Jazz takes place in Harlem, New York during the late 1920s. The twenties is a period known in the United States as “The Age of Prosperity.” At the end of World War I in 1918, “The war to end all wars,” America breathed a sigh of relief, as a collective effort freed the world from German imperialism.
After helping to make the world safe for democracy, there were celebrations nationwide. Americans were eager to refocus their attention on themselves. As a result, the country experienced a growth spurt. Modernization brought the invention of the automobile, an increase in the standard of living, in economic opportunities, and in leisure time.
There was a new way of living. For the first time people worked less hours per week and there was more money to spend on entertainment and conveniences. Appliances like irons, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners were widely available. Canned foods and commercial bakeries freed women from long hours in the kitchen. Movies, baseball games, and sports of every sort were popular.
A new emphasis was placed on education. More children attended school regularly with the goal of completing their educations. An education reform movement called for going beyond the three R’s to a more progressive approach.
The political and social climates were pushed in all different directions. The twenties brought the end of the ideals of the Wilson Era.
The presidency passed...
(The entire section is 1850 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Jazz (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In 1987, Toni Morrison achieved a decisive plateau in her career with her fifth novel, Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller that solidified her position as the leading African American novelist of her generation. With Jazz, on the other hand, Morrison has dared to risk her established position by writing a novel that is less masterful and confident, more exploratory and tentative. She begins Jazz not in the rural and small-town settings that are her recognized forte, but in Harlem in the 1920’s; and she uses the novel to explore her mixed feelings about that legendary time and place. Also, Morrison creates quite an unconventional narrator, one who is not the authoritative master of her characters’ lives and fates, but rather a character in her own right who is at times as uncertain and fallible as the other people in the book. Jazz thus seems at times less in control than Morrison’s other novels, but its inventiveness is exhilarating, and its many stories, characters, and perspectives are richly imagined and frequently moving.
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s is a legendary period of African American creativity in fiction and poetry, but Morrison curiously makes no reference to the rich literary culture of that era. Rather, her emphasis is on jazz—the distinctively urban African American music that reached an early peak in the 1920’s. Thus Jazz begins with an anecdote that seems the...
(The entire section is 2996 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Any discussion of Jazz will probably deal with questions of motivation and of verisimilitude. Although a powerful verbal construct in itself, is Jazz a faithful representation of the Great Migration? Although this discussion has mentioned novels by Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright that treated the same cultural phenomenon in similar ways, is this a "literary" or a scientific, verifiable way of reading the effects of this very important cultural phenomenon, one whose impact we feel profoundly with us today? One way to approach this is to read essays or books by historians who specialize in African-American cultural patterns, to find challenges to or corroboration of the hopes and disappointments Morrison, Ellison, and others portray so powerfully.
A related issue is the whole question of motivation. Are Joe and Violet's crimes believable? Do we understand all the forces that drove them to aberrant acts? Do we need to? Similarly, is Dorcas's refusal to name her assailant credible? Is it consistent with the hedonist Morrison portrays Dorcas as evolving into?
1. Discuss the "presence of jazz" in Jazz. Music is experienced in different ways by the various characters. Does the music form a single background for the action, or a plurality of backgrounds, depending on which character's perspective is closest at any given time?
2. Analyze the music of language in Jazz. Select a few passages,...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Part 1 Questions and Answers
1. Why is Violet referred to as the “Bird Lady”?
2. Why does the narrator describe Joe and Dorcas’ relationship as “one of those deep down, spooky loves”?
3. Why does Dorcas’ aunt Alice refuse to turn Joe over to the police?
4. Compare and contrast Violet with Dorcas.
5. How does Violet respond to the shooting?
6. What are Joe’s feelings about shooting Dorcas?
7. What is Violet’s plan?
8. Describe the atmosphere in Joe and Violet’s apartment.
9. Both Joe and Violet are in the beauty business. Explain.
10. Describe some of the things Harlemites are proud of in their community.
1. Violet is called the “Bird Lady” because she keeps a parrot and lots of other birds in her apartment. She communicates with the birds and her parrot says “I love you.”
