Kinds of Blue: Toni Morrison, Hans Janowitz, and the Jazz Aesthetic.
In 1951, James Baldwin wrote that" ... it is only in his music ... that the Negro of America has been able to tell his story' (24). But that same year, British jazz critic Leonard Feather published in the pages of Down Beat magazine a blindfold test with jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Throughout his distinguished career, Eldridge had repeatedly expressed his firm belief that white and black jazz musicians had distinctly different styles and that he could easily distinguish between them. When Feather took him at his word and administered the test, the results were somewhat astonishing: The musician, nicknamed "Little Jazz" by his peers, was either noncommittal or wrong much more often than he was right (Feather, Book 47). Listening to Billy Taylor's recording of, ironically, "All Ears," the seventh of ten selections, Eldridge's irritation mounted: "I liked the pianist. Couldn't tell who was colored and who was white. They could be Eskimos for all I know," he admitted and had to concede defeat in the end (Feather, "Little Jazz" 12). (1) Eldridge's blindfold test again raises the old yet still provocative question: Can white folks play the blues? If indeed the end product of a jazz performance transcends what W. E. B. Du Bois called "the problem of the color-line" (v)--can jazz itself still provide a useful critical framework for the study of black American cultural expressions? To be sure, music, instrumental music at least, is a much more abstract art form than literature, but the contemporary critic still faces the same dilemma that confronted Roy Eldridge: the apparent paradox that jazz music is at once a distinctly black American art form as well as a cultural hybrid.
Some of the challenges inherent in formulating a literary critical jazz aesthetic may be clarified by the comparison of two novels, both of which bear the title Jazz. The first one, published in 1992, is Toni Morrison's Jazz, set during the Harlem Renaissance. The second was originally published in 1927, a year after Morrison's Violet Trace mutilates the face of a dead girl at a Harlem funeral. Also entitled Jazz, this novel's plot is set in London and Paris, does not contain any major characters who are black, and was written by Hans Janowitz, a German-speaking Jew born in southern Bohemia. (2) Despite the obvious and enormous differences between Morrison and Janowitz and their books, both employ virtually identical techniques to achieve "the translation of the world into jazz music," as Janowitz puts it (24). (3) In theme, cast of characters, and setting, the two novels diverge dramatically: Morrison's grand, epic sweep interrogating the meanings of history and identity contrasts sharply with Janowitz's short, light-hearted comedy of errors. It is therefore all the more significant that both texts, in striving to forge an aesthetic of literary jazz, employ the same narrative strategies of style and structure. This, then, suggests the need for a new critical template that is not predicated primarily on form and language, as most contemporary jazz critiques are. If a critical jazz aesthetic is to be useful for the study of African American literature, it must incorporate a firm knowledge of the music's technical aspects as well as an equally firm sense of the history of both the music and the people who have been creating it.
Toni Morrison's novel Jazz is not, strictly speaking, about jazz at all. Its very first paragraph sounds the basic theme: A woman named Violet went to a funeral to mutilate the face of a dead eighteen-year-old girl who had been shot by Violet's husband in a desperate act of misguided love. This, then, is the melody on which the disembodied first-person narrative voice improvises a story, or several stories, constantly adding, revising, inventing, shifting back and forth among various characters, going back in time as far as antebellum Virginia. The various stories and voices the narrator evokes are, as Morrison explains, designed to reflect "a jazz performance in which the musicians are on stage. And they know what they are doing, they rehearse, but the performance is open to change, and the other musicians have to respond quickly to that change. Somebody takes off from a basic pattern, then the others have to accommodate themselves. That's the excitement, the razor's edge of a live performance of jazz" ("Toni Morrison" 41). How important jazz is for her writing she had underscored in 1983, when she described her style as "hanging on to whatever that ineffable quality is that is curiously black. The only analogy that I have for it is music. John Coltrane does not sound like Louis Armstrong, and no one ever confuses one for the other, and no one questions if they are black. That is what I am trying to get at ..." ("An Interview" 153). (4)
Hans Janowitz's Jazz, on the other hand, sprang from a completely different cultural environment. Janowitz was born in the Czech town of Podebrady in 1890. Studying in Prague, the bilingual Janowitz--he was fluent in Czech and German--associated with the Prague Poetry Circle, where he met Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Karl Kraus, and others, and began to publish essays and poetry. After the war, he eventually settled in Berlin, where he co-wrote the script for the German silent movie classic Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and became an overnight celebrity, finding ample work in the movies and the theater. It was in the cabarets of Berlin where he encountered this new, exciting music from America that appeared to furnish the perfect soundtrack for life in the chaotic Weimar Republic. Thus inspired, he began to write a novella entitled Jazz, which was published in 1927 to great critical acclaim (Brady 468-70; Kracauer 62-66; Riess 125-28). Much like Morrison's novel, Janowitz's book is not strictly about jazz either, although the narrative voice consciously and overtly emulates jazz music. Like Morrison, Janowitz, too, tells a love story that turns out differently than anticipated. Its basic theme or melody is the chance encounter between Lord Henry, a young English playboy and would-be jazzer, and Madame Mae R., a beautiful aristocrat and flapper, on a rain from Liverpool to London. Henry and Mae are smitten with each other but are separated before they learn the other's identity. For the rest of the book, the first-person narrator traces Lord Henry's rise to fame in Paris as the leader of the hugely successful "Lord Punch's Jazz Band" and Madame Mae's efforts to track down Henry. In the process Janowitz's narrator too adds, speculates, invents, improvises, moving back and forth between Paris and London, the past and the present, introducing new characters and musing about their motives. In order to make his world jazz, a world so different from Morrison's, Janowitz nevertheless deploys the same structural and stylistic devices.
Jazzing Up the World: Toni Morrison and Hans Janowitz
Toni Morrison's jazz critics have primarily focused on two aspects of her novel, narrative structure and language, in order to assess the aesthetic at work. Perhaps the most jazz-like aspect of the novel's technique of storytelling is its narrative voice, and Paula Gallant Eckard goes so far as to claim that, "though unnamed, jazz is the essential narrator of the novel" (13). Critics have correctly pointed out that the narrator resembles a jazz soloist who improvises on a basic theme--the novel's first paragraph--and in the course of the solo constantly invents, re-harmonizes, elaborates, digresses, and explores. (5) Significantly, it is a narrative voice engaged in the creative process of storytelling, reacting against and responding to other voices, other sounds, picking up new motifs on the way, correcting itself, even contradicting itself:
Risky, I'd say, trying to figure out anybody's state of mind. But worth the trouble if you're like me--curious, inventive, and well-informed. Joe acts like he knew all about what the old folks did to keep on going, but he couldn't have known much about True Belle, for example, because I doubt Violet ever talked to him about her grandmother--and never about her mother. So he didn't know. Neither do I, although it's not hard to imagine what it must have been like. (137)
The narrator's storytelling is truly improvisational: "I watched them through windows and doors, took every opportunity I had to follow them, to gossip about them and fill in heir lives" (220).
