2/28 Seminar Notes

Part one: Sir Duke, Morrison, and Jazz Sensibilities

For our first class session of Morrison’s Jazz, we began quite fittingly by listening to music. Specifically, we began our class soundtrack with the help of Duke Ellington, whose music permeated the 1920s. With the help of “Sir Duke,” as Stevie Wonder calls him, we began pondering the significance of music to this text set in 1920s Harlem.

Carter’s opening remarks focused on the relation of sound to the narrative structure of Jazz, while linking it to Corbould’s piece on sound in Harlem. He then posited that one way of entering the text was through an intertextual connection between Morrison and Brodber’s Louisiana, especially considering the role of technology in the two novels. Thinking intertextually might also help us return to Toomer’s Cane, which has a soundscape that could provide a lineage between it and Morrison, especially since both texts contrast the sounds of the urban north with those of the rural south. Additionally, Carter noted that jazz music might help us address the thematics of the text, including issues of voice, the narrative presence, the fluidity of a jazz sensibility, and the surreal passages that pepper the text. Also we cannot think about the urban north without first remembering how characters arrived there. The novel makes it clear that terror drives people out of the south and up north, and that jazz music highlights the fascination with the city.

I began the class discussion by offering my thoughts on the lack of sound in this text. Though sound is obviously present, I was interested in what remains unsaid. It seems that the collective silence from Dorcas, Violet and Alice helps link these women together, especially as women scorned. Alice and Violet in particular do not voice their disgust with the men in their lives but keep their reactions hidden. It is this silence that helps us to think about Louisiana, in that what remains unspoken cannot obscure the influence of the past on the present, despite the characters’ best efforts. Keeping with this theme of sound in the text, several of us offered our initial reactions to it. For example, Torleif focused our attention to jazz as not only the title, but also as a way to map the text. Jazz, for him, refers to the style on a “soundscape, and structural level.” Not only is the narrative voice jazz-like, but the diction of many characters reflects jazz as well. For Shana and Carter, the book is a jazz piece: the blank pages between sections represent pauses in the music, while themes from previous sections pick up as in a jazz ensemble. Moreover, with each section of this jazz piece, the perspective shifts, which again recalls a jazz tune.

At this point, Al Zumar intervened to caution us against rendering jazz as only one type of music; it is a musical genre, with different subgenres. Lest we believe jazz music to be monolithic, we must realize that a “jazz sensibility” might be an inaccurate term to describe a capacious genre of music. Indeed, Shana reminded us that the various minor characters in the text help to highlight jazz sensibilities, and we must consider them so that we get a more nuanced definition of the ways in which jazz works in the narrative. These points led to our observations about the text’s form. For Abbie, the novel represents various types of transgressions/subversions, especially since characters voice different agencies. Thinking of voice helped me to formulate my own notions of the text’s form, which I noted was unique for its improvisational quality. In other words, much like a jazz piece is often improvised, this story sounds like it is, as though the narrator reveals what she knows as the details come to her. This might explain the novel’s non-linearity. Carter added on to this by noting that the text features repetition with a difference, not unlike the music genre that titles the piece.

With that, Roseann, diverted our attention to the text, so that we could begin translating our abstract assertions using concrete textual examples to back them up. For example, repetition of the music allowed us to get inside Alice in the windowsill scene. Torleif pointed to the fact that sound in the narrative helps to push people onward, using the demonstration and march scenes as examples. Shana noted that drums fill in for the silence during the silent march on page 54, which shows that the text finds meaning beyond the visual. Pointing to the scene that includes “life of the sash,” Al Zumar articulated the various uses for sound in the text, as it constructs femininity, sexuality, and desire, especially since jazz music helped usher in a variety of “the new” during the 1920s.

As if anticipating the time to break for our class, Shana observed that for her, music represents time, since time is left unstructured in the text and perpetually based on internal rhythm. Moreover, music reveals that the text shows readers how to love, without offering a rigid definition of what love is. She pointed toward the scene of armed women to support her claim. After migrating to this new urban north, women now had a different type of freedom, while encountering their history of pain and freedom. The Lowdown Music concluded our pre-break discussion. Shana believed that the unreliable narrator is not the best person to offer commentary on this music: she is judgmental throughout the novel, even though the music helps characters experience freedom. At Tamara’s suggestion, we listened again to “Doing the New Lowdown,” and we noted that it sounds pleasurable, Disneyland-ish, and not something that would elicit a warning against doing “unwise things.” Carter reminded us of the antiquated notion that noise which signaled pleasure had to be regulated. With that our class took a break and we returned to bring in the critical material into our assessment of Morrison’s Jazz, which Al Zumar will address.

Don Ramon

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