For African Americans to survive, first, and then to thrive, Morrison insists, they must be at once creative and conforming, innovative and traditional. They must build upon what came before while imagining a new way. The jazz that emanates from the streets of Harlem and is the novel’s recurring motif embodies such qualities.
Joe Trace, while wary of the rhythms he hears in doorways and from the rooftops, uncertain of what to make of the “sooty” guitar music played by the blind twins that could be contributing to Dorcas’s restlessness, knows what saved his forbears: “Those old people, they knew it all. . . . [B]ack then, back there, if you was or claimed to be colored, you had to be new and stay the same every day the sun rose and every night it dropped. And let me tell you, baby, in those days it was more than a state of mind.” Being new and remaining the same is exactly what jazz is about. The riffs are newly invented with each performer and performance, but the underlying beat can be traced way back and is the common force holding a culture together.
Alice Manfred fears the power of such music. The drumbeat she hears on Fifth Avenue in 1917, as frozen black faces march past her and her young niece, draws her in, providing her with “a rope cast for rescue” from the alienation and distance from everyone that she has felt since her husband left her for another woman many years ago. That music, like that of the church, sustains,...
(The entire section is 547 words.)