Janowitz's narrative voice, like Morrison's, is not only gossipy and judgmental, but also forgoes linear narration by switching back and forth in time and place, invoking new voices, finding and elaborating new motifs, improvising scenes and dialogue. In short, it too is a narrative voice engaged in the creative process of storytelling: It revels in interrupting its own storyline "because it brings me delight to disrupt syncopationally the so-called course of the action once again and always again. For do not forget, ladies and gentlemen: it is a jazz novel that is developing here. After all, the jazz character must finally erupt somewhere. And because much has been ruptured in this chapter already, it shall therefore erupt in the next one" (19). Whereas Morrison's narrator improvises and leaves the basic melody of the storyline behind to elaborate on the beauties of the city sky or explain the significance of Thursdays (35-36, 49-51), Janowitz's narrator improvises as well, elaborating on the characteristics of Hungarian aristocrats in exile or explaining the history of a hotel room mirror, for instance (19-22, 32). And like Morrison's narrator, Janowitz's remains unnamed, disembodied, running the same risks the jazz soloist runs in the act of creation, making corrections when necessary in order to maintain a connection between the melodic line of the solo and the underlying chord progression of the song, lapsing into contradictions when the connection ruptures, and, also typical of jazz according to Morrison's critics, eschewing closure (6):
A jazz-novel has the right to fade softly in the middle of a motif's repetition and simply come to an end. To safeguard this inalienable right in the first jazz-novel having unfolded according to the laws of jazz music--well, this should naturally be granted to me. If I still take the liberty to afford, say, the saxophone a coda, softly accompanied by violin, piano, and drum, then you may be displeased with this or not: I have to leave it at that. The jazz-instrument is difficult to control, it likes to go its own soundways, and so I let it speak here once again, although I cannot entirely suppress the fear it could pull a prank on the jazz-character, its own innate character, you see. But I cannot avail anything against this either; for I am, after all, fully and completely at the mercy of my instruments, in the scope of this narrative. (Maybe I should rather be doing chamber music next time?) (112)
Thus, the narrative voice in Janowitz's Jazz is also, in a way, jazz music itself, creating and reinventing itself in the moment. (7)
But it is not only in terms of narrative structure and technique that Toni Morrison's Jazz is jazz, it is also jazz on the level of language itself, as many critics have pointed out. (8) Eusebio Rodrigues has put forth perhaps the most detailed stylistic analysis of Morrison's language, as for example with the following passage:
Dorcas lay on a chenille bedspread, tickled and happy knowing that there was no place to be where somewhere, close by, somebody was not licking his licorice stick, tickling the ivories, beating his skins, blowing off his horn while a knowing woman sang ain't nobody going to keep me down you got the right key baby but the wrong keyhole you got to get it bring it and put it right here, or else. (60)
Rodrigues argues that in its use of onomatopoeia, repetition, and punctuation, this passage enacts the sounds and the structure of jazz music:
The syllables "ick" and "ing" act in counterpoint. The "ick," first sounded in "tickled," continues to sound, like a pair of drumsticks clicking, in licking, licorice, stick, ticking.... The participal "-ing" (set up by the first "knowing") is repeated to maintain a continuous flow of movement: licking, tickling, beating, blowing, knowing, going. Internal echo-rhymes ("where," "somewhere") and balanced repetition ("somewhere," "somebody") quicken the tempo. The tiny rift ("where somewhere, close by, somewhere") with its deliberate commas, placed to compel the voice to pause, enacts a slow shimmy. The three song titles, unpunctuated, are made to run on together.... The whole passage ends with a period that is no period, for the voice does not drop but continues to sound. "Or else" is indefinite, incomplete, it is a warning, or else a promise. It resonates, and how does one punctuate a resonance? (735)
It is to be added here that, toward the end of the passage, the language is not only polyvocal--we hear, in fact, two voices, the narrator's and the singer's, at one and the same time--but the quickened tempo is also reminiscent of what jazz musicians call double-time, an apparent increase in tempo creating a polyrhythmic effect.
Eusebio's analysis of Morrison's jazz style, however, fits Janowitz's own style almost perfectly. For instance, the second half of the novel's opening paragraph, a tour-de-force describing the jazz age in Europe, uses the same stylistic devices:
... es war die Zeit der historischen Dissonanzen zwischen Ost und West: das erste Jahrzent des Kommunismus in Russland war bald uberstanden, eine neue Menschheit war unter den Sowjets in der einen Weltalfte herangewachsen, streng abgegrenzt vom burgerlichen Westen des verarmten, zwietrachtig gespaltenen Europa, vom West-Westen des uber und uber vergoldeten Amerika, eine Kluft von noch nie erlebter Tiefe war aufgerissen zwischen den beiden Halften der Menschheit, mitten durch die einstige Zivilisation der Demokratie ging jetzt ihr roter Grenzstrich, hinter dem die proletarische Kultur ihr Zukunftsreich baute; diese Dissonanz zwischen Ost und West klang grell durch alles Leben der Erde, ja, es war die Zeit eben dieser grellen Dissonanz, aufgewuhlter Kontraste, es war die Zeit der wilden Kindereien, Schattenwurfe nur der tragischen Verwilderungen, die noch bevorstanden, es war die Zeit der wilden Freude and wilder Lausbuberei, an wildem Unfug im Ordnungsbereich, kurz: das wahre Programm der Zeit hiess: Jazz, und Jazz ist es naturlich auch, womit wir uns hier beschaftigen wollen. (6-7) ... it was the time of historic dissonances between East and West: the first decade of Communism in Russia was soon survived, a new mankind had grown up under the Soviets in one half of the world, strictly demarcated from the burgeois West of the impoverished, discordantly split Europe, from the West-West of the all over overgilded America, a chasm of heretofore unprecedented depth was ripped open between the two halves of mankind, straight through the former civilization of democracy its red borderline went, behind which the proletarian culture built its future empire; this dissonance between East and West sounded shrilly through all life on earth, yes, it was the time of just this shrill dissonance, of stirred up contrasts, it was the time of wild kiddie games, only shadowshapes of the tragic wilderness yet to come, it was the time of the wild joy in wild tricksterishness, in wild mischief in the area of law and order, in short: the real program of the time was: Jazz, and it's of course jazz that we shall be dealing with here.
The vowels o and e in the words "Ost" and "West" in line 2 act in counterpoint, and they continue to sound, for example, in the accentuated middle syllables of "Europa" and "Amerika," respectively, a few lines later; the contrast in sound is linked twice in the "Ost"-"West,' pairing to the historical dissonance of the time. The consonant cluster st, reminiscent of the sound of a hi-hat, continues to sound as well, not only in "Ost" and "West" but also in "erste," "einstige," and "Kontraste," creating a flowing rhythm that quickens, as in "West-Westen" (complemented by the double-time pairing "fiber und fiber"), or relaxes, as in the middle of the main passage. The sequencing of the root wild toward the end of the segment has the same effect.
Moreover, the consonant cluster st of the hi-hat is complemented by the voiceless alveolar fricative ss of the sizzle cymbal, accentuating the flow of the language: "Dissonanzen," "Russland," "aufgerissen," "Dissonanz" (twice), "hiess," and finally "Jazz" (twice, as well). (9) Here, the fricative resonates across the physical boundaries of pagination and spacing as well as the grammatical boundaries of punctuation--" ... hiess: / Jazz, / und Jazz ..."--a combination of syncopation, semantics, grammar, syntax, and spacing that has a polyrhythmic effect. Because the opening paragraph does not really deal with the music itself, jazz functions, much as in Rodrigues's analysis, as both a warning (of the ostensibly chaotic nature of these jazzy times) and a promise (jazz as the "program" that can make sense of these "wild" times). The passage also contains two riffs, the recurring phrases "es war die Zeit" and "Dissonanzen zwischen Ost und West." Moreover, a call-and-response pattern emerges, with "es war die Zeit" the call and the historical elaborations the response. Lastly, the isolated word "Jazz" is polyvocal too, as it is both the narrator's voice we hear and the voice of the time declaring itself the Jazz Age, another instance of call-and-response. (10) Clearly then, what Rodrigues says of Morrison's jazz also pertains to Janowitz's jazz: "What we experience is language trying to become music as it tries to capture the flow of human time" (751).
