• Jazz, Vol. 1

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in WBN News & Events     Comments 32 comments

    Welcome, old and newcomers, and many thanks for participating in our month-long discussion of Jazz. To those of you new to the book, I’m stupid jealous that you’re getting to discover it for the first time.

    This week we’re discussing sections 1-3, which in my Plume paperback copy takes us through page 87 and leaves off with Violet and Alice talking in the latter’s apartment. Discussion questions are in bold, if you’d prefer to skip over all of my cockamamie analysis. Leave your comments below, and check the “Notify” button to receive updates via email.


    Have Mercy

    What better way to kick-start a discussion than to piss everybody off? Eric Miles Williamson is a writer and critic down here in good old Texas, and I recently read a piece he wrote on Morrison’s A Mercy. Here are a few choice quotes:

    “I’m no fan of Toni Morrison and her lachrymose characters, her predictable subject matter (downtrodden Negroes), the obviousness of her hatred for white men (as if every one of us is a slave-owning rapist), the in-your-face ad miseracordiam whine and wimper [sic] that runs through all her oeuvre.”

    And then later:

    “When a stinking bum on the streets hassles me for money, I want to kick him in the teeth with my cowboy boot. But when I see someone quietly shivering in the cold, I want to give him my jacket and my pocket money and buy him a meal, and I’ve done so. Morrison seems pathologically compelled to beg for our sympathy: I want to kick her characters in the teeth.”

    Does Toni Morrison “beg for our sympathy?” Does she have an obvious “hatred for white men?” Or is Williamson misreading her work? If so, how?

    [In a (somewhat) related piece, our own Jacqui Bryant writes here about having labels (“minority, black, African-American”) associated with her writing.]

    [Also, rather than rehash what I’ve already written about the opening, I’ll point you to this blog post I wrote exploring the opening six lines. No obligation to read it. But if you do, you can skip down to the section heading titled “Sth.”]


    Who in the *^&*%* is Telling This Story?

    One major point of debate in this book is, who is the narrator, or who are the narrators. Opinions vary widely. Some think the City is the narrator. Others believe it’s Morrison herself, as writer, or even that the narrator is some sort of representation of jazz. Other considered possibilities include a rotating POV between some of the major characters.

    Or that the narrators are a group of people sitting around telling the story together, one picking up where the other leaves off. For example, on (my) page 24, where Section 1 ends with talk of the parrot who says “I love you,” and then Section 2 picks up with “Or used to.” Most of the chapters here, if not all of them, bleed into the next in this fashion.

    What do you guys think? Who is narrating Sections 1-3? (Let’s try not to skip too far ahead–or if you do, please begin your comment with “Spoiler Alert.”)

    Here are a few samples of the first-person narration that may provide evidence one way or another:

    “I haven’t got any muscles, so I can’t really be expected to defend myself. But I do know how to take precaution. Mostly it’s making sure no one knows all there is to know about me.” (8)

    “I lived a long time, maybe too much, in my own mind. People say I should come out more. Mix. I agree that I close off in places …” (9)

    “I have seen the City do an unbelievable sky …” (35-36)

    “I’ve wondered about it. What he [Joe] thought then and later, and what he said to her [Dorcas].” (71)

    If I keep this up I’ll never finish this post and you guys will bombard me with “tl;dr.” So let me quickly get to some other highlights.


    Joe and Violet

    After returning from her disruption of the funeral, Violet lets her birds go, “set[s] them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.'” (1) To me, this is reminiscent of a mother whose children leave the home to start lives of their own. Like in much of Morrison’s work, motherhood is a key theme in Jazz. What does this moment, letting go her birds, mean to Violet? What does it tell us about her that she teaches her parrot to mimic “I love you?” (Assuming she’s the one who did so)

    And Joe. He’s comfortable telling Dorcas about this moment back in Virginia when, as a child, he hoped his mother might acknowledge him as her son. Joe never tells anyone about this, until “the fall of 1925 when he had somebody to tell it to. Somebody called Dorcas.” (37) Why can Joe say to Dorcas what he’s never been able to say to Violet?

    When Joe is talking to Malvonne he says that Violet is “Cooking pork I can’t eat,” and then later we read, “Joe looked forward to the lean, scrappy end-of-week meals, but hated the Sunday one: a baked ham.” (68-69) What is this issue with Joe and pork and Violet’s cooking?


    From Point B to Point A

    Morrison has a habit–in all of her books–of early on alluding to an incident that will come much later, without making it clear in that first mention what the import is. For example, those of you who know Jazz are familiar with the importance of Golden Grey, who isn’t even mentioned by name in this first part. But as early as page 17, we read about “the hair of the little boy who got his name from it … the blond boy who ran away from them depriving everybody of his carefully loved hair.”

    Or later, on 23, several chapters ahead of where we see the scene where Joe first lays eyes on Dorcas, we read, “Long before Joe stood in the drugstore watching a girl buy candy, Violet had stumbled into a crack or two.” Morrison does this again and again. What does she gain from this tactic? Are these passages supposed to build intrigue and keep you looking ahead? Do they?



