The novel opens in the black Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, the year is 1926 and on an ice-cold winter morning, a woman named Violet Trace has thrown open her windows and emptied her birdcages of their flocks, including her favorite, lonely bird that always said "I love you." Violet is a fifty-year-old black woman, she is skinny and emotionally unstable. We learn that she has been living in Harlem for several years, but city life is difficult and the narrator hints that maybe the stresses of Harlem are finally wearing Violet down. On one afternoon, Violet began carelessly wandering the sidewalks and then, for no apparent reason, she sat down in the middle of street, surrounded by a few concerned neighbors. Violet is married and she lives with her husband, Joe Trace, but she is not wealthy as she makes little money as an unlicensed hairdresser, arriving at her clients' residences. Violet is lonely and regrets that she does not have an extensive family to fill the quiet of her apartmenta quiet that is exacerbated by her ejection of the birds. As Violet thinks about her loneliness and her grandmother down south, she has the sudden urge to build a family. She is convinced that this will breach the gap separates her from her husband.
Violet's effort to build a family is as humorous as it is pathetic and doomed. Walking down the street, she notices a baby buggy and decides to take the child, Philly, for a walk to the corner of the block. Philly has been left unattended because his sister had gone upstairs to retrieve her favorite "Trombone Blues" album. Violet thinks of the child as a source of light that will be potent and salvific enough to repair her marriage. She thinks that she will bring Philly home to Joe but in the farce that ensues on the street, Violet insists that she had no intention of kidnapping the child. After all, she had only walked to the edge of the block and was guarding the child who had been carelessly left unattended.
Later in the chapter we learn of the source of trouble in the Trace marriage. Even though Joe Trace, is a quiet and older man, he has had an affair with a young girl and shot her. The presentation of this fact is bewildering. We later learn that Joe is a cosmetic salesman who was well respected and that there were no legal consequences of his crime. His lover, Dorcas, was a young girl and as if Joe's crime was not enough, Violet arrives at Dorcas' funeral and slashes her face with a knife. As a consequence of this drama, there is a "poisoned silence" in the Trace residence.
Amidst the chaos of individual relationships, the City emerges as omnipotent and glamorous, a force that inspires and controls the courses of the human characters. Below the gaze of the city's skyscrapers, the ghost of Dorcas is haunting the Traces and while the Salem Women's Club was going to help Violet, she has been ostracized because of her inappropriate behavior at the funeral. Wholly detached from the moral commentary and judgment of her peers, Violet embarks upon a search to know everything about Dorcas: she visits Malvonne, whose apartment was used as a "love nest" for Joe Trace and Dorcas. After this, Violet learns the dances and music that Dorcas liked, and she talks to teachers at Ps-89 and JH-139. Dorcas' dignified aunt eventually warms up to Violet and eventually offers her a photograph of the young woman. This photograph is placed in a silver frame and kept on the mantle where Violet and Joe visit nightly, still separated by their silence.
"Jazz" is a novel of unnumbered chapters and unknown narrators. The first chapter is divided into two sections that are separated by three dots. In the first section, the narrator is not self-revealing. Her commentary is a brief aside, with the tone of gossip and editorializing. The majority of her paragraphs have a false climaxsyntactic and narrativeand her narrative ends with a cliffhanger: "Violet invited her in to examine the record and that's how that scandalizing threesome on Lenox Avenue began. What turned out different was whom shot whom." This sentence captures her hyperbole as well as any other.
In the second section, a new gossiping narrator is more sympathetic. She begins her narrative with an ode to "the City" where fighting is necessary for survival. She reveals herself: " I haven't got any muscles," and also admits that she has an old knowledge of life in the neighborhood. Clearly, the narrator is close to the characters of the story. She lives in the same city and is privy to their gossip. The fact that the chapter uses two different speakers is evident in a few subtle points of contrast. The two speakers are in disagreement in regards to time and one focuses the story on post-Dorcas life while the other focuses on pre-Dorcas. The first narrator focuses on the skeletal details in a mere nine paragraphs. She is sensational and each new paragraph offers an equally luring (and confusing) detail of stabbing or shooting or chaos. The second narrator is more methodical in her description of the violence.