Thus, if we are to adopt the theoretical framework of literary jazz put forth by Morrison's jazz critics, we must also concede that Janowitz's novel is, in fact, a jazz novel-and perhaps it very well is. But what is more, many of Morrison's jazz critics reference jazz as a marker of authentic blackness. Alan J. Rice, for example, concludes that "Morrison's jazzy prose style is ... an aesthetic device to foreground her blackness" (394), while
Robin Small-McCarthy emotes that, "in her consistent use of selected conventions of the jazz aesthetic, and in concert with our African ancestors, Morrison seems to sing out that 'The [holy] spirit will not descend without song'" (295). Both of these statements are emblematic of the fact that "few cultures are as concerned with 'authenticity' as jazz is," as E. Taylor Atkins points out (32). This, then, forces the provocative question: Since Janowitz's Jazz fits so neatly into the critical framework demarcated by Morrison's jazz critics, is it also a "black" novel?
Obviously, it is not. And yet, the challenge that the preceding comparative analysis poses is this: If indeed the literary jazz aesthetic transcends culture, race, and even language itself, how can a critical aesthetic of jazz still be useful for the study of African American literature? Part of the problem is the theoretical template that Morrison's jazz critics use in their efforts to make Jazz jazz, as most of their interpretations avail themselves of a primarily structuralist approach. That is, they argue that because the text's structure and style contain certain elements derived from jazz music--improvisation, the rift, call-and-response, et cetera--Morrison's novel thus becomes jazz literature. What these critics either misrepresent or ignore altogether is how the novel's aesthetic gesture connects with jazz history. Clearly, then, a critical theory of literary jazz must be grounded much more firmly in the history of jazz music and cannot rely on an analysis of form and structure only. A more fruitful approach, perhaps, may be initiated by examining how Toni Morrison's novel--a novel in which the word jazz occurs only once, on the title-page--is grounded in the history of the music, specifically the aesthetic of the jam session and the cutting contest.
Cutting to the Chase: Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, Morrisonian Cracks and Ellingtonian Breaks
The jam session is, as Ralph Ellison called it, "the jazzman's true academy" (245). In an art form that for the first half-century of its existence knew no formal schooling and was not represented in academia, informal gatherings of musicians improvising with each other free from the demands of producers, agents, promoters, and club owners provided both the training ground and the experimental laboratory for jazz musicians. The cutting contest is a particularly competitive variety of this jazz tradition and arose out of early New Orleans jazz. In the first decade of the twentieth century, there were roughly thirty bands active in the Crescent City, and as a form of advertising, bands would routinely ride through the streets of Storyville on horse-drawn wagons promoting various events and products. When a chance meeting between two rival orchestras occurred, quite often a so-called "bucking contest" would ensue: The wagons were tied together by a rope to prevent escape, and each band would try to outplay the other in a contest of skill endurance, and, in these early days, volume. Later, in the heyday of the swing era, the so-called battle of the bands pitted two orchestras against each other in a similar fashion; the victory of Chick Webb's orchestra over the "King of Swing," Bennie Goodman, at the Savoy Ballroom in 1936 is perhaps the most famous such battle (Bechet 63-68; Behrendt 22-24; "Cutting Contest"; Polillo 72-73, 127-28, 146-48). Unlike a bucking contest or a battle of the bands, a cutting contest is waged between individual musicians. In a cutting contest, two or more soloists alternately improvise on the same tune with the ultimate goal of "cutting" or outplaying the opponent by countering, subverting, expanding, and ultimately topping the opponent's musical ideas. Solo space is allotted in accordance with the success or failure of the improviser as adjudicated on the spot by both the musicians on the bandstand and the listeners in the audience. Often, the competition pits two musicians who play the same instrument against each other, according one chorus to each player at the beginning before steadily decreasing solo space to four measures each (hence the term "trading fours"), occasionally even two or one. The cutting contest thus constitutes the musical variety of African American oral traditions like signifying, playing the dozens, or other call-and-response patterns (DeVeaux 210-12; Townsend 5660).
While the informal jam session had always been a vital ritual in musicians' circles, the cutting contest began to acquire even more significance with the demise of the swing big bands starting in the late 1930s. As job opportunities in larger orchestras steadily decreased, jazz musicians were forced to compete for jobs in small combos or found their own band. Thus, although cutting contests were mostly held in a congenial atmosphere, their purpose was to establish and maintain a hierarchy of professional ability and competence. As such, they constituted not only the breeding ground of what would become the bebop revolution, but they also carried potentially wide-ranging economic implications for all involved: Newcomers just might land a gig with a big name in the business, or even secure a recording contract, if they managed to "cut" their opponents, whereas arrived players had to protect their reputations as well as their market value and, if possible, enhance it by cutting particularly tenacious upstarts or well-established rivals (DeVeaux 208-10). On this "musical dueling ground," Ellison, himself a trumpeter, noted that "even the greatest can never rest on past accomplishments, for, as with the fast guns of the Old West, there is always someone waiting in a jam session to blow him literally, not only down, but into shame and discouragement" (246). Trombonist Dicky Wells remembers some of the cutting contests at the countless basement clubs in Harlem in the early 1940s:
Anyone could go, but mostly performers went, mostly musicians.... All the musicians would be sitting around the walls, all around the dance floor. Maybe there would be forty guys sitting around there. The floor was for dancers only, and they would be cutting each other, too, while we were cutting each other on the instruments. Everybody would be blowing--maybe six trombones. Now Hawk [tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins[ would always come by the session.... "I just happened to stop by and had my horn," he would say. You knew he'd come to carve somebody. (Wells 24)
Coleman Hawkins was one of the most feared opponents in cutting contests, and tenor saxophonists proved to be particularly combative; some of these battles have acquired near-mythical status in jazz lore. The bartender at the legendary Minton's Playhouse remembers the frequent bouts fought between Ben Webster, a tenorist in the swing tradition, and Lester Young, whose style became the model for many emerging beboppers: "Lester Young and Ben Webster used to tie up in battle like dogs in the road. They'd fight on those saxophones until they were tired out; then they'd put in long-distance calls to their mothers, both of whom lived in Kansas City, and tell them about it" (qtd. in Ellison 246-47).
