the very process of historical or generic categorization that reduces the complexity of human experience to a simplified, linear catalogue of events or trends. The authors introduce a musical sensibility into their respective writings, expanding the literary palette, the effects of which emphasize the impotence of an exclusive, deterministic, and category-bound history and disrupting a linear strategy of historical narrative. Significantly, this musical sensibility is a jazz-based one and produces a jazz aesthetic that saturates Reed's and Morrison's works.

Linking black fiction with blues and/or jazz music has, by now, an extensive scholarly history. (1) Although often widely varied in approach, this large body of scholarship has established a recognizable jazz discourse in literary analysis through which the uses and implications of these links can be explored. The emerging prevalence of this interdisciplinary discourse in critical readings of African American literature creates a contextual harmony through which the multifaceted literary roles of jazz are revealed (roles that, as in Morrison's Paradise, are not always immediately obvious or explicated).

Paradise and Mumbo Jumbo both seek constructive ways to incorporate the history of African American experience into an aesthetic that moves beyond the traditional notion of an historical narrative. Recognizing the risks of stasis and even decomposition of the narrow retrospective gaze (Morrison's description of Ruby in Paradise offers one example), Morrison and Reed use a jazz aesthetic as a way of reconciling the violent past with the new demands of the present, ultimately envisioning a future that rewrites racial and ethnic ideologies. The creative efforts of these two authors are informed by the developments in jazz music that, by the early 1960s, began to be identified as the "New Music" or "free jazz." Free jazz becomes a conceptual model through which Reed and Morrison create a new language that then begins to transform the potentially paralyzing and destructive force of the past into a much more productive, creative force. By juxtaposing these two novels, written 30 years apart by two vastly different authors, the transition in political and aesthetic sensibilities that determines their various approaches becomes clear. Reed's own investment in jazz is an explicit one, beginning from a jazz column he wrote in his adolescence and running through his poetry performances. For example, Kip Hanrahan's Conjure constitutes music composed for Reed's poetry and performed by him, as in the 2003 rendition performed in the Barbican Centre, London, with Taj Mahal, David Murray, Billy Bang, and Leo Nocentelli. As W. Lawrence Hogue asserts in an article on the postmodern jazz aesthetic that motivates the work of Reed, Morrison, and Clarence Major, Reed's literary sensibilities carefully amalgamate the world of jazz (structure, language, content, and so on) with hoodoo culture and practices as a way to countermand a modernist ethnocentricity that casts African Americans as perpetually object, Other, and/or periphery (169-70). Morrison's engagement with jazz is much more subtle; her novel Jazz, according to Hogue's scheme of alternative paradigms of modernism and their complementary postmodern critique, particularly fails to offer a viable alternative to modernist power structures. Hogue argues that her narrative yearns back to a folk culture--a nostalgia that inevitably conflicts with a postmodern challenge to the possibility of the past to offer historical redemption. Hogue's lucid explication of Morrison's jazz modernism does not stand in contrast to her critique of this paradigm in Paradise. If in The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, the blues and jazz become a structuring medium that urges a re-membering, to use her term, that is, a recollection as well as an embodiment of the past as the primary means for resolution, then Paradise moves instead as revision of historical teleology.

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