The novelist, Toni Morrison, is famous for saying that she writes " the books that I wanted to read," and like her other novels, Jazz is a novel with a specific historical context, described as the depiction of "the shaping hand of slavery on Harlem's jazz generation." Almost immediately, we are told: "Armistice was seven years the winter Violet disrupted the funeral." It is 1926as the Armistice that ended World War I came in 1919. The feeling of the City is described as: "At last, at last, everything's ahead" and it is a time "when all the wars are over and there will never be another one." Morrison begins the novel in a brief tribute to the mythology of Harlem and the Jazz Agethe myth of a "Mecca" for blacks Americans, of nightly jazz and world-famous cabarets like the "Savoy" and the segregated "Cotton Club."
Morrison's characters are described as city-dwellers but we learn that they are like most of Harlem's residents. Like most, they were born in the South, not in New York, individuals among thousands of southern blacks who composed the "Great Migration" from 1915 through the early 1930s. Historians describe the migration as one of both "push" and "pull" causation: the "push" of the south came in the increase in racist legal restrictions and segregation, an increase in lynching and the mechanization of cotton reaping which made manual labor obsolete. At the same time that the South was "pushing" blacks, the North "pulled" the migrants in with low unemployment rates, an emerging black community and of course, the exaggerated stories of those who had already traveled to the "Promised Land" where Jim Crow was not as pervasive. Still, Harlem life was little better than what had been left; Morrison describes unemployed veterans, and sarcastically cites racial progress when "The A&P hires a colored clerk."
As for the literary context of "Jazz," the first chapter introduces two of the definitive traits of Morrison's novels. The first characteristic is the fluidity of time. The two narrators are in disagreement over when (and what) the story is. The first goes from Joe killing Dorcas through the arrival of a second girl into the Trace home, and on a micro-level, time is fluid in the simple narration of the story: the other narrator gives us Dorcas' funeral before we know who Dorcas is, gives us Harlem before the south, and shows Violet emptying the birdcages before we meet the bird that says "I love you." Time is also made fluid because neither of the narrators are willing to dwell on any specific dates or times. Like the narrator of Morrison's first novel, "The bluest eye," these narrators focus their chronologies around the seasons, rather than the years or months, suggesting that the seasons link man to nature while wars, migrations and manmade distinctions (workdays, years) less relevant than Winter or Spring, day or night. It is in the Winter, that Violet is throwing her birds away. It is especially necessary to follow the seasons because the narrator quickly stops offering years and dates: the Spring when the Traces left the South is several years before (and not months before) the Winter when Violet stormed Dorcas' funeral and opened birdcages. Because time is fluid, the memory of the not-distant-past is as powerful and evocative as the description of the "contemporary" and in this regard, "Jazz" resembles Morrison's novel "Beloved," a narrative that shifted, like "Jazz" between actions and relationships that span decades and states.
A second defining trait of Morrison's "Jazz" is her participation in the literary tradition of "magic (or magical) realism." Magic realism is a 20th century literary tradition and William Faulkner is generally considered to be the first major writer within the tradition. twentieth century consider Faulkner as first major writer within tradition. Toni Morrison, and her fellow Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez are both famous as contemporary "magic realists." Magic realism is defined as the juxtaposition of "magical" or fantastic elements with more mundane and specific "realities." Often the artist's intention is to mythologize a familiar place, or underscore the severity or the negative aspects of "reality." In "Jazz," the streets of Harlem become sites for magical realism. The chapter's account of the reality of widespread unemployment and racial discrimination against disabled black veterans is complicated by the fantastic, almost ludicrous tangent: "A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone." The image is provocative because the "floating" man is the only employed "colored man" on the street. The saxophone is a symbol of jazz, made magical and so unreliable as a method of survival.