Among the many young players sowing the seeds of bebop and challenging the older, established generation of Hawkins and Webster was a tenor saxophonist from California, Dexter Gordon. Gordon, an inveterate jammer, had been a member of Lionel Hampton's and Billie Eckstine's big bands, but after he left Eckstine in 1945, his reputation grew when he immersed himself in New York City's after hours jazz scene, honing his craft alongside the likes of Lester Young and Charlie Parker (Gitler 202-03; Britt 6368). When he returned to his native Los Angeles a year later, he quickly became the star on the local jam session circuit. Known for his extraordinary harmonic awareness, his big, gutsy sound, and his uncanny ability to weave fragments from campy pop tunes into his solos, he was the perennial winner in cutting contests. Only one other tenorist could hold his own next to Gordon, and that was Wardell Gray. As Gordon remembered,
... the jam-session thing was going on very heavily at that time, at several different clubs. At all the sessions, they would hire a rhythm section along with, say, a couple of horns. But there would always be about ten horns up on the stand. Various tenors, altos, trumpets and an occasional trombone. But it seemed that in the wee small hours of the morning--always--there would be only Wardell and myself. It became a kind of traditional thing. Spontaneous? Yeah! Nothing was really worked out. It was a natural thing. (qtd. in Britt 18)
While the two tenorists established a relationship of mutual professional respect and personal friendship, their musical battles were nonetheless very serious business, as Gordon was quick to point out: "It wasn't somebody would say, 'I can play better than you man,' but actually ... that's what it was. It was serious--shit, dead serious. You'd think, damn, what the fuck was he playing? You'd try to figure it out, what was going on. To a degree, that was one of the things, to be the fastest, the hippest. The tenor player with the biggest tone--that takes balls, that takes strength" (qtd. in Gioia 35). Thus, cutting contests are not simply won or lost on sheer power and stamina alone, they also entail the vital attempt "to figure it out," to decode, transform, and extend meaning. Paradoxically, the competitive juxtaposition of two different interpretations of the same song also presupposes a collaborative interface of meaning. The cutting contest, in other words, constitutes a framework in which different meanings both compete and collaborate, where competition and collectivity are interdependent.
Gordon's cutting contests with Gray quickly accrued so much fame that they caught the interest of record producer Ross Russell, owner of the Dial record label. Russell put Gordon and Gray into the studio in the summer of 1947 and accorded them the then-uncommon luxury of a six-and-a-half-minute recording--so long in fact that it would take up both sides of a 78 rpm disc when it was released--with the expressed intent of recreating the fire and excitement of a cutting contest. The tune selected, aptly entitled "The Chase," and penned by Gordon, had evolved out of the spontaneous cutting contests between Gordon and Gray. The title was chosen as a reference to the two chasing the competition off the bandstand as well as subsequently chasing each other (Gitler 209-10; Wiggins 315-16). "The Chase" is a standard 32-bar song with an AABA structure and derives from the time-honored New Orleans vehicle "High Society." After stating the introduction and theme in unison, Gordon leads off with one full chorus of improvisation and is followed by Gray, another chorus by Gordon, then back to Gray again. After Jimmy Bunn's piano solo of one chorus, it is Gray who leads off, this time for 16 measures, followed by Gordon's half. The next chorus is subdivided even further, Gray and Gordon alternating every eight bars before "trading fours"--alternating solos of four measures--in the final chorus of improvisation. This is followed by a rift section of 16 measures before Gordon and Gray, switching the sequence once again, solo for four measures each over the bridge. The steadily decreasing solo space accorded to the soloists as well as their alternating order heightens the intensity of the improvisations and has Gordon and Gray literally chase one another.
This was not only the first studio recording that sought to put the cutting contest into a commercially viable format, it also became Dial's best-selling record, outpacing by far the sides Charlie Parker had cut for the label. The sales figures were so encouraging that Russell called Gordon back into the studio a mere six months later to pair him with another tenorist, Teddy Edwards, on a tune entitled "The Duel" in an (unsuccessful) attempt to capitalize on the commercial success of "The Chase." It was the success of this recording, too, which helped in no small measure to popularize the two-tenor battles, which just around that time evolved into the ritualistic centerpiece of impresario Norman Granz's highly profitable Jazz At The Philharmonic concert series (Britt 1621; Gitler 209-10). But as one of the veterans of the early days of the cutting contests recalled, it was Gordon's commanding presence on the West Coast jam session scene that paved the way: "He did a lot of beautiful things. Like he and Wardell Gray--'The Chase.' ... They actually started the two-tenor thing" (qtd. in Britt 26). In fact, the term chase made its way into the jazz lexicon and became synonymous with cutting contest ("Chase").
One of these unrehearsed chases was captured on record in July of 1947 at the Elk's Club on Central Avenue; the tune showcasing the vaunted battle between the two tenor saxophonists is appropriately enough entitled "The Hunt." (11) It opens with solos by trumpeter Howard McGhee and alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, each followed by polite applause. Next is trombonist Trummy Young, a veteran of the Earl Hines and Jimmy Lunceford orchestras and the only representative here of the older generation of the swing era. It is probably Wardell Gray who starts the spontaneous rift behind Young, signaling the other musicians' encouragement as well as respect (4:59-5:32). (12) Young is followed by another up-and-coming bebopper, guitarist Barney Kessel. First the audience, then his fellow musicians react favorably to his solo, spurring him on--"Go, go!" (7:097:10)--by shouting and clapping (6:37-6:38, 7:55, 8:10, 8:16-8:20). Consequently, Kessel's solo is the longest to that point. Then, however, the concluding duel between Gray and Gordon turns what has heretofore been a congenial jam session into a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners cutting contest over a total of seventeen choruses. Gray's initially somewhat hesitant opening chorus--it sounds as if he is walking up to the front of the stage as he begins to play--is followed by Gordon, who is encouraged by rhythmic clapping (9:22-9:26). He responds by tapping into his encyclopedic knowledge of popular song and weaves a brief quote from "The Wedding March" into his improvisation, the first of many such quotations (9:33-34). Gray not only answers in kind, but raises the bar by alluding to his signature phrase taken from "Swinging on a Star" (9:56-9:59) and building much of his chorus on that motif, seemingly determined to beat the master of musical quotations at his own game. No wonder that Gordon in turn seems overeager to initiate hand-to-hand combat as he cuts into the solo of Gray's third full chorus, creating a brief moment of confusion that is resolved when Gordon, in a gesture of chivalry, quickly retreats and lets his partner finish his turn (11:10-11:12). However, Gordon starts his chorus by "signifying" at the beginning of his improvisation on the concluding motif of Gray's, the musical equivalent of throwing down his gauntlet (11:3411:42). Gray, not to be outdone and probably out to avenge Gordon's disruption in his own solo chorus, first plays a quick flurry of notes behind Gordon (11:44-11:46) and then signifies on the concluding motif of Gordon's solo when he opens the eighth total chorus of the battle (12:05-12:13). This begins the reduction of the exchanges from one full chorus each to eight measures, then later to four in the ninth chorus. As each tenorist tries to outdo the other in an intense and prolonged call-and-response section of trading fours that whips the audience into a frenzy, Gordon is clearly at a loss twice as to how to respond to Gray's ceaseless, zigzagging lines of eighth-notes in unusual intervals (14:02-14:06, 14:1814:22) before he finally resorts to a stock blues rift (14:26-14:31) and subsequently recovers. Still, Gray seems to come out of the bout slightly ahead--this time. As Ross Russell remembers, these battles were like a "contest between evenly matched boxers of contrasting skills, a Dempsey against a Joe Louis, a Marciano against a Muhammad Ali" (liner notes).
