Jazz Themes

Youth vs. Age

One of the novel's central relationships is the sustained romantic affair between Joe Trace, a fifty year old man, and Dorcas, who is in her late teens. Throughout the novel, the murdered girl becomes a symbol of youth. Her aunt, Alice Manfred, identifies Dorcas' youth with a budding sexuality that has brought calamity. The motif of the garden of Eden presents the image of Dorcas as a young Eve who is enticed and enticing. Violet Trace's reaction to Dorcas is similar. Her jealousy stems from her husbands affair and she can't help but notice the contrast between her aging, sagging body and Dorcas' youthful, fuller figure. Violet tries to drink malts and eat multiple meals to regain the pounds of her youth and her "competition" with the dead girl is ironic because Violet does not want to compete with the young, dead child; rather, she wishes that Dorcas could be the young daughter that she never had. Dorcas' friend Felice comes to serve this role for Violet and she also provides consolation for Joe, demonstrating a healthier way in which "youth" can sustain "age" without bloodshed.

Subthemes: Sexuality, the "Fall" in Eden, Seduction


The novel borrows its title from Jazz music and the idea of music is discussed throughout the novel. Alice Manfred and the Miller sisters interpret jazz music as the anthem of hell. The passion and pleasure that Dorcas and Violet find in the music is contrasted with the musical treatment of Joe's crime. When he stalks and shoots Dorcas, it is at a party where loud music is being played to incite passion, "boil" the blood and "encourage" misbehavior. For the entire novel, music is the weapon that the City wields to control its citizens. The seasons and weather are determined by the presence of clarinet players in the street. Music also bears a sadness that can be juxtaposed to Violet's ribaldry and Joe's flared passion. Wild's disappearance takes place as her body is replaced with a trace of music and this sound haunts Joe's memory for the rest of his life. Similarly, the "blues man" who walks the streets becomes the "black-and-blues man" and finally, the "black-therefore-I'm-blues man," providing a critique of racism. The "blues" songs that the characters evoke are largely the consequence of suffering brought about by America's racist traditions.

Subthemes:: Piety, Social Pretension


Memory is mostly developed through the presence of several orphans in the novel and while Dorcas is the only young orphan in the story, most of the development of this theme actually comes through Joe Trace. Golden Gray and Violet have each lost a parent, while Joe and Dorcas have lost both parents in fires and riots. In Joe's case, he never knew his parents and his "orphanhood" is defined by his "trace" of a memory. Joe is an orphan who never knew his true parents and continues to struggle with his memory after he leaves Virginia and comes to Harlem; similarly, Dorcas' memory as a child in East St. Louis IL, is built around a solitary photograph and is fading fast in Harlem.. In the same way that Joe and Golden Gray and Dorcas have lost their parents, Morrison makes the argument that the African-American community as a whole experienced a sort of "orphanhood" during this turbulent period. After slavery separated families, the "Great Migration" displaced millions of bodies‹further separating them from their collective and cultural memories. Memory is definitely the most important team in the novel. All of the major characters, Violet, Joe, Dorcas -- even Alice Manfred, all of them suffer the consequences of living a life that is dissociated from the memories of the past.

Subthemes: Pain, History, Orphanhood