Needless to say, Morrison's wry sense of humor, adds much of the personality to the narrators. Between the stories of floating men and slashed funerals, both narrators gossip in "asides," offering unsparing caricatures of Violet and other corrupted Harlemites. Even the most despondent and pathetic moments are tempered by comedy, most notably when Violet, lonely, kidnaps Philly from his buggy. As Philly's sister is scolded, no one thinks to look for child or the kidnapper and then Violet's laugh heard. Yards away, she is cradling the child in arms, standing at street corner and laughing at the scene left in her wake. At the suggestion that she is a kidnapper, Violet points to fact that she laughed and stayed at corner, visible. And she also argues that she left her bag at the stoop, but would have taken it with her if she had intended to kidnap somebody. Even though her innermost and illegal desire was revealed to the reader, victorious Violet still storms off in righteous indignation, announcing "last time I do anybody on this block a favor." This scene is matched for parody in the subtle politics of allusion in regards to the "Salem's Womens Club." There is no Salem in Harlem, and the Puritanical judgments and uncompassionate assessments of character, do well to justify the Club's metaphorical name.
One of the chapter's sharpest themes is that of aging and Violet and Dorcas make an interesting study in contrasts. Violet offers only silence, where Dorcas has intensity. Violet has tried to steal a child in the same way that youth was stolen from Dorcas. Violet is fifty years old and when she held Philly, "she imagined a brightness that could be carried in her arms. Distributed, if need be, into places dark as the bottom of a well." After being bested by her husband's younger lover, Violet becomes the mother of the ghost, in some ways and in place of the "brightness" of the would-be kidnapped child, the unsmiling photograph of Dorcas is "what seems like the only living presence in the house."
A final thematic concern of the first chapter, is the relation of music (specifically, jazz) to the urban space. The narrative is continually interrupted by lyrics and fashioned along jazz templates to produce a "jazz-prose": "Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff." The musicality of both narrators refers to the "Jazz" of the novel's title and expresses Morrison's desire for an "urban" feel. The novelist hinted as much in her epigram taken from The Nag Hammadi: "I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name.." The word "Sth"the sound of the clicking of teethsets off the narrative of an impatient and familiar story-teller who has little time to stay and plenty of other obligations. The "jazz prose" of the novel is also seen in the idea of the City as a character: "A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on thins. Hep. It's the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it." In this regard, the City is like a lover and the passage that begins the second narrative, reads as a love poem to Harlem. In the end of the chapter, Morrison exaggerates the idea of Harlem as a "jazz space" that produces love and violent love like a potion. While there will be violence, Morrison will eventually pick apart Harlem's myths of passion and stereotypes of violence.
The second chapter begins by focusing on the domestic life of the Traces, whose life has lost much of its "ritual" as they are both working less and Violet has released the birds who were both pet and past-time for the couple. The portrait of Dorcas is in a silver frame on the mantle. While Violet perceives a "sickness in the house," emanating from the portrait, her husband, Joe Trace is only numbly aware of the "sickness." Even though he has shot Dorcas, he is a well-mannered older man who does not feel guilt for his actions. Instead, his nightly vigils are his mourning for the love affair that has ended. Violet cannot sleep and she visits the picture at night because it is quiet. In contrast, Joe Trace's visits are the pure result of his melancholic and slightly exaggerated memory of Dorcas. Trace thinks of the young girl as his "necessary thing for three months of nights," even though Dorcas was not the lover with whom he slept each night. Further, the room that he rented from Malvonne, his upstairs neighbor, was only for evening and nighttime use; we learn that Malvonne expressly refused to rent her apartment out for overnight trysts and returned home from work a little after midnight, expecting to find her apartment unoccupied. It is only now, with the portrait, that Joe can get as close to Dorcas as he wanted to while she was alive.
The narration mostly focuses on Joe Trace, in contrast to the first chapter, which focused on his wife, Violet. Both of the Traces were "field workers" in Vesper County, Virginia and soon after meeting Violet under a walnut tree (in 1906), Joe proposed marriageand a move to Harlem. Joe's memories of this time, roughly twenty years before the present, include his intense passion for his new wife, Violet, as well as an encounter with a mysterious woman who is half-clothed and hiding in a bush. For some reason that is not revealed to the reader, Joe Trace, having grown up an orphan, has reason to believe that this mentally-incapacitated woman may be his mother. His last memory of Vesper County is the scene of his conversation with this woman, who is hiding in a hibiscus bush. She is mostly obscured and he repeatedly asks her for some sort of gesture or "sign" to indicate that she is the mother who abandoned him. Joe thinks that the woman waved her fingers at him in response to the word "Mother," but he is unsure and realizes that even if she had, it is still an ambiguous gesture that might not be the "sign" he had asked for. Joe and Violet are two migrants in a mass exodus of blacks who are traveling to the north by train, through Virginia and across the Mason-Dixon line. The shift in politics is subtle and even after the train attendant pulls back the "green-as-poison" curtain that segregated the black passengers from the whites, most of the migrants cautiously decide against wandering the train and only a determined few venture into the newly integrated dining car. Joe remembers standing, almost dancing in the aisle with Violet, as the train approached New York City and within the collective ecstasy of the southern black travelers, he recalls the specific moment of entry into the city as a private jubilee: the sensation of Violet's hip bones dancing and rubbing against his thigh, amidst the jarring motion of the train.