2. Joe and Dorcas’ relationship is labeled “spooky” because it was unusual and unnatural. There was more than a 30 year difference in their ages. After Joe shot Dorcas he cried everyday about it and was unable to resume a normal life. To protect him, Dorcas refused to name Joe as the person who shot her. After her death, the love continued and became more intense.
3. Alice Manfred doesn’t want the police involved because the police have traditionally been an enemy of the African-American community. The...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
Part 2 Questions and Answers
1. Why did Violet have trouble sleeping at night?
2. Why does Joe try so hard to remember everything about Dorcas?
3. How will these memories help Joe?
4. What are some of the reasons that African-Americans came to the city?
5. Why does Joe want to have the affair in the first place?
6. Where does Dorcas want Joe to take her?
7. How does Malvonne feel about the lives of the people she works for?
8. Explain what Malvonne tries to do with the letters.
9. How did Joe and Violet meet?
10. Could the city compete with the beauty of the country?
1. Violet has trouble sleeping once the birds are set free. Little things she had to do for them at night like covering their cages, helped her settle down to sleep.
2. Joe sits around and thinks about Dorcas day and night. He tries to remember everything beginning with the time he first met her. This way her memory won’t fade and he can keep their love alive.
3. Remembering Dorcas and the intensity of his feelings for her will help him stay young. When he can’t remember exactly how he felt at the time, he will be old.
4. African-Americans came North to find work opportunities. Another important reason was their search for rights and dignity. The South was strictly segregated and regarded them as second-class citizens....
(The entire section is 419 words.)
Part 3 Questions and Answers
1. What was the purpose of the protest march?
2. Alice Manfred made a good living. How did this affect her attitude about things?
3. How did Dorcas react to the tragedy surrounding her parents’ deaths?
4. In your opinion what long-lasting effect did her parents’ deaths have on Dorcas?
5. How did Alice and the Miller Sisters feel about the music?
6. Describe Dorcas’ personality as a child.
7. What happened to Neola Miller’s left hand and how did Dorcas react to the story?
8. To be funny, what did people change Violet’s name to?
9. How did Dorcas describe her life as a 17-year-old?
10. What did the city whisper to Dorcas and to anyone who would listen?
1. Dorcas and her aunt attended the protest parade in honor of her parents who were killed in two separate racial incidents. African-Americans responded solemnly and in silence against such acts of violence that were occurring in locations throughout the country.
2. Alice Manfred would be described as bourgeois. She had made it and could not understand why everyone hadn’t. She thought the average African-American was beneath her.
3. Dorcas’ reaction to her parents’ deaths was to become mute. For a long period of time she refused to speak.
4. Since she never really talked about her parents’ deaths, she...
(The entire section is 415 words.)
Part 4 Questions and Answers
1. What is the major difference between the two Violets?
2. At the funeral, what was the job that the boy ushers had to do?
3. Why did Violet’s mother jump into the well?
4. Why didn’t Violet want to have children? Why didn’t Joe want to have them?
5. What are some of the sacrifices Violet made to be close to Joe?
6. What are some the tales people told about the big city?
7. What advice does Alice Manfred give to Violet?
8. Why didn’t Violet want to be like her mother?
9. Why did “That Violet” throw the parrot out?
10. At the end of this chapter, laughter seems to save the day. Explain.
1. The original Violet is unsure of herself and starting to lose her mind. The other Violet is mean and very clear about what she wants to do. The other Violet turned everything she looked at into a potential weapon. She pushed people and fought back when necessary.
2. The boys thought that they would be pallbearers and direct mourners to their seats. When Violet tried to attack the body, their job was to use every ounce of their strength to stop her.
3. Everyone was surprised when Violet’s mother committed suicide because the family’s living conditions were starting to improve. She didn’t end her life when her husband left her, or when the white men evicted her from her home...
(The entire section is 531 words.)
