The Morrison Songbook: Proliferation in Jazz

By Dobozy, Tamas | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2009 | Go to article overview

The Morrison Songbook: Proliferation in Jazz


Dobozy, Tamas, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In Toni Morrison's Jazz, Harlem's streets are like the groove in a record--at once a scene of oppression and release: "What [the city] is is decisive, and if you pay attention to the street plans, all laid out, the City can't hurt you" (8). It is the city that "decides"; it is imperative to know its "plans" if one is to remain "unhurt."

This is not the first time that the city (that is, the western city) appears as instrumentality--as civic space, architecture, and medium. Before Jazz, Michel de Certeau wrote of the "walking exile," "body of legends," and "dreams" of urban pedestrians (107), whose myriad itineraries exceed the regulatory design of the city with choices too innumerable to predict or control. In Morrison's Harlem, civic regulations are everywhere subverted by African Americans, writes Sylvia Meyer, whose article identifies Harlem as a "paradise" (preparing for my own Utopian reading of urban space in Jazz) insofar as it "[insists] on human possibility" (354), the exercise of individual agency. One learns to remain "unhurt" by not "compromising" "street plans": "All you have to do is heed the design--the way it's laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go, and what you might need tomorrow" (Morrison 9). It is here that the city (which Morrison's narrator "loves") is also liberating, for its laws provide for improvisatory lawlessness. In Harlem bodies react to prepared layouts, permitted routes, signs, obstructions, and walls, ever "mindful" that regulations command the present and "tomorrow." Volition, force, motion--kinetic processes--occur in the static routes of urban blueprints, which, configuring the possibilities for civic space, supplant the unpredictability of movement with the predictability of design. In this way, Jazz observes two Harlems, one regulatory and one liberating. Like Certeau, Morrison celebrates the way day-to-day activity exceeds institutional regulation.

In Jazz, civic space, technology, music, and literature are scenes static and dynamic. Systems that enforce regulation, repetition, and control inevitably provide for hybridity, improvisation, and release. Jazz witnesses the excess of human behaviour in real time, against the atemporality of the discursively instituted sites of Law, or "the rules |. . .] imposed by a rationality founded on established rights and property" (39). Institutional codes, procedures, regulations, and technologies govern behaviour in time, making it predictable, transforming its "subjects [. . .] into operators of the writing machine that orders and uses them" (136). Certeau's view of western scriptural economies--which subordinate process (action open to circumstance) to discourse (knowing that regulates circumstance)--furthers the work of Morrison scholars who explore the importance of musical improvisation on the novel's vision of liberation and community. Morrisons utopianism--improvisatory, processual, in concert with the possibilities offered by time (change)--critiques the fixity of Law, which, in trying to control possibility, tries to transcend time. Utopia is thus less the place of Law than the no-place of action (which does not abide in and by discourse). This embrace of possibilities outside of institutional frameworks--the infinitely variable uses to which institutions are put--is expressed in the novel through jazz, which is not repeatable. Its repetitions are never the same, not even on records.

Morrison conflates civic authority and recording technology, specifically in the form of Bluebird records, a label founded in 1932 for the sale of popular songs, including jazz. Bluebird records take the performing voice, varied from moment to moment, and try to make it repeatable. The technology separates performance from temporal context, as in Morrison's description of a street singer:

  He is bound to the track. It pulls him like a needle through the
  groove of a Bluebird record. Round and round about the town. … 

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