Jazz is a novel of considerable brilliance, but I can’t pretend it is an easy read (or listen, for that matter).
The core of the narrative is set out in the first few pages; thereafter the novel works around it in a multi-layered and chronologically complex fashion, and while that may be appropriately analogous to a jazzman improvising, it is much more comfortable to follow such a process in music than in prose. Still, the effort involved is certainly worth it.
Like her equally distinguished colleague Alice Walker, Morrison challenges a lot of the cosier myths that have grown up concerning jazz in particular and black experience in general.
The first 20 years of this century may have brought many new opportunities to blacks as they migrated from the south, but Morrison demonstrates that from cotton fields to Cotton Club was often a far cry from the joyous rite of passage that some historians – both within jazz studies and without – have suggested. Thus her Harlem is less a celebration of black freedom in a liberal north than a place of menace, dislocation and violence.
It is tough stuff in every sense, but its fiercely corrective cogency makes it required reading for all serious jazz enthusiasts.
Jazz, by Toni Morrison. Chatto & Windus: £14.99 hb, ISBN 1-85686-114-7; Random Century double cassette (read by the author) £5.99, RC 86.