Part 5 Questions and Answers
1. The narrator feels that Joe should have gotten some advice concerning his affair with Dorcas. Why didn’t Joe confide in his friends?
2. Why did Joe give himself the last name Trace?
3. What is a Hunter’s Hunter?
4. Why does Violet begin to sleep with a doll?
5. On the outside Joe was 50 years old. What was he like on the inside?
6. Dorcas was like candy to Joe. What advice do our parents give us about candy?
7. What were some of the reasons for the race riots?
8. Why did Joe need Dorcas so badly?
9. What did ladies like about Joe?
10. What finally caused Joe to move to New York City?
1. Joe didn’t confide in his friends because he felt they would laugh at him and be of no help. He also felt that he couldn’t talk to anyone but Dorcas.
2. Joe named himself Trace because his parents disappeared without a trace.
3. Hunter’s Hunter is a name of honor given to a woodsman with exceptional hunting, fishing, and tracking skills.
4. Although Violet said she didn’t want children, reaching age 40 she starts to experience baby hunger. Sleeping with a doll satisfies this desire.
5. Although Joe was a middle-aged man, he felt like a 16-year-old inside. He was young at heart.
6. Parents always warn their children not to eat too much candy....
(The entire section is 331 words.)
Part 6 Questions and Answers
1. Describe what Violet’s life was like at age 12.
2. Why do you think Violet’s neighbors were so generous in their help to her family?
3. Why did Violet’s father leave the family?
4. What was True Belle’s reaction to Golden Gray’s beauty?
5. Why was Golden Gray referred to as an orphan?
6. What would Vera Louise have done with the child if he did not look so blond?
7. Describe the environment in which Golden Gray was raised?
8. Describe Colonel Gray’s reaction and Mrs. Gray’s reaction to Vera Louise’s pregnancy.
9. True Belle was a slave and had little choice about going to Baltimore with her mistress. Discuss the family True Belle left behind.
10. How much pay did True Belle get for 22 years of work?
1. At age 12, after her father deserted his family, Violet lived in poverty with her mother and four brothers and sisters. They were evicted from their home and they were often hungry.
2. The neighbors were so helpful because they understood that the same thing could happen to them. They were just a bit luckier so they shared whatever they had.
3. Violet’s father gave up and left. He was tired of the work, the hunger, and that he couldn’t do anything about it.
4. As a baby, Golden Gray was so beautiful that every time True Belle looked at him she...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Part 7 Questions and Answers
1. What rule of woodsman etiquette did Golden Gray break?
2. How did Wild’s presence disturb the thoughts of everyone in the community?
3. What is the range of emotions Joe feels about his mother?
4. Describe Wild.
5. Finally Joe curses his mother. What are some of his feelings about the situation?
6. Why did Joe work so hard?
7. Describe Golden Gray’s conversation with his father.
8. How was their meeting different from what Golden Gray had planned?
9. What is Golden Gray’s reaction when Wild opens her eyes?
10. Why does Joe decide to track Dorcas?
1. Woodsmen were allowed to enter someone’s home or shed for shelter but they were never supposed to drink their liquor.
2. Cutting sugar cane was hard and dangerous work. When men thought of Wild they weren’t concentrating on their work. Time could be a waste of time or someone could get hurt. Children were afraid of Wild and mothers-to-be prayed that the new baby would not be like her. New brides left food for her to eat.
3. Joe was shocked and embarrassed when Hunter’s Hunter hinted that Wild was his mother. Then he was angry that she didn’t care about him. After his initial reaction to the news, Joe became curious, and would track Wild to find out more about her. Finally, Joe developed a strong desire to have his...
(The entire section is 547 words.)
