Jazz Study Guide

Jazz was first published in 1992, a year before Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Chronologically, Jazz is Morrison's sixth novel of seven, followed by Paradise and preceded by The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and Beloved. Like all of Morrison's novels, Jazz is heavily focused on the history of blacks in the United States. Morrison explains that she sought to write a trilogy, beginning with her fifth novel, Beloved, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Jazz was widely regarded as a success in its attempts to continue the story that began with Beloved.

The central theme of both novels, is a concern for memory: personal and cultural. Epidemic racist acts effectively erased many aspects of African and African-American culture and Morrison's primary concern in her trilogy (which concludes with the novel Paradise) is the reconstruction of memory. In Beloved, this idea is called "rememory" by the novel's ex-slave characters who feel that the pain of remembering is intense enough to be akin to reliving the remembered horror. In Jazz, Morrison stretches her characters from the 1850s through the 1920s, chronicling the extended cultural responses to slavery's end.

In a social context, Jazz fits well within the canon of a literary movement termed "Postmodernism." Postmodern works retain some of the tropes of modernism, techniques like "stream of consciousness" and "flashback," but the narrator and novelist are far more self-conscious and culturally self-conscious. If James Joyce intended his works to be him "writing as I live," Morrison is writing as she writes. As is the case in the "postmodernist" works of Nabokov, Marquez and Pynchon, Jazz blurs the lines between the novelist and the narrators, and the "writer" repeatedly enters the work, to explain?and often, alter?the narrative course of events. For all of its cultural and critical importance, Jazz has been praised primarily for its lyricism. Morrison, relies upon jazz's musical structures in her numerous "riffs" and "lyrics." The novel's prose often becomes a song or poem before returning to its original state.