Solos and Chorus: Michael Ondaatje's Jazz Politics/Poetics

By Malcolm, Douglas | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 1999 | Go to article overview

Solos and Chorus: Michael Ondaatje's Jazz Politics/Poetics


Malcolm, Douglas, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Given that jazz is a relatively recent musical form, it is not surprising that studies of its connection to literature are few in comparison to the discussions of the relations between literature and classical music, where indeed the proliferation of such discussion has developed to the point of occasioning some specialists to define and insist upon criteria for "valid" comparisons. Thus in the section on "Literature and Music" in the 1990 Modern Language Association manual entitled Teaching Literature and Other Arts, Robert Spaethling has emphasized the need to distinguish between literary works/studies in which music functions as a metaphor/allusion and those in which music functions as a structural device. More recently, in Performing Rites, Simon Frith clarifies the grounds for such a distinction when he explains that a musical genre consists of a "a set of musical events (real or possible) whose course is governed by a definite set of socially accepted rules" (91). Structural comparisons draw upon the formal rules that distinguish a musical genre from other genres whereas metaphoric comparisons usually make use of non-formal rules which Frith, following the pioneering work on musical genre of Franco Fabbri, itemizes as the semiotic, the ideological, the behavioral and the commercial (91-93). To date, most of the jazz/literature connections have been of the metaphoric kind; E Scott Fitzgerald's description of the 1920s as the "Jazz Age" (Tirro 170), for example, evokes the ideology of cultural subversion and restless excitement that white audiences associated with the music and, though usually unacknowledged, with African-Americans. More cogent is Ralph Ellison's recognition in his essay on Charlie Christian in Shadow and Act (233-40) of the semiotic importance of jazz in African-American culture which is evinced by the way that he and other black writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin associate the improvised nature of such music with the thoughts and emotions of their characters. In the case of Jack Kerouac, however, there is an attempt to exploit not merely the metaphoric possibilities of jazz but also to use it as a structuring device. Not only was On the Road written on a roll of toilet paper so that the composition could, like jazz improvisation, occur "in a continuous manner without the benefit of rewrites,' as Ted Gioia observes (Art 61), but as Kerouac himself argued in his Book of Blues, these jazz poems were "limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus" (1).

If we look, in turn, for a more contemporary example of a writer who enlists both the metaphoric and structural potential of jazz few are more instructive than Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, probably best known by movie-goers for the Oscar-winning success of the recent film adaptation of his 1992 novel, The English Patient. While always interested in the cinematic, his earlier works also include several jazz-influenced pieces that utilize the postmodern technique of merging the actual and the imagined. For example, in a poem from the 1984 volume Secular Love, he has the blues singer Bessie Smith, who died in 1937, perform as an angel at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall which opened in 1982. Similarly, in his 1976 novel, Coming Through Slaughter, he imagines the life of the actual jazz musician Buddy Bolden, one of the progenitors of jazz whose music was never recorded. It is, however, in his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, that Ondaatje's use of jazz is most sustained and most extends beyond the metaphoric to inform the structuring of the work.

Discussing the gestation of Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje has noted that he was influenced by three sources: Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural at the Detroit Institute of Art, cubism, and "jazz with its solos and chorus" (qtd. in Butterfield 165). While the debt that he here acknowledges most directly is to Rivera's mural, it is also possible to see, as Ondaatje does in the novel, a theoretical commonality between these three apparently disparate sources, and one could argue that the jazz element is perhaps more pervasive than he himself realizes. …

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