Part 8 Questions and Answers
1. Why is Dorcas so happy at this point in her life?
2. Listening to Dorcas’ side of the story, do you agree that she doesn’t seem so bad after all? Why?
3. How would you describe Dorcas’ new boyfriend?
4. How does Acton control Dorcas?
5. What went wrong when Dorcas tried to break up with Joe?
6. How was what Joe found at the party different from what he expected?
7. What is the hostess’ reaction to the shooting? Acton’s reaction?
8. Why didn’t Dorcas go to the hospital?
9. Why doesn’t Dorcas tell on Joe?
10. What is the difference between Dorcas’ relationship with Joe and with Acton?
1. Dorcas is happy because she is living the life that she has dreamed of. She has a handsome boyfriend that is close to her age and the envy of the other girls. Her hair, shoes, and make up are those of a stylish young woman. No longer does she have to stuff herself into little girl dresses.
2. Throughout the novel Dorcas has been portrayed as a thoughtless, selfish girl. Hearing her thoughts for the first time makes the reader see that she was not all bad.
3. Acton is self-centered and doesn’t love Dorcas in the same way that Joe did. He is aloof and criticizing and this seems to make her love him more.
4. Acton controls Dorcas by telling her what to say, what to...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
Part 9 Questions and Answers
1. What did Dorcas always talk about?
2. Compare and contrast Dorcas and Felice.
3. Dorcas had trouble getting boyfriends. Why?
4. Why did Felice visit Joe and Violet?
5. Felice’s father had some very strong opinions. What were they?
6. Why does Felice admire Violet and Mrs. Manfred?
7. What did Felice mean when she said Dorcas pushed men?
8. Why didn’t Felice go to Dorcas’ funeral?
9. How does Violet describe Dorcas?
10. What comments does Felice make about Joe’s unusual eyes?
1. Dorcas always talked about how someone looked. She wanted to be involved with a really good looking man.
2. Dorcas and Felice looked totally different. Dorcas was light-skinned, with long hair. Felice was dark-skinned. Dorcas was more bold and assertive than Felice. Felice was allowed to do the normal things for a girl her age. Dorcas’ aunt tried to stop her from growing up. Both girls were raised by older female relatives.
3. Dorcas had trouble getting boyfriends because she wasn’t particularly attractive. Some might say her light skin and long hair would make her pretty, but, it didn’t. The childish way she dressed and wore her hair didn’t help matters. Another problem was when a young man was interested, Dorcas was always trying to push him to do things he didn’t want to....
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Part 10 Questions and Answers
1. What did the narrator think would happen?
2. What actually did happen?
3. Why did Joe cry so much?
4. When Joe was hunting Dorcas what was he really doing?
5. Why did Wild hide from everyone?
6. Why does Joe love the long distance eyes of the soap box speakers?
7. What were some of the good things about Joe’s new job?
8. Exactly how has Joe and Violet’s relationship improved?
9. What are some of the things Violet tries, to help the new bird get well?
10. Explain how life is easier for Joe and Violet.
1. The narrator thought that Violet would hurt or kill Joe. When she saw Felice, she thought she would act just like Dorcas.
2. Violet and Joe saved their marriage and got their lives back in order.
3. Everyone thought Joe cried about shooting Dorcas. Now the narrator understands that he could have been crying for Violet, his mother, and for making one change too many.
4. The narrator believes that he might have been hunting for his mother at the same time.
5. Wild hid from everyone because she knew that she frightened people. She didn’t want to scare anybody.
6. The long distance eyes of the soap box speakers reminds Joe of his mother’s eyes.
7. Joe’s new job required that he work at night. Now he was free during the...
(The entire section is 330 words.)
Shortly before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first ever awarded to an African-American woman writer, Toni Morrison released Jazz, the second novel in her trilogy of "ourstory." (See the biographical entry on Morrison for an explanation of her particular concern that history has been a political and social construct reflecting primarily the views of white males.) The trilogy is her narrative of the African-American voyage from slavery to the contemporary situation of a still-divided American society.