The parallels between the cutting contest, "The Chase," and "The Hunt," on the one hand, and Toni Morrison's Jazz, on the other, are numerous. (13) First of all, motifs of cutting, hunting, and chasing permeate the novel. The very first paragraph, the paragraph whose content furnishes the basis for the narrative voice's improvisations, mentions that Violet "went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face," which is in a sense a cutting contest, albeit a tragicomic one, between Violet and her rival and challenger, the girl who had stolen her husband away (3). Later on, the narrative voice provides a more detailed account of the funeral, ascribing Violet's inexplicable deed to the aggressive, violent half of her split consciousness, "that Violet": "She had been looking for that knife for a month. Couldn't for the life of her think what she'd done with it. But that Violet knew and went right to it. Knew too where the funeral was going on ..." (90). Although "the blade she had not seen for a month at least and was surprised to see now aimed at the girl's haughty, secret face" does not do much damage, Violet struggles against the young, brawny ushers trying to restrain her because "maybe she had more than one cutting in mind," as the narrative voice surmises (91).
Violet's split consciousness that leads to her cutting her rival foreshadows Joe's hunt for his mother and his chase after his lover Dorcas. The novel's Golden Gray section ends with alternating parallel plot lines: In the first, Joe is hunting after the mysterious woman the locals in rural Vesper County, Virginia, have dubbed Wild, whom he believes to be his mother. Joe has been trained in woodsmanship by Henry Lestory, also known as Hunters Hunter. (14) Not only is Wild the sort of woman who "made men sharpen her knives," her presence is usually announced by a flock of "redwings, those blue-black birds with the bolt of red on their wings"--surely no coincidence in a novel that early on alludes to Charlie "Bird" Parker in the figure of a "colored man" who "floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone" (178, 176, 8). (15) Even though Joe makes three attempts to find Wild and comes very close once, he is unable to ascertain whether she is in fact his mother. The second of these two parallel plot lines finds Joe in New York City three decades later chasing his girlfriend, who has just left him for a man her own age, and his search for Dorcas reminds Joe of his past:
Joe is wondering about all this on an icy day in January. He is a long way from Virginia, and even longer from Eden. As he puts on his coat and cap he can practically feel [his childhood friend] Victory at his side when he sets out, armed, to find Dorcas. He isn't thinking of harming her, or, as Hunter had cautioned, killing something tender. She is female. And she is not prey. So he never thinks of that. He is hunting for her though, and while hunting a gun is as natural a companion as Victory. (180)
Joe follows Dorcas and two girlfriends to a jazz party where, out of misguided love, he shoots her fatally. Not only do both of these plot lines tell the story of a chase, they alternate in such a way that they resemble the structure of "The Chase," or any cutting contest: The narrator's voice, narrating the rural chase after Wild, alternates with Joe's own voice, narrating the urban hunt for Dorcas, in passages that progressively decrease in length. The next section is structured according to the same principle, only here the narrator's voice alternates with Dorcas's interior monologue. Not only is the narrative strategy here reminiscent of the jazz term double-time in that the text literally moves back and forth between two "times," the past and the present; in terms of the dialogic structure of these passages, the narrative voice, in that sense, is the Dexter Gordon to the characters' Wardell Gray or Teddy Edwards. (16) Just as in a cutting contest, where the opponents improvise over the same chord changes, so are the two parallel plot lines based on the same theme--the chase after a loved one. And just like in a serious cutting contest, someone is left for dead at the end. Furthermore, Joe's hunt for his mother and later for Dorcas is paralleled by Golden Gray's chase after his biological father, Hunters Hunter. Golden Gray likens his own chase to the search for an amputated arm: "I will locate it so the severed part can remember the snatch, the slice of its disfigurement. Perhaps then the arm will no longer be a phantom, but will take its own shape, grow its own muscle and bone, and its blood will pump from the loud singing that has found the purpose of its serenade" (159). Here again, the narrative voice in its improvisation links the motif of cutting to identity, meaning, and music.
Significantly, the narrative voice itself concedes defeat toward the end of the story--in a novel filled like a jam session with contesting, contrasting, and competing voices, the narrator appears to be the loser of this particular cutting contest:
So I missed it altogether. I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it. I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle. I was so sure, and they danced all over me. Busy, they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable--human, I guess you'd say, while I was the predictable one, confused in my solitude into arrogance, thinking my space, my view was the only one that was or that mattered. (220)
However, the novel does not end there--the narrator in effect pulls off a musical save (Grewal 135-36). As a music created in the moment, all jazz, the jam session and the cutting contest in particular, relies on the interplay between the musicians themselves and between the performers and their audiences. Like jazz, Jazz too depends on that interplay between voice and listener, narrator and reader, more so than any of Morrison's other novels. It ends with a plea for our response to the narrator's call: "If I were able I'd say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now" (229). We are asked to participate in the performance of the narrator's story; after all, as Violet points out toward the end, "What's the world for if you can't make it up the way you want it?" (208). Thus, the narrator's improvisation is a failure only if we fail to answer its call and refuse, in Dexter Gordon's words, to "try and figure it out," if we decline to participate in what is a process of creating meaning collectively: Jazz without a reader is like "The Chase" without Dexter Gordon, or "The Hunt" without Wardell Gray. (17) As jazz critic Ajay Heble observes, "Improvisation teaches us by example that identity is a dialogic construction, that the self is always a subject-in-process" (95).
Significantly, Violet's and Joe's fragmented lives become meaningful and whole again when jazz is reintroduced into their home--literally in the form of the Okeh records Felice brings with her, and figuratively in the form of the bird they purchase, a bird for whom "nothing was left to love or need but music" (224). Thus, jazz propels the novel's happy end--rather unusual in the Morrison canon. Joe's and Violet's (if not the narrative voice's) journeys from fragmentation to wholeness are prefigured by the only jazz composition referenced explicitly, "The Trombone Blues." It is this record which, at the beginning of the novel, affords Violet the opportunity to kidnap a baby boy in a misguided if unconscious effort to atone for her own inability to bear children and to win Joe back. When the baby's older sister leaves him in his stroller on the sidewalk so that she can procure a copy of said record, Violet seizes the moment. Fortunately, she is apprehended right away, but part of the onlookers' ire is also directed against the irresponsibility of the sister:
"Will you just look at what she has left that baby for." "What is it?" " 'The Trombone Blues.' " "Have mercy." "She'll know more about blues than any trombone when her mama gets home." (21)
"The Trombone Blues" was recorded by Duke Ellington's Washingtonians in early September of 1925 in the Pathe Studios on East 53rd Street in New York City, and released as Pathe 3633. The other side contained a tune recorded during that same session, significantly entitled "I'm Gonna Hang Around My Sugar" (Tucker 263). Thus, the symbolic placement of the record in the baby carriage foreshadows the trajectory of the book's narrative arc: Just as the onlookers are focused on the blues, so the narrator in the beginning can see only a tale of loss and violence and a "scandalizing threesome" in the Trace household (Morrison 6). The theme of familial and personal fragmentation is reversed in the end when, to the narrative voice's own great astonishment, Violet decides to hang around her sugar, as it were. The irony of this prolepsis is deepened by the fact that "The Trombone Blues" is not, strictly speaking, a blues. This also points to a salient narrative strategy in Morrison's fiction: As Trudier Harris has shown, one of the primary techniques Morrison employs is "reversal, where outcomes consistently fall short of expectations" (11).
