Jazz and Literature Critical Essays

Introduction

Jazz and Literature

Since its inception in the early twentieth century, jazz music has exercised an influence on American literature's subject matter and style. Beginning in the 1920s—an era labeled “The Jazz Age” by novelist and short story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald—the syncopated rhythms of jazz music became associated with the relaxation of social mores, including the consumption of illegal alcohol during Prohibition, sexual promiscuity, and drug use. The music—as well as the mostly African-American musicians who created and played it—was described by its detractors as primal, obscene, and overtly sexual. Many writers—including Fitzgerald, Carl Van Vechten, and John Dos Passos, as well as such writers of the Harlem Renaissance as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Jean Toomer—perceived the music as a liberating force against the racial, social, and sexual repression of America society. These writers embraced the freedoms that they believed the music represented, and their poetry and prose also borrowed the swinging rhythms of the era's Ragtime and Dixieland jazz styles. In addition, jazz musicians populated novels and short stories as examples of existential heroes, exhibiting freedom in their lifestyles and within the music they performed. These characters, like their real-life inspirations, often suffered from alcohol and drug abuse and engaged freely in sexual activity. In other works, like Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, (1947)existential characters succumbed to their vices in emulation of their musical heroes, which they considered to be the unavoidable destiny of their lives led as if they were jazz compositions. Jazz continued to evolve throughout the first half of the century, moving from swing music to the even more freely played bebop, with its emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation. The latter jazz form received its most famous literary validation in the works of American novelist Jack Kerouac, who initiated the Beat movement with his novel On the Road (1957). Like his greatest literary influence, Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward, Angel (1929)and the unfinished You Can't Go Home Again (1940) both display the author's stylistic affinity with jazz, Kerouac's On the Road and his many other prose and verse works display his efforts to describe and mimic the rhythmical extrapolations of such bebop musicians as saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Another beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, also imitated bebop rhythms in his poem “Howl.” (1956) Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) contains many passages describing the impact of jazz music on the novel's protagonist. Other writers such as Nelson Algren, Clellon Holmes, Garson Kanin, and John O'Hara used jazz as backdrops for their novels chronicling promiscuity and drug abuse in post-World War II America. The influence of jazz continued into the 1960s in works as diverse as the formal poetic pieces of Philip Larkin and the social satire of Terry Southern. Authors in the 1980s and 1990s who displayed a reverence for jazz music include Josef Skvorecky and Michael Ondaatje.