Joe's thoughts briefly focus on his "silent wife" and he believes that Violet ignores him and "takes better care of her parrot" (the same parrot that she released in the middle of a blizzard). It is not until the fall of 1925, when Joe Trace meets Dorcas, that he is able to replicate the sensual experience of the train ride. It is only after this point that he feels able to celebrate Harlem with his neighbors who have already "fallen in love with the city." Dorcas lives with her aunt, Alice Manfred, and she is not even twenty years old when she meets Joe Trace, who is well more than twice her age. Joe first noticed Dorcas as a stranger walking around the neighborhood, and he made arrangements with Malvonne well before his serendipitous (if not, doom-sealing) afternoon trip to Alice Manfred's apartment to deliver a cosmetics order. It is on this afternoon that Joe formally meets Dorcas and whispers his surreptitious affection.
Joe recalls feeling a special bond with Dorcas because she is similarly motherless and Dorcas' history is not as extensive as his, though equally mysterious. The teenage girl hails from the black community of East St. Louis, Illinois and is described as an anonymous migrant among "a steady stream" who came to Harlem "after raving whites had foamed all over the lanes and yards of home." She remembers visiting a friend and being startled by screams coming from her street. Her house was deliberately set on fire and she remembers the realization that her mother and her doll collection were trapped inside and burnt alive.
Joe Trace's fascination with the city sky and massive buildings has flared and cooled and flared again in the twenty years that he has spent in Harlem and like Joe, Malvonne, his upstairs neighbor, considers herself to be an experience and weather-worn fixture of the city. Malvonne was hesitant to rent her apartment out to Joe who insisted that he would only use it on occasional evenings while she was away at work. Malvonne, lives alone, her son having left for "ChicagoSan Diegoor some other city ending with O." Soon before leaving, Malvonne's son stole a bag of mail and rifled through the letters for the money that paid for his cross-country transportation. When Malvonne discovers the twenty-pound bag of mail behind the radiator, she reads through the letters and mitigates her loneliness by meddling and intervening in the lives of the numerous senders and addressees. She finds the letters more interesting than the trash that she casually reads during her late-night job as a janitor in an upscale office building. It is suggested that Malvonne's desire to participate in her neighbor's lives was the determining factor in her decision to rent her apartment to Joe. Malvonne attributes her decision to Joe's agreement to pay a full month's rent for occasional evening use and also cites Joe's previous reputation as a well-mannered cosmetic salesman who assured her that he didn't want anything "nasty," but only wanted to "lighten [his] life a little with a good lady." The chapter concludes with a marked departure from the individual histories of the characters, returning to an abstract description of life in "the City"
While Chapter Two employs an "oral" and anonymous narrative voice that is similar to the narrative of the first chapter, there is one steady voice, contrasted with the disrupted "twice-told tale" of the first chapter. Additionally, there are several indicators suggesting that this narrator is either a third, new speaker or a more mature evolution of the second. In place of the first chapter's sensational and gossipy tone, the second is contemplative, offering fewer hasty judgments of character and fewer humorous tangential stories. The narrative shift reflects the novelist's intention to archive and sort-out the details of the violence that was announced at the beginning of the novel and even as this narrator replaces moral editorializing with a thorough excavation of Joe Trace's memories, the story cannot be taken as wholly reliable. The voice is still the familiar one belonging to an un-named neighbor of the Traces but some critics point to some disruption and confusion in the description of Malvonne, suggesting that Malvonne might be the narrator of the story who describes herself in third-person. Malvonne is depicted as an older, lonely woman whose "interest lay in the neighborhood people" and the revelation of her neighborly prying and frequent interventions in the lives of strangers, is very much a mirroring of the narrator's activity. In sum, the narrator continues to pry and speculate, but the tone is more reportorial than sensational, focusing on the characters' thoughts instead of their crimes.
