Jazz : Character Profiles
Acton is the young man Dorcas starts seeing after she breaks off her affair with Joe. Acton is attractive to women, so Dorcas enjoys the fact that she