The first book in this trilogy, Beloved (1987; see separate entry), addressed the immediate effects of slave culture in the struggles of the heroine Sethe, her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and her eventual lover Paul D, to rebuild their lives after harrowing escapes from slave plantations, relocations to Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from slave territory, and Sethe's desperate act—murdering her daughter to prevent her ever suffering the ignominy of being enslaved. Set principally some fifty years later, Jazz takes up the "Great Migration" of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when African Americans, suffering under the Jim Crow patterns of segregation that had developed in the American South since the early days of Reconstruction, migrated hopefully to the large industrial cities of the North seeking freedom, jobs, and relief from officially supported racist policies. Although...
(The entire section is 2880 words.)
Techniques / Literary Precedents
Although Jazz is part of a larger narrative that began with Beloved and moves on to Paradise, it is much more daring and sophisticated than either of the other novels in its literary technique. With this book, Morrison achieves a singular identification of form and function by naming the novel after an indigenous musical convention, then presenting manifestations of that musical form as part of the context in which the characters and events take shape; almost every section of the novel mentions the omnipresence of jazz music as a counterpoint to the events of the text. Finally, the novel emulates structurally the properties of a jazz improvisation, developing a melodic (plot) line then improvising variations on that line. Much as solos in a jazz group are passed among various instruments and players, in a seeming competition for the listeners' attention and approval (but this competition is also a collaboration, in which the sum of the performance is greater than any one musician's solo), Jazz uses many voices to tell two complementary narratives. One story centers on Joe's murdering Dorcas and its consequences, whereas the other is the Reconstruction story concerning the birth and maturation of Golden Gray; the obvious link is that Gray's story has become family folklore that fixed Violet's values in so distorted a fashion that, even after all the suffering, she explains the needs that drove her to madness as wanting to be "White. Light....
(The entire section is 2176 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Gates, David. “American Means Black, Too.” Newsweek 119 (April 27, 1992): 66. A review of Jazz that maintains that the novel is not just about the story and characters but also about “the process of its own creation.”
Hulbert, Ann. “Romance and Race.” Review of Jazz, by Toni Morrison. The New Republic 206 (May 18, 1992): 43-48. Hulbert criticizes Jazz as a failed experiment in self-conscious improvisation. She argues that Morrison’s characters are flat and her descriptions clichéd. According to Hulbert, although Morrison intends to avoid romanticizing blackness, she instead ends up sentimentalizing family domesticity.
Jones, Carolyn M. “Traces and Cracks: Identity and Narrative in Toni Morrison’s Jazz.” African American Review 31 (Fall, 1997): 481-495. Jones discusses Jazz in relation to its precursor, Beloved, tracing the theme of healing and reconstructing “cracked” black identity through love. She compares the formation of identity to the improvisation of jazz and concludes that Jazz represents both the ongoing construction of personal identity and the formation of community.
Kubitschek, Missy D. Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Discusses Morrison’s writing in...
(The entire section is 614 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Adams, Russell L. Great Negroes Past and Present. Chicago: Afro-Am, 1984.
Adero, Malaika. ed. Up South. New York: The New Press, 1993.
Angelo, Bonnie. “The Pain of Being Black.” Time (May 22, 1989): 120-122.
Bloom Harold. Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Boardman, Fon W. America and the Jazz Age. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1968.
Dreifus, Claudia. “Chole Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison,” New York Times Magazine (September 11, 1994).
Eden, Richard. “Those Nights on the Harlem Roof Tops,” Los Angeles Times Book Review (April 19, 1992): 3.
Katz, William Loren. Eyewitness: The Negro in American History. New York: Pitman Publishing, 1969.
Leonard, John. “All That Jazz.” New York (December 21-28, 1992): 72.
Mendelsholm, Jane. “Harlem on Her Mind,” Voice Literary Supplement, (May 1992): 25
Nicholson, David. “Toni Morrison’s Rhapsody in Blues”, The Washington Post Book World (April 19, 1992).
O’Brien, Edna. “The Clearest Eye: Jazz,” New York Times Review of Books (April 5, 1992).
Potter, L., Miles, W. Rosenblum, N. Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in WWII. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
“The World According to Toni...
(The entire section is 185 words.)