The chapter's slower pace, de-emphasis of violence and chronological jump to the years before Dorcas' murder, are accompanied by a muted sense of irony that is composed of understatement more than humor, a substantial decrease in musical references and "jazz-prose" in preference for the rhetoric and signals of a historian, and the employment of "nature" motifs as archetypal metaphors that frequently replace the personified City of the first chapter. The muted sense of irony can be seen in the subtlety that the first narrators lacked. In the first chapter, the silence of the Trace's living space was described in extreme and stark terms: as a fishnet that Violet wanted to violently slash as she had slashed Dorcas' face. The fishnet has been re-described as a "sickness" that admits Violet's emotional vulnerability and her "Change" instead of her violent habits. Most notably, the narrator recounts the "transaction" between Joe and Malvonne and declines multiple opportunities to dwell upon the good intentions and pretenses of decency that quickly tended to violence. In this novel, violence and music are intertwined and reliant upon one another and this chapter's lack of "jazz-prose" is most evident in the fact that this narrator does not cite a single song lyric, unlike her predecessors. When Joe Trace is described "entering the lip of the City dancing all the way," his "dancing" is a mute contrast to the earlier narrative, where a musical tone was generously and indiscriminately applied to walking down the street, eating candy and kidnapping babies.
A final shift, to "nature" motifs reinforces the loss of "jazz," which is considered urban rather than rural. The narrator describes the natural scenery of Vesper County in simple terms before praising Harlem not for its "urban" skyscrapers and paved sidewalks, but for its "unbelievable" skyan unreliable replication of the rural sky that only occurs when the sun and stars are not "made irrelevant by the light of thrilling, wasteful street lamps." The Virginian sun "used to slide up like the yolk of a good country egg, thick and red-orange;" the hibiscus bush has an intense smell and the sky offers a more extensive palette of color to match the glitter of the city. The nature motifs allow the narrator to make a moral argument that the disrupt of migration and Harlem's relief from Southern sweltering racism, have both caused Joe and Violet to intentionally forget the beauty of the South in their efforts to forge new lives with new liberties. The hibiscus bush appeals to the sense of smell and touch, the sky appeals to the eyes and the "pebbly creeks" offer music; in sum, the "nature" motifs that constitute Joe's interior offer a wider sensory experience than the City. His fading memory is represented accordingly, as more of a loss than a relief.
The second chapter of the novel is often described as "calmer" than the first. This is mostly because the narrator's contemplative and deliberate pace enforces the stability necessary for reader to take on the "detective role" that Morrison intended for the novel's readers. While a novel's first chapter usually presents the major themes and moral questions, "Jazz" begins with disorientation. In the second chapter, Morrison establishes Joe Trace as a character whose history is a mere "trace," like the "traces of ash" of Dorcas' burned home. The major theme of the novel is the maintenance of memory when it is only a fragmented history. The spaces and "traces" of Joe, Violet and Dorcas' separate histories unite them as representatives of a migrant generation. The City, as much as it is a "mecca" for southern Blacks, emerges as a force of frustration whose glitter and jazz offer a temporary alleviation from the primary moral concern: the preservation of family and cultural memory as a source of self-definition.
In this sense, "Jazz" continues the thematic journey that Morrison began in "Beloved," where ex-slaves struggled to preserve the memories that defined them without becoming obsessed with and consumed by their previous suffering. Like "Beloved," "Jazz" reinforces the loss of memory with the loss of family and loss of fertility. Violet's distant and fading memory of her childhood is reflected by her own barren-ness, her frustrated attempt to kidnap a child and her violence against Dorcas. Her orphan status is manifest in her inability to be a mother. Similarly, Joe Trace's mother is unknown is not a madwoman in a bush and his self-naming as "Trace" reveals his awareness of his lack of origin and his subsequent efforts to birth himself. Violet and most other migrants are "orphans" in the sense that the black South is a home that they have departed, but Joe Trace and Dorcas are "double-orphans" who do not have a family or a home.