JJ 08/92: Jazz – the novel

Thirty years ago Richard Palmer liked Toni Morrison's rebuttal of the myth of Harlem even if the novel's form, as jazz solo, was abstruse. First published in Jazz Journal August 1992


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.