- Experiencing Jazz
We may as well enter the novel by way of the one word title, Jazz, a stop consonant and a flatted monosyllable that extends into a voiced double sibilant. Like the muted soundsplash of a brush against a snare drum. "Sth, I know that woman," a woman's voice cautions in a whisper, then it suddenly drops us, without warning, into a confusing world.
The confusion arises from the speed of the telling. Fragments of information rush along unconnectedly. A woman and a flock of birds; a man both sad and happy; he has shot an eighteen-year-old girl; Violet (the voice drops briefly, between commas, to touch on the woman's name) cuts up the girl's dead face at a funeral, then hurries back to her apartment where she sets the flock free "to freeze or fly" (an unusual yoking of verbs and choices); one is a parrot that says, "I love you."
The voice, a written voice, hurtles along offering no explanations, dropping more bits of information that stubbornly refuse to come together and make sense: that the man, Joe Trace, is Violet's husband, that Violet is fifty and skinny, that the dead girl had a creamy [End Page 733] face, that the girl has an aunt, that there's an upstairs neighbor, Malvonne. We read on impatiently, wanting to interrupt and ask questions, but this voice is in a reckless hurry to tell everything at once without stopping. It throws in additional information, about spring, about another girl, another threesome. It slows down at last, a little out of breath, hinting at some kind of mystery at the end: "What turned out different was who shot whom" (6). We read on, on, bewildered but intrigued, looking at the words, listening to their rhythm, their rhythms, seeking desperately to discover the meanings of the text. Halfway through the novel we pause to take stock, to put things together, to get our bearings.
A visual examination of the layout of Jazz reveals that it has no numbered chapters and no chapter titles to act as guides. The text has been cut into unnumbered unequal sections, ten of them, divided by blank pages that compel even the fast page turner to slow down. Each section is further cut into a number of unequal subsections: the first (1-21) has three subsections separated by two-line gaps; the last (219-229), seven.
Here is a musical score that has to be made to spring into audial life, into sound and rhythm and beat. The inner ear listens to what one reads, and the words begin to take wing, to leap into sound:
Blues man. Black and bluesman. Blacktherefore blue man.Everybody knows your name.Where-did-she-go-and-why man. So-lonesome-l-could-die man.Everybody knows your name.(119)
A six string guitar at play. The first line sounds three chords, the tonic, the subdominant, and the dominant, combinations of "blues" and "black" and "man." Words are made to merge, like notes, to create run-on sounds. The third line continues the run-ons, the finger style playing of the individual notes of two chords that echo, and rhyme, and connect "why" and "die" but leave the connection a mystery ("man" here is not a word but an expression, an afternote). Line four is a repeat of line two ("Everybody knows your name"), and both act as chordal closures.1 The text, vibrant with sound and rhythm, invites us, we slowly realize, to set aside Cartesian logic in order to enter a magic world that cries out for deeper modes of knowing. We flip back to pages that had sounded intriguing, but we did not know why.
Dorcas' aunt listens to the maddening new sounds that spring out of Harlem and hit her below the sash, as she puts it. A "dirty, [End Page 734] get-on-down" music (58), a "juke joint, barrel hooch, tonk house, music" (59) that compelled hips and feet to move, a music that infuriated her "for doing what it did and did and did to her and everybody else she knew or...