The novel explores the theme of identity in its entirety. The central element of the story is that Joss was biologically a woman but lived his life as a man. This brings questions of sex, gender, and identity to the immediate attention of the reader.
The novel explores the contrast between public and private. Through the narratives of Sophie, Big Red, and the various individuals involved in Joss’s after-death experiences (doctor, registrar, and undertaker), we interpret Joss’s life and sexuality in a public lens. While Sophie’s narratives are obviously the most harsh, each of these ‘public’ perceptions offer different perspectives for how being transgender (and how sexuality overall) is viewed. The linkage between these narratives is representation: what did Joss represent when he was alive and what does his sexuality represent after his death. Through the narratives of Millie, Colman, and Edith we interpret Joss’s life and sexuality in a private lens. Each of these individuals knew Joss in their own unique and personal way, so it is powerful and necessary to have these narratives. Kay provided these narratives in a very purposeful way: to demonstrate how much Joss was a human, how much he meant to those who loved him, and how great his purpose was that he served for Millie, Colman, and Edith outside of his physical body.
The novel also questions the notion of identity and gender as linked entities. Trumpet questions if the gender binary between and man and woman is nothing but a performance of norms determined by society. Joss exhibits a "manhood" that the public interprets and believes that Joss is a man. Joss lived his life as a husband, a father, and a successful male musician. Despite his biological body parts, Joss was a man. His life suggests that femininity and masculinity are not connected to one's biological body parts. The challenges that Joss poses to notions of normative gender performance lead to a crisis of knowledge and a re-ordering of the logics of categorization. The unthinkability of someone like Joss causes intense anxiety and is reacted to by further efforts to contain and categorize him.The registrar, in his inability to conceive of Joss outside of the confines of established gender categories, is one such example of this. Joss exposes and destabilizes the logics of terms such as “man” and “woman,” “mother” and “father,” revealing their fluid nature.
Although to others Joss's sexual identity and gender may seem complicated, he never struggles with coming to terms with himself. Joss makes the decision to present himself to the world as a man, not for personal gain, or to complicate his identity, but because, to him, living the life of a man is his identity. Both he and his wife are comfortable with their life.
On the other hand, Colman, whose sexual orientation is simple, has struggled in search of his identity from a young age. Being an adopted child and having a famous father made Colman yearn for a normal family all his life. Colman feels pressure to live up to his father's standards but unfortunately has no musical skill and no talent in general. As the strings tighten, he rebels and leaves the shelter that his parents have built to find his roots and his place in life. The knowledge that his father was really a woman complicates Colman's identity even further as he gets lost in unanswered questions. The story ends with a letter Joss left Colman that does not answer these questions, but rather talks about Joss's father. In a round-about way it brings Colman to the realization that it is not what you are that is important, but rather who you know yourself to be.
Throughout the story, the characters, baffled by Joss's secret about his body, must come to terms with who he was as a person regardless of his sex or gender. The realities of his life and influence on the world, rather than the realities about his body, are the truth of his identity.
The characters’ racial identities are revealed when Millie narrates that before her marriage, her mother disapproved of Joss— a “darky” (Kay 27). Millie also shares that Joss’s father was African and she describes Joss’s skin as resembling “Highland toffee” (Kay 11). An encounter in the bus in Glasgow as told by Colman unpacks some of the racial tension in Scotland as a man refers to a black man as an “ape” (54 ) and makes a comment about Coleman’s race in relation to his mother’s. Both Joss and Coleman identify with Africa and they also distance themselves from an African identity. Joss travels the world but he does not go to Africa. He connects with the African continent by writing a song titled "Fantasy Africa". Coleman expresses he is not comfortable with mates who go on and on about Africa. he says "back to Africa is just unreal as far as Colman is concerned” (191).
