Academic journal article African American Review

Kinds of Blue: Toni Morrison, Hans Janowitz, and the Jazz Aesthetic

Academic journal article African American Review

Kinds of Blue: Toni Morrison, Hans Janowitz, and the Jazz Aesthetic

Article excerpt

Play it, jazz band! You've got seven languages to speak in And then some ... (Langston Hughes, "Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret")

In 1951, James Baldwin wrote that" ... it is only in his music ... that the Negro of America has been able to tell his story' (24). But that same year, British jazz critic Leonard Feather published in the pages of Down Beat magazine a blindfold test with jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Throughout his distinguished career, Eldridge had repeatedly expressed his firm belief that white and black jazz musicians had distinctly different styles and that he could easily distinguish between them. When Feather took him at his word and administered the test, the results were somewhat astonishing: The musician, nicknamed "Little Jazz" by his peers, was either noncommittal or wrong much more often than he was right (Feather, Book 47). Listening to Billy Taylor's recording of, ironically, "All Ears," the seventh of ten selections, Eldridge's irritation mounted: "I liked the pianist. Couldn't tell who was colored and who was white. They could be Eskimos for all I know," he admitted and had to concede defeat in the end (Feather, "Little Jazz" 12). (1) Eldridge's blindfold test again raises the old yet still provocative question: Can white folks play the blues? If indeed the end product of a jazz performance transcends what W. E. B. Du Bois called "the problem of the color-line" (v)--can jazz itself still provide a useful critical framework for the study of black American cultural expressions? To be sure, music, instrumental music at least, is a much more abstract art form than literature, but the contemporary critic still faces the same dilemma that confronted Roy Eldridge: the apparent paradox that jazz music is at once a distinctly black American art form as well as a cultural hybrid.

Some of the challenges inherent in formulating a literary critical jazz aesthetic may be clarified by the comparison of two novels, both of which bear the title Jazz. The first one, published in 1992, is Toni Morrison's Jazz, set during the Harlem Renaissance. The second was originally published in 1927, a year after Morrison's Violet Trace mutilates the face of a dead girl at a Harlem funeral. Also entitled Jazz, this novel's plot is set in London and Paris, does not contain any major characters who are black, and was written by Hans Janowitz, a German-speaking Jew born in southern Bohemia. (2) Despite the obvious and enormous differences between Morrison and Janowitz and their books, both employ virtually identical techniques to achieve "the translation of the world into jazz music," as Janowitz puts it (24). (3) In theme, cast of characters, and setting, the two novels diverge dramatically: Morrison's grand, epic sweep interrogating the meanings of history and identity contrasts sharply with Janowitz's short, light-hearted comedy of errors. It is therefore all the more significant that both texts, in striving to forge an aesthetic of literary jazz, employ the same narrative strategies of style and structure. This, then, suggests the need for a new critical template that is not predicated primarily on form and language, as most contemporary jazz critiques are. If a critical jazz aesthetic is to be useful for the study of African American literature, it must incorporate a firm knowledge of the music's technical aspects as well as an equally firm sense of the history of both the music and the people who have been creating it.

Toni Morrison's novel Jazz is not, strictly speaking, about jazz at all. Its very first paragraph sounds the basic theme: A woman named Violet went to a funeral to mutilate the face of a dead eighteen-year-old girl who had been shot by Violet's husband in a desperate act of misguided love. This, then, is the melody on which the disembodied first-person narrative voice improvises a story, or several stories, constantly adding, revising, inventing, shifting back and forth among various characters, going back in time as far as antebellum Virginia. …

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