The strategic positioning of "The Trombone Blues" serves to strengthen the connection between the novel and the music even further. Jazz historians agree that this particular session for Pathe does not exemplify the Washingtonians' best work (Schuller 320; Tucker 153-55). The main shortcoming, especially of "The Trombone Blues," is the inordinate number of breaks--the brief suspension of the accompaniment for one or two measures, during which only one instrument (sometimes two) carries on the melodic or rhythmic line. The eighteen breaks during a total of a little over three minutes of music result in a somewhat strained and choppy performance. (18) However, these recurrent musical) breaks in the arrangement of "The Trombone Blues" reappear as psychological breaks, "private cracks," when the narrative voice seeks to explain the "public craziness" of Violet snatching the baby out of the buggy: "I call them cracks because that's what they were. Not openings or breaks, but dark fissures in the globe light of the day.... Sometimes when Violet isn't paying attention she stumbles onto these cracks, like the time when, instead of putting her left heel forward, she stepped back and folded her legs in order to sit in the street" (22-23). Furthermore, the aural breaks of "The Trombone Blues" are also mirrored by he visual breaks of blank pages separating Jazz into different sections.
And, finally, Mark Tucker's analysis of the breaks in "Trombone Blues" also pertains to the narrative voice's storytelling: "Frequent breaks were characteristic of dance tunes of the time, but the best players--say, a Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet--could seize the moment of rhythmic suspension, spin out a phrase or two, then set up the band's entrance in such a way as to make the interruption dramatic. ... The breaks on 'Trombone Blues' do not serve this function. Instead they make an already fragmented structure even choppier" (154). In addition to the narrative voice's weaving together fragmented storylines, its (ostensible) improvisational failure to bridge convincingly the gap between the tales of loss and violence that comprise the majority of the narrative and the image of domestic bliss at the end is emblematic of the fact that, as an improviser, the voice is a Pike Davis rather than a Louis Armstrong, a Prince Robinson rather than a Sidney Bechet--a Toby Hardwick rather than a Dexter Gordon or a Wardell Gray. (19)
Nevertheless, the narrator's fragmented story ultimately becomes Jazz--and thus also jazz by default--only in the collective interplay with the reader. Hence, the aesthetic gesture of Morrison's novel is identical with the aesthetic gesture of jazz music to such an extent that Ellison's description of the jam session is essentially a description of Jazz, too:
The delicate balance struck between strong individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions was a marvel of social organization. I had learned too that the end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition, and that this tradition insisted that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame. He must learn the best of the past, and add to it his personal vision. Life could be harsh, loud and wrong if it wished, but they lived it fully, and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form. (229)
The lives that Morrison's narrator witnesses, narrates, and invents are also harsh, sometimes loud, and sometimes wrong. But from the first word to the last, and even beyond, the narrative voice is engaged in this very struggle, to reduce the chaos of living to form with a fluid style.
Two Kinds of Blue: Toward a New Critical Aesthetic of Literary Jazz
Thus, the aesthetic gesture in Morrison's novel is explicitly inventive, just as African American jazz has always been. At the same time, the jam session and the cutting contest, as well as the Washingtonians' "Trombone Blues," provide the reference points that ground her literary jazz firmly in the history of jazz music. Here, then, is also the difference from Janowitz's Jazz. The aesthetic gesture in his novel is, ultimately, imitative: "You will allow me to use the circumstance that I am writing a jazz-novel as an excuse, because this book is not going to be a novel of the usual stripe. Other laws, I think, govern this book, just like other laws govern a jazz piece instead of a sonata for piano and violin" (25). Janowitz's jazz narrator copies the "laws' of jazz music, just as European jazz musicians of the 1920s and later copied African American jazz. Friedrich Hollaender, for instance, pianist of the Weimar Republic's best jazz combo, the Weintraub Syncopators, remembers the youthful enthusiasm this new, exciting music elicited: "Yass! Yass! everybody shouts, as if someone had forgotten to turn off the faucet. It's 'Jazz' they mean, and everyone wants it and no one can play it. You run and buy yourself the new discs from America, schlep them home, bang them onto the turntable as if to fry eggs and then let them spin, ten times, twenty times, until they get so hot that the needle gets stuck in the melting wax" (qtd. in Rotthaler 135). In other words, Janowitz and Hollaender emulate; Morrison and Gordon innovate. Janowitz's narrator seeks to transpose the rhythms and sounds of jazz onto the written page, whereas Morrison's narrator, truly a storyteller, strives in the end to escape the fixed boundaries of the page (or, in musical terms, the notation of the staff). The difference between Janowitz's and Morrison's jazz, then, is that their aesthetics arise out of different socio-historical contexts. European jazz remained essentially an imitation of the American model, and it was not until the 1960s that it arguably began to speak with a voice of its own. Pianist Michael Naura, for instance, a pioneer of German modern jazz, remembers that
what the regularly employed dance bands played after 1945 were juvenile, really heartwarming and tear-jerking attempts to copy certain things. 1 was listening to Flying Home played by a radio orchestra.... that was a wonderful attempt, but rhythmically it's totally off.... We [Naura and vibist Wolfgang Schluter] formed a quintet with bass, drums, piano, guitar and vibes. We were basically just aping back then, you know. We were like a piece of blotting paper that had to somehow soak up the American ink first. (qtd. in Knauer 160-62)
Because European jazz musicians developed their craft in a completely different economic and cultural context and practiced it within a different social network, cutting contests were an extreme rarity. And even when musicians did participate in informal jam sessions, this setting was always already by necessity an imitation of the American model. (20) As LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) explains, "Music, as paradoxical as it might seem, is the result of thought. It is the result of thought perfected at its most empirical, i.e. as attitude, or stance. Thought is largely conditioned by reference; it is the result of consideration or speculation against reference, which is largely arbitrary. There is no one way of thinking since reference (hence value) is as scattered and dissimilar as men themselves" (152-53). Literature surely is as much a product of thought as music is, and so the two novels discussed here differ in their "stance." Janowitz's Jazz refers to the same art form as Morrison's, but its aesthetic gesture, its stance, is by default imitative, lacking a grounding in musical traditions that simply did not exist in Europe.
Consequently, if jazz is to be used as a critical template for African American literature, this template must avail itself not only of the structural characteristics of the music, but also of the history of the (predominantly) African American musicians who invented, shaped, and innovated it. A useful critical jazz aesthetic therefore must always also be grounded in the history of jazz music. And yet, a jazz critique of African American literature cannot help but be a hybrid, just as jazz itself was and is a hybrid, drawing on and transforming sources from outside the black American experience. (21) Morrison's and Janowitz's literary jazz alerts us to the paradox that jazz music is both: a distinctly black American art form and "world music." Or, as Dexter Gordon once explained, "Jazz is the great octopus; it'll do anything, it'll use anything" (qtd. in Gerard 37). (22) Thus, jazz music is inextricably grounded in he black experience in America--and ret, at the same time, it challenges the received binary pairs of white and black, the New World and the Old (both Europe and Africa, even Asia), oppression and freedom, jazz and "non-jazz." As Nicholas Evans tries to explain the paradox, jazz "always involves race, nationalism, and related concerns because it heightens the audibility, palpability, and even visibility of the cultural sameness and difference of whiteness and blackness" (18). So finally, one question remains: Clearly, Hans Janowitz's Jazz is not a "black" novel--but is it a "jazz" novel? Perhaps, the jazz of Hans Janowitz and the jazz of Toni Morrison are merely two different kinds of blue.