Joss’s sexual identity all but overwhelms his racial identity. In fact, Joss appears to disregard his racial identity as being a part of who he is. When speaking with his adoptive son Colman, he says that they are related in the way it matters. “He felt…that they were all part of some big family. Some of them were white, some black. He said they didn’t belong anywhere but to each other.” The novel makes a point to act impartial to race, blood, etc. This selective ignorance plays into the idea we make our own destiny. Joss self-identifies as a man, and so he lived his life as a man. By the same token, he decides that his race doesn’t define him or the way he lives his life, and so it doesn’t.
However, Joss' ruminations on diaspora have a specific racial component that links into black British identity construction. While Joss appears to decentralize race through his ideas of a big human family, his engagement with African American musical traditions and his musical compositions reflect a black diasporic identity that enables him to navigate his marginalization from the nation state. Jazz then becomes a diasporic resource for Joss to negotiate his identity, as well as an expression of it also.
The novel's setting in London, Glasgow, and other parts of Scotland facilitates a discussion about national and racial identities as well as black British multiplicity. While Joss considers himself to be very Scottish, Colman rejects that identity and instead feels connected to nowhere in particular. The novel in itself then challenges ideas about a monolithic black Britain and the erasure of black Scotland in these mainstream narratives. Joss's claiming of a black Scottish identity is then a political move on Kay's part to highlight Scotland's black community while acknowledging its silencing in both the black British and Scottish communities.
The media scandal that follows Joss's death seems to push grief to the side. Everyone is preoccupied with the secret life of Joss Moody. However, the reader can see the natural and varied stages of grief take their course throughout the book. Although Colman is focused on spilling his rage into an account of his father's life to be written by journalist Sophie Stones, he cannot escape dealing with the grief of his father's death. His anger is a different form of grief than that of his mother. Millie, already at peace with who Joss was, is free to internally work through her sorrow and come to terms with Joss's absence.
The entire book revolves around Joss's relationships throughout his life. The relationship between father and son, husband and wife, and music and artist. Love perseveres in the end. After the grieving period, Colman realizes his love for his father and understands that nothing can alter his special tie with Joss. Millie never once questions her love for Joss, nor his love for her. Their strong affection is demonstrated through Millie's embracment of Joss and his decisions from the time they met and fell in love. Even the love and admiration of the minor characters who were involved in Joss's life cannot be changed by his bizarre secret. The story demonstrates unconditional love as Millie, the minor characters, and, eventually, Colman, embrace their love for Joss Moody regardless of his sex or gender.
The revelation of Joss's true sex is the secret that sparks all the events and emotions of the novel. Millie and Joss's strong bond is based on the concealment of the secret. As Millie puts it: "It was our secret. That's all it was. Lots of people have secrets, don't they? The world runs on secrets. What kind of place would the world be without them? Our secret was harmless. It did not hurt anybody." (p. 10) The novel brings up the question of how much people should know about one's private life.
Music is the ultimate passion of Joss Moody. Music has the special power of making Joss “lose his sex, his race, his memory” (p. 131). “He unwraps himself with his trumpet” (p. 135). It is to the world of music that Joss contributes and those contributions cannot be denied, no matter what sex he was. In addition, Kay attempted to write the novel to be reminiscent of a musical composition.
The entire novel is experienced in hindsight with other characters recounting their experiences with Joss before his death. There are a few recounts that explain "in hindsight" it is easy to understand that Joss was born a woman. Some characters claim that they can see his feminine features more clearly, or that there was always something different about him they couldn't quite pinpoint. However, Millie Moody declares very strongly that "hindsight is a lie." She believes that her life with Joss was exactly how it was supposed to be through and through. This declaration, however, raises the question of validity of the characters recollections as the entire story is in fact told in hindsight. Joss is not able to narrate his story, and so every other character has to rely on their memory or speculation of him to do so.
Performance Much of the novel centers on performance in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The ways in which individuals struggle to define and perform their identities within the strictures of more oppressive social roles drive much of the plot. The novel questions challenges heteronormative gender norms and the gender binary in its assertions regarding gender identities' abilities to transcend the presence or absence of the biological genitalia.