    Morrison writes about plenty of historical events (the 1917 East St. Louis Riot and the resulting Silent Parade, to name two), but she also alludes to some that I can’t find any info on (“the 27th Battalion betrayed,” “the fate of the S.S. Ethiopia“). Harlem and NYC are real, of course, but Vesper County doesn’t exist, nor do most of the towns it contains. Why the mix of factual and fictional when it comes to historic events/places in this book?


    Music and the City and Rage

    I can’t even begin to condense the role music plays in this first section (and the whole book). Even when Morrison isn’t writing about music, she’s writing about music: the “artificial rhythm ” of a seven-day week, when the body prefers “triplets, duets, quartets”; language being an “intricate, malleable toy designed for their play.”

    Alice Manfred’s section, from 53-60, is fascinating. On 59 we read her feelings about jazz: “it wasn’t real music–just colored folks’ stuff: harmful, certainly; embarrassing, of course; but not real, not serious.” Is this Alice’s true opinion of jazz (that it equals immorality, recklessness), or is there something else going on below the surface? What do the drums of the Silent Parade mean to her?

    Later we read about the “feelings, like sea trash,” that hit Alice after the murder. “Chief among them was fear and–a new thing–anger.” Is anger really “a new thing” to Alice? “Black women were armed; black women were dangerous.” Alice doesn’t “understand women like” Violet, “Women with knives”; but Violet says “I wasn’t born with a knife.” Alice replies, “No, but you picked one up.” Alice claims not to understand the rage black women are feeling in mid-1920s Harlem. Do you believe her? Does she truly not see how the music, the City (always capitalized in this book), black women and rage are all working together?


    I should probably cut this off, lest it get even more out of control. There’s just so much to talk about here. Please feel free to raise your own questions, and to kick me in the groin when I’m off base. Again, leave your comments and questions below, and when replying to another comment, please hit “Reply” so the threads don’t get too confusing.

    For next Tuesday, read Sections 4-6, which in my version takes us through page 162.


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    Cathleen Bailey

    I would like to respond to EM Williamson’s comments. When we read novels, for instance, about the Jewish holocaust, or any human tragedy, we don’t go away from the book feeling that the author hates the whole of the culture where dominant oppressors originate, whether their actions are in the background or a current happening in the narrative. Probably Williamson is effected by the downtrodden negroes because he has some emotional connection to them, and well, he’ll have to sort those feeling out, or not. My first comments about the book have to do with the narrator. I like what… Read more »

    Jose Skinner

    Dr. Williamson’s opinions vis-a-vis white folks’ oppression wouldn’t seem to apply to this book (so far), since there’s little reference to whites in the first place. Seems to be almost entirely about the black community.

    David Duhr

    I agree, sort of, about EMW’s opinions as relates to Jazz, Jose. But isn’t the white oppression somewhere below the surface in this first section?

    Jose Skinner

    I recall a few references to “whitefolks,” but overall I was struck by the absence of scenes involving black-white interactions. The characters live in a kind of apartheid, which was what it was in the 20s, I imagine.

    Cathleen Bailey

    You bring up a good point, the absence of white people in Jazz. In this historical setting, an all black neighborhood, segregated, resources not equal to white neighborhoods, but not apartheid, as compared to South Africa. The neighborhoods were contained, yet self-sustaining. The issue was lack of choice. But taking it further, I’m wondering what people think about contemporary novels that are all white or all non-white. Now that America is more diverse and liberated in her thinking, are these kinds of novels realistic?

    David Duhr

    Seems that this segregation is among the most exciting parts, at least for those who are drawn to the City from the South. And if I weren’t hunting/pecking on an iPad, I’d quote the long passage on my pg 10, where she writes about how “It is worth anything to be on Lenox Avenue safe from fays and the things they think up.” So there’s an absence of “fays,” sure. But it’s a real loud absence.

    David Duhr

    Catherine, much as I like your question, I’m not sure I agree that America is more “liberated in her thinking.” Though I’m admittedly cranky today …


    I think we’re better but not great. I mean, segregation is built into our city planning. Rochester, NY, for instance, has an “inner city loop” highway designed during the 60s specifically to keep any inner city riots from spilling over the highways. Or so I’ve read.

    Cathleen Bailey

    Agree, I remember that passage, a loud absence and a comfortable one.

    Cathleen Bailey

    We’re not liberated :)? Cranky means honest, no room to edit, smooth things over. Go ahead, give it a shot.

    David Duhr

    Cathleen, not Catherine. Sorry! Some moderator. I should be fired.

    FYI, gang, discussion post 2 won’t be going up tomorrow as scheduled. A few people tell me they’re catching up on the reading, and we’ve still got some good stuff going on here. (Plus I’m running behind.) (Plus I’m a lazy cuss.)

    Cathleen Bailey

    Violet, the birds and love. I think her letting go the birds is Violet letting go of love. She doesn’t want any remnants of love, and the act of throwing away the birds, and knowing they will suffer, allows her to wallow. On my page 6, Violet brings the dead girl’s picture home and puts it on the mantel and she and Joe, “the two of them wiping their cheeks all day.”

