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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 274-287

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From "Liberating Voices" to "Metathetic Ventriloquism"
Boundaries in Recent African-American Jazz Fiction

Fritz Gysin

In their introduction to Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose, Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey assert that

Jazz is at the same time a musicians' music, considered the most demanding, quintessentially musical of musical idioms by its practitioners (who typically sacrifice material security in order to pursue their art), and a music which, much more than most, is more than music. It has become a widely deployed symbol, a signifier freighted with a panoply of meanings, attitudes, and associations which are variously and sometimes conflictingly aesthetic, religious, racial, political, epistemic, individual, social, philosophic, visceral, idiosyncratic, collective, utopic, dyspeptic--on and on. It has become, that is, iconic, its own often iconoclastic impulses notwithstanding. (n.p.)

Needless to say, such a wide selection of attributes entails an even larger number of boundaries above and beyond those which the music itself is fraught with, and we can imagine that any serious attempt to engage this music or its practitioners in fiction will also have to deal with some of these boundaries. In this article I should like to address the gaps between the two art forms and the strategies involved in bridging them, which are related to certain cultural aspects of the boundary phenomenon itself. For thematic and spatial reasons I shall focus exclusively on African American fiction and leave aside the many fictional texts on Jazz written by white authors, American and European, which have been given much attention in recent anthologies of Jazz fiction (e.g. Albert 1990, Breton 1993, Lange and Mackey 1993). Moreover, I shall ignore for the moment the more "direct," i.e. the more realistic novels (such as Clarence Major's Dirty Bird Blues) and concentrate instead on a few texts which problematize the interface between Jazz and fiction and which, by centralizing the marginal, use inversion as a subversive strategy to privilege hybridity at the cutting edge of postmodern cultural performance.

In contemporary African American fiction and its criticism, the dialogue among the Sister Arts has begun to foreground Jazz as an enabling metaphor of black cultural achievement, partly replacing, partly extending the significant role that the blues has played in this respect for a considerable time. 1 To be sure, from Claude McKay's Banjo [End Page 274] to Toni Morrison's Jazz, from Robert Bone's attribution of specific Jazz instruments to the characters of Attaway's Blood on the Forge (Bone 140) to Keith Byerman's suggestion of improvisation and solo voices in Bambara's Gorilla, My Love (Byerman 113), writers and critics have employed metaphors from the Jazz vocabulary with more or less caution. 2 But the fascination with Jazz as a model or a master code seems to be a recent phenomenon. In her study of 1991 entitled Liberating Voices, the novelist Gayl Jones insists on the "superiority of the black musician as artist" and on his function as a guide to the writer, and she attributes the musician's superior position to what she calls the music's "greater capacity for complexity and scope" and its well-proven potential to modify or transform the European American cultural heritage (90). According to Jones, the desire for artistic excellence and socio-cultural significance may be to a large degree responsible for African American writers' use of Jazz elements as metaphors or formal strategies, i.e. for their attempt to turn fiction into Jazz, or, if this cannot be done, at least to adapt it as closely as possible to the musical performance. As some of the recent critical and scholarly literature shows, the crossing of boundaries between the two art forms seems to have become a favorite pastime of writers and critics alike; it is, however, not unproblematic. Above all, it raises questions about the positioning of the term within the theoretical or hermeneutic hierarchy as well as about the applicability of the phenomenon to the fictional/critical/theoretical discourse.

An obvious stumbling block may be...


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