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Toni Morrison Has Always Been a Jazz Musician, not only because she signifies, assimilates, and advances the themes and structures of great African works, but also and primarily because she signifies, assimilates, and advances the themes and structures of her own canon.1 Because Morrison is concerned with and committed to African people, she uses each of her novels as a framework for investigating various solutions to the African's class exploitation and race and gender oppression. This thematic investigation is always enhanced by narrative structure. Theme and structure work together as theory and practice in an effort to highlight, and pose solutions to, the problems African people confront. 2Jazz continues this tradition of signifying, assimilating, and advancing the mutuality of theme and structure. In her latest novel, structure does not just enhance theme, it is theme. Just as in jazz, the story and the telling of the story are one, so in Jazz , theme and structure blend together to suggest the unity that must exist among African people. The reader is first made aware of this unifying process in the inscription:

I am the name of the sound

    and the sound of the name.

I am the sign of the letter

    and the destination of the division. [End Page 623]

Nothing is separate and distinct; everything is everything; all is one. Theme is structure: structure is theme. Just in case the message isn't clear in the inscription, Morrison gives us another clue in the first "word" of her text: "Sth." This "word" (sound), like buzz, is both the name of the sound and the sound of the name. And what better way to get this message across than jazz, a music form in which songster, song, and song telling are one. In jazz, the way of playing is just as important as what is played. Signifying on some melody, and then improvising on it, is the key. George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is one thing, but Duke Ellington's is quite another! As the great Charlie "Bird" Parker does for music, Toni Morrison assimilates the best of African literature and moves the tradition forward by testing its limb. Indeed, James Lincoln Collier's description of a great jazz musician is apropos to Morrison:

Of course, the great musician brings to his improvising more than the right notes and a feeling for jazz rhythms. He brings a personal quality, his own style, to his music that makes him instantly indentifiable [sic] to the knowledgeable listener. Any jazz player or fan will recognize immediately, from just a few notes, the playing of Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. These great musicians have qualities which set them apart. Not only are their tones unique; they also bring startling ideas, brilliant musical inventions which avoid the obvious, and a dramatic flow which ties a whole solo together, making it a unit rather than a series of unrelated musical ideas. The truly great jazz musician is great for the same reasons that a great writer or painter is great: he can make a unified whole out of fascinating parts which join in surprising ways. And we can only explain how he does it by saying that he is a genius.


In Jazz Morrison's genius lies in erasing the seams between theme and structure. In fact, the theme, "we are all connected as African people," is at times difficult to separate from the narrative structure. The most significant example of this is Morrison's creation of the narrator, a hybrid creature who is half character, half omniscient narrator. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes this type of narrative format as a "double-voiced narrative mode" (xxv-xxvi). Just as with jazz the storyteller is not distinct from the story he is telling, so in Jazz the storyteller (the narrator) is not distinct from the story she is telling. The narrator affects, and is affected by, the story she tells. Yet while separating theme from structure is a more difficult task in this work than in any other Morrison novel, it is nevertheless useful to do so in...


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pp. 623-646
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