(1.) Feather, however, had his own agenda, too. Using Eldridge's blindfold test, he goes on to criticize the widespread acceptance by European critics of what had come to be known as "Crow Jim"; that is, the idea that whites are incapable of fully appropriating the jazz idiom, as jazz was the intrinsic property of the black American. Writing in 1965, Feather was reacting against what he perceived as a lamentable rise in nationalism and separatism among African Americans in general (The Book 53). As the doyen of jazz criticism, he was instrumental in orchestrating the jazz establishment's brandishing of the free jazz avant garde as "anti-jazz" and insisted that music should be evaluated separately from the social conditions of those who performed it (Kofsky 120-30; Evans 1-10). Interestingly, in his analysis of the various authenticating strategies in Japanese jazz--or "yellow jazz"--E. Taylor Atkins reports a claim similar to Eldridge's made by many Japanese jazz aficionados (42). And Joel Rudinow's insightful essay on the blackness of blues attempts to find the answer to a similar question, namely, "Do the notes sound different when played by black fingers?" (128).
(2.) Janowitz's only black character is Bibi, a dancer, who is relatively ancillary to the plot. And even though Janowitz is not interested in the sociology of jazz--to him, jazz was the ultimate expression of his utopian political dream, a pan-European democracy (Hentz 66; Riess 129-30)--it is nevertheless interesting to note that his Jazz in this respect echoes the larger European tradition of "negrophilia," where, as Petrine Archer-Straw observes, "The negrophiles who fraternized with blacks cultivated a shadowy world of nightclubs and bohemianism; their interests were in conflict with mainstream, 'traditional' values. 'Blackness' was a sign of their modernity, reflected in African sculptures that scattered their rooms, in the look of natural furs that fringed their coats, and in the frenzy of their dancing that mimicked the black bottom. Only rarely are black people depicted in this world. They and their mystique are the invisible presence in a multitude of negrophiliac images and texts from the era; their anonymity is fused with the fashion, style, and fetish-ridden interiors ..." (Archer-Straw 19). In Germany, as elsewhere, blackness (and jazz) signaled both sexual liberation and exotic-primitivistic rejuvenation on the one hand as well as Dionysian chaos, moral decadence, and a threat to the national identity on the other. This ideological dialectic is also mirrored in the handful of novels from the period that portray jazz. Unlike Janowitz's novella, however, these books by Vicki Baum, Rene Schickele, Bruno Frank, Hermann Hesse, and others "indicate a greater preoccupation with extramusical notions of cultural despair and with the recent memory of French-African occupational forces in Germany than with jazz," as Marc Weiner points out (482).
(3.) All translations of Janowitz's Jazz are my own.
(4.) For a detailed discussion of the jazz aesthetic in Morrison's other novels, see Anthony J. Berret's "Toni Morrison's Literary Jazz" and the essays by Robin Small-McCarthy and Alan J. Rice. On occasion, Mordson taps classical European concert music as well: Her only published short story to date, "Recitatif," draws its title from a musical term in classical opera, the racitative (recitatif is but one of several spelling variants), which is a musical declaration between formal numbers where the singer is accompanied only by harpsichord and follows the rhythmic patterns of ordinary speech rather than song ("Recitative"). Also, in 1991 Morrison collaborated with singer Kathleen Battle and composer Andre Previn, providing the lyrics to Honey & Rue, which the liner notes define as a cycle of "contemporary art songs" that could also be classified as Third Stream music (Gurawitsch 6). Curiously, Morrison herself has questioned how appropriate the title of Jazz really is, and several critics argue along the same lines, observing that jazz functions merely as metaphor or image rather than a crucial catalyst of the narrative (Bigsby 28; Brooker 200-09; Peach 114-15; Tally 4-5; Townsend 121-23). As I hope my argument shows, though, the novel and the music, at least in some aspects, enact the same aesthetic gesture, Morrison's doubts notwithstanding.
(5.) See also Dubey 303-04; Grewal 135-36; Paquet-Deyris 221-23; H. W. Rice 129-30; Rubinstein 152-55; Ryan 157; Small-McCarthy 293-94; Walcott 389-91. Although Eckard offers only scant and tenuous textual evidence for her contention that the novel's narrative voice is indeed jazz itself, it is not so far-fetched as it may appear at first. The unidentified, disembodied narrator recalls Ralph Ellison's observation that "there is ... a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself, for true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvasses of a painter) a definition of his identity as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it ..." (267). This is seconded by Roger T. Dean, who argues that musical improvisation in the group "involves the merging of the self with another, so that it may be impossible to tell who has done what" (35). This merging of selves and their voices is, of course, precisely what happens to Morrison's narrator in the course of improvising new voices that sometimes take over narrative control.
(6.) This is another one of those murky contentions that is incessantly regurgitated by critics of literary jazz; and even Morrison herself has stated that jazz is open-ended and lacks closure (Morrison, "Toni Morrison" 42). In terms of form, this is correct, as in mainstream jazz the length of any tune or improvisation is theoretically open-ended as long as it consists of multiples of 32 measures, the length of traditional AABA standards, or the 12 measures of the blues (or multiples of four, respectively, in an introduction or a coda). In modal jazz, the length of a chorus is not determined by the number of measures, for example in John Coltrane's 1960 version of "My Favorite Things." However, most jazz, including modal jazz, is diatonic music; that is, within the structure of the jazz standard, as well as the blues, there is almost always a return to the tonic, even in the chromaticism of bebop (Kofsky 262-64, 280, 317; Heble 32-33). The move toward a truly open-ended form and harmony happens only in free jazz, as for instance in the music of Ornette Coleman. However, my aim here is not primarily to critique the criticism but to arrive at more feasible jazz criticism of literature. For an insightful if occasionally flawed discussion of some of the mistakes and errors committed by Morrison's jazz critics, see Alan Munton's essay Misreading Morrison, Mishearing Jazz" as well as Stephan Richter's much more balanced analysis in "Magic Books and a Jam Session."
(7.) That the narrator is not Janowitz himself becomes dear when Henry is being interviewed by an American journalist: "'If you want to know more, Mr. Hennings, how Lord Punch's Jazz Band got together and so on, then read that story in Hans Janowitz's jazz novel, Mr. Hennings, in chapter five, if I'm not mistaken'" (33). This quasi-postmodernist moment is echoed in numerous passages in which the narrative voice identifies itself as presently engaged in composing the story of Jazz.
(8.) See also Berret, "From Music" 115; Eckard 16-18; Walcott 320-21; Pici 382-89.
(9.) Friedrich Hollaender, one of Germany's jazz pioneers in the 1920s, reminds us that Germans used to pronounce the word jazz as ja:s: "Jass! Jass! rufen alle, als ob jemand vergessen hattte, den Hahn abzudrehen. 'Jazz' meinen sie, und jeder will's haben" (qtd. in Rotthaler 135).
(10.) I am indebted to Iyabo Osiapem for help with the stylistic analysis of the Janowitz passage.
(11.) A variant of "I Got Rhythm," "The Hunt" is also known as "Rocks 'n' Shoals." The recorded track lacks the head: Since the jam session was recorded on two portable disc cutters, it is likely that the recording was started late in order to conserve as much disc space as possible for the solos. "Rocks 'n' Shoals" probably acquired its new title only when the appropriately named if short-lived Bop record label issued it commercially on four 78s in an attempt to capitalize on the success of "The Chase" (Visser 26; Tarrant 177). Incidentally, this is the very recording purchased by the narrator of Jack Kerouac's On the Road: "They ate voraciously as Dean, sandwich in hand, stood bowed and jumping before the big phonograph, listening to a wild bop record I had just bought called 'The Hunt,' with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Grey blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume" (113). In fact, "The Chase" became so popular that musicians began to get wary of bootleg recordings. Sonny Criss, the altoist on that jam session, complained that Ralph Bass, the jazz enthusiast who recorded the battle, had hidden his two portable disc cutters underneath the bandstand, "And this is what really started the musicians to frown on people bringing recorders around, because prior to that, if somebody wanted to bring a recorder and record us, fine. But after that everybody really became very, very conscious of that kind of thing. 'Cause nobody got paid for that" (qtd. in Swing to Bop 170).
(12.) Here, the numbers in parentheses denote minutes and seconds elapsed.
(13.) In terms of the novel's narrative aesthetics, Morrison is not interested in a synchronic historicity of the period jazz of the 1920s, as her numerous interviews make dear (see above), even though Nicholas Pici argues that the novel "remains faithful to jazz history by referring only to ... particular instruments and by never mentioning instruments that had not yet come on the jazz scene" (379). Pici's argument is flawed, however, as it misses the allusion to Charlie Parker and generally fails to explain why a novel whose narrative structure moves across time and space would strive for mimetic historicity of aesthetic referents to begin with. Even more inconsistent is Pici's use of a diachronic critical approach when he adduces "Jig-A-Jug," a tune composed and recorded in 1995 by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, son of the free jazz iconoclast Dewey Redman. Not only does Pici confuse the concept of the riff and the head, but even if Jazz were employing a literary aesthetic derived exclusively from 1920s' jazz music, he undermines his own argument by citing a composition perhaps best classified as a post-bop tune (even though its title, of course, is a nod to Gene "Jug" Ammons) instead of any 1920s' recording by, say, Sidney Bechet, or Louis Armstrong, or of the Washingtonians' "Trombone Blues."
(14.) Coincidentally, Hunters Hunter's double name echoes another track by Gordon, recorded in 1945 and entitled "Dexter's Deck." The session that produced "Dexter's Deck" yielded several other sides, whose titles all include Gordon's first name in some fashion. However, the record label, Savoy Records, was responsible for the titles, not Gordon himself (Gitler 209). Also, Dorcas's name harks back to a character in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Roger Malvin's Burial," in which Dorcas's husband shoots and kills their son in a hunting accident. And finally, in the Old Testament, Acts 9 tells the story of "a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdseds which she did" and is eventually resurrected from her deathbed by Peter (976-77; Acts 9.36-42; emphasis added).
(15.) LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) points out that "blues could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives," and likewise, Jazz could not exist if the title character of Beloved--who is consistently linked to the middle passage--had not reappeared as Wild (17). Wild, mysterious, elusive, and silent, is "a naked berry-black woman" who "is covered with mud and leaves are in her hair," huddling beside the read in the night rain when Golden Gray first sees her (144). Wild is the Africanist presence in the novel, the embodiment of the "blackness" Morrison seeks to capture in her language, a blackness that is mysterious, elusive, and yet unmistakably "there," and that propels the entire storytelling machinery of the book. Perhaps, then, Wild is the embodiment, too, of that most confounding problem confronting jazz critics: how to describe and define that elusive quality called "swing."
(16.) "Double-time" denotes the seeming acceleration of the rhythm where a soloist, for example, halves the predominant note value from, say, eighth-notes to sixteenth-notes, thereby "doubling" the speed. In pre-bebop jazz, this technique was also referred to as "double-tongue," deriving from the tongue technique used by wind players in fast staccato passages ("Double-time"; Smith 214). Again, the "chase" sections of Morrison's text interface with this term, and there are two "tongues" or voices soloing over the same theme.
(17.) In this context, it is also significant that many jazz musicians use the metaphor of a conversation to describe their art (Berliner 348-86; Monson 73-96). For example, drummer Ralph Peterson's observation of musical interaction on the bandstand is remarkable in its similarity to Morrison's narrative strategy: "But you see what happens is, a lot of times when you get into a musical conversation one person in the group will state an idea or the beginning of an idea and another person will complete the idea or their interpretation of the same idea, how they hear it. So the conversation happens in fragments and comes from different parts, different voices" (qtd. in Monson 78).
(18.) Where Mark Tucker counts 25 breaks out of a total of 139 measures, I can count--generously--only 18, thus bringing down the average from roughly one break every five-and-a-half to one every seven-and-a-half measures; still, I must concur with his assessment of the performance. Tucker speculates that the overly prominent novelty effects of the arrangements--presumably penned by Ellington--might have been Ellington's or the record company's effort to increase further the Washingtonians' appeal as a popular (commercial) dance band (153-55). Ellington's is the only known recording, even though the song was in Fletcher Henderson's band book. It, like "I'm Gonna Hang around My Sugar," was composed by Spencer Williams, who had scored a hit earlier that same year with "I've Found a New Baby"--which, it so happens, applies both to Violet's kidnapping of the baby boy at the beginning of the novel and the Traces' adoption of Felice at the end (Tucker 149-50).
(19.) Robinson (reeds), Hardwick (reeds), and Davis (trumpet)--the latter filling in for an absent Bubber Miley--were among the musicians recording "Trombone Blues" and "I'm Gonna Hang around My Sugar." My point hers is not to judge the musicianship of these men, but to extend Tucker's point to Morrison's novel. Although the comparison of Otto "Toby" Hardwick with Gordon and Gray is admittedly somewhat unfair, if not to say pointless (as comparisons of this kind are wont to be in jazz), the letter two also played in big bands at the beginning of their careers. What is more, it stands to reason that the arranger, at least as much as the musicians themselves, is to blame for the shortcomings of "Trombone Blues."
(20.) For another first-hand account of the Weimar Republic's lively jazz scene, see Michael Danzi's engrossing memoir American Musician in Germany, 1924-1939. Danzi's recollections bear out Janowitz's take on jazz in Europe: Like Henry, Danzi performed in ensembles whose personnel was multinational and whose music often straddled the fence between jazz and cabaret. "Berlin," Danzi avers, "was jumping" (17). Although he does not mention Janowitz, it is possible that the latter heard one of several Berlin-based bands with whom Danzi was crisscrossing Europe in the 1920s, especially since Danzi also worked for the silent movie industry (11-35). In Berlin, jazz had by the middle of the decade become what Cornelius Partsch calls a "metropolitan Gebrauchsmusik," reaching its apex with the premier of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper, that influential fusion of European art song and African American jazz (Partsch 107; Tischler 190-92).
(21.) A jazz aesthetic therefore presents problems for any critical approach of African American literature seeking a "pure" and "undiluted" frame of reference. A blues critique, on the other hand--Houston Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature comes to mind--lends itself much more easily to a mythology of "pure" and "undiluted" origin, to a discourse of authenticity. This is perhaps the reason that blues still plays a much larger role than jazz in contemporary African American literary theory and criticism.
(22.) Morrison's Jazz is just such an octopus, as it contains literary references to Dante, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Chades Dickens, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others (see for example Christian 489-91; Hardack 453-54; Kubitschek 139, 157-61).
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Jurgen E. Grandt is a Robert E. Park Teaching Fellow at the University of Georgia. His essay is part of a larger study on the jazz aesthetic in African American narrative.
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|Author:||Grandt, Jurgen E.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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