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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 836-838
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Horace A. Porter. Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2001. 192 pp.
Promising at last some critical opening into the work and thought of Ralph Ellison from the customarily submerged perspective of jazz, a music central to the formation of that work and thought, Horace A. Porter's admiring and highly accessible Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America tries to distill Ellison's literature and his critique of art, politics, and the cultural logic of identity into a unique allegorical brew. To borrow one of the author's privileged images, he sees Ellison's writerly practice as a "melting pot" that Porter imagines to be a literary embodiment of jazz. [End Page 836]
Drawing upon the novelist's substantial body of criticism on African-American music, Porter situates jazz solidly as a force from which Ellison derived philosophical and expressionistic inspiration:
Invisible Man is a jazz text. Though true to specific historical incidents, it rearranges them in highly imaginative ways. It consciously riffs upon or plays countless variations on familiar literary and cultural themes. It raises questions and reflects upon topics suggested by other writers such as Melville and Emerson. . . . At such moments, one can hear and see in Ellison's virtuosity lightning-like flashes of a point of view so ironic as to border on the subversive.
This approach works well for Ellison. By this same measure, however, Reed and Faulkner, Nabokov and Morrison, Stein and Acker, to name but a few, are all accomplished writers of "jazz texts" in the American contexts of literary modernism and postmodernism. A much finer connection along a line of philosophical aesthetics must be drawn to creatively explore the genuine interstices between this music and Ellison's literature.
Where Porter's effort falters critically is precisely at the boundary of the negative in which Ellison lingers so lovingly, at the crossing into chaos that art claims as its peculiar and absolute territory. Instead of tracing Ellison's stagings of negativity, such as those performed by the character of Rinehart in Invisible Man, Porter styles merely another variation on the redemptive logic of art as a defense against chaos. Part of what Ellison heard in jazz was a sonic research lab whose only organizing principle was the celebration of chance, a musical consort with chaos exemplified by the earliest experiments of Louis Armstrong. Porter's study, while nuanced and direct, is at the same time problematically premised upon a reifying conception of jazz that converts the music's improvisational fluidity into a steady and predictable state of referentiality, however democratically oriented.
Porter's study is an ambitious, but flawed and erratically edited book (in a particularly unfortunate error, a 1957 letter from Ellison to Albert Murray is said to mention Sugar Ray Leonard, the welter/middleweight boxing champion of the late 1970s and 1980s, when, in fact, Ellison was lauding the middleweight monarch of the 1950s, the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson). More important, it misses much of what is radically singular, diverse, and indeed convulsive and troubling within Ellison himself as a writer and critic. By "using jazz as the key metaphor" by which to understand Ellison, the study presupposes an "understanding" of collective improvisational music that is itself apparently indifferent to the irreducible singularities and tensions of [End Page 837] the music's expression and circumstance, its various idioms, styles, or movements; indifferent to the concrete poetics and politics of its conception—its soundings.
No historicizing account of American jazz is necessary to think through its centrality in the work of Ellison. What is necessary is to find within the fissures and abysses that structure jazz experimentation the artist's nonending negotiation with nothingness, the poet's dialogue with chaos, the soloist/composer's sonic ritual of risk that finds a vivid literary analogue in the strongest moments of Ellison's fiction. For Ellison the artist, jazz can be no metaphor, can be no mere agent of academic instrumentality, because it is always already a paradoxical, transfiguring way of...