    David Duhr

    Thanks for reading with us, Cathleen, and for kicking off the conversation while some other folks catch up on the book. “Violet letting go of love” when she releases the birds is a great point. Do you think Violet is hoping the birds will actually suffer? And die?

    H. L. Nelson

    Hmm. I saw the bird release as a more positive gesture. I’ll have to go back and re-read that section. After I do so, I’ll submit my general thoughts too.


    I agree with Cathleen’s interpretation. And I got the sense that they probably died. That’s the catch-22 of freedom. When you’ve spent your whole life in a cage, it’s hard to know what to do with freedom, or how to deal with the difficulties it brings.


    Re: Does Toni Morrison “beg for our sympathy?” Does she have an obvious “hatred for white men?” Or is Williamson misreading her work? If so, how? Not at all and no she doesn’t. I think this is a classic case of someone who is *still* in a powerful place in society not recognizing his own power and having no desire to stop and take a deeper look at the inner lives of people he doesn’t *have* to care about in the same way they have to care about him just to survive. His comments reek of white male privilege. Re:… Read more »

    Cathleen Bailey

    Leah, I enjoyed reading your comments. They are concise, passionate and bold. It’s because of fear that we are still bothered by so-called race issues, and miss, like Williamson, a good read. Because after all of this other inevitable conversation, Jazz is simply a good book.


    Yes, definitely, all around. I think the goal of the best kind of literature (as Jacqui Bryant has argued in earlier blogposts) is to transcend any of those artificial physical, ethnic, or other barriers that separate us in daily life so that we’re just humans reading about humans. And yet, this book seems impossible to discuss without taking a look at the racial politics, which in this era were inevitably tied to personal politics as well. As such, I just hesitate to comment in any way that would indicate that I think I have any expert knowledge in the matter,… Read more »

    Jose Skinner

    Good blog post about the opening, David Duhr. It really is a fine first paragraph.

    As for the narrative voice… hmmm…. still thinking… Maybe by the end of the book it’ll make sense. So far, it doesn’t NOT make sense–gives a feeling of omniscience that doesn’t at all interfere with the story…

    Cathleen Bailey

    Yes, I’m feeling that about the narrator(s), I’m trusting that the voice will take us where we need to go.

    Cathleen Bailey

    One of the things I like about Morrison’s writing style is her comfort with, and love for, the English language. Her prose can be poetic and narrative at the same time. For instance, the section where she describes Violet and Joe moving up north that begins, in my edition, on p. 30: “Violet and Joe left Tyrell….,” and the fun they had on the train “smoother than a rocking cradle,” and when the train shivered and trembled, “Joe stood up…felt the dancing better that way.” And you wonder why what happened to these two young people, had to happen to… Read more »


    Well said, Cathleen. I have nothing to add really other than that I think it can be rare for that poetic, lyrical sense to translate so smoothly into novel form, but Morrison is proof that it can be done. I think, also, that the passages you highlight with mentions of “raving whites” gets back to what we were discussing earlier. While white or characters of mixed heritage may not be central at this point in the book, there’s this sense that it’s a kind of border, fencing these characters in, waiting to pierce them when they step too far out… Read more »

    Cathleen Bailey

    Talk a little more about the Silent Parade.

    David Duhr

    Thanks for keeping us going–you two are all-stars, and I can’t wait to hear what y’all have to say about the second section. Re: the Silent Parade, I have a question about the ESL riots that led to it. I wish I had the book with me, but I do not. But somewhere in there, Morrison has a line about the numbers of white people who died in the riots. Ugh, like “uncountable,” or something? But Wikipedia doesn’t mention any white deaths (and says between 40-200 blacks were killed), and other sources I found said that 8-10 whites were killed.… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I forget to go back to this passage I was referring to above. It’s 2-3 pages into the Silent March scene (56-57 for me) and goes:

    “Alice thought the lowdown music (and in Illinois it was worse than here) had something to do with the silent black women and men marching down Fifth Avenue to advertise their anger over two hundred dead in East St. Louis, two of whom were her sister and brother-in-law, killed in the riots. So many whites killed the papers would not print the number.”

    Cathleen Bailey

    I ‘m falling behind in my reading because of a few deadlines and so this will probably be my last post to give me more time to catch up with projects. This whole section about Alice is filled with discussion topics, and I would have liked to continue. But here are a few thoughts about how I think Alice and Violet are similar in their misunderstanding of themselves as women, how both women seem to be caught up in vague, unproductive notions of righteousness, that sensuality is somehow equal to low moral standards and all the while they are fuming… Read more »

    […] (To any newcomers, you can catch up with our Jazz conversation by reading our discussion of the first section.) […]

    […] refresh your memory on the discussion so far, please revisit posts one and […]


    White men do not come off harshly in all of Toni Morrison’s novels. Tar Baby is a White man and Morrison gives him plenty of time in the narrative and does so in an affirming way. Same with Valerian Street in Tar Baby. Is he the greatest man ever? No, but she does take care and consideration to draw him out. Also, Jacob Vaark in A Mercy. She doesn’t idealize him (which some White people (men in particular) take to men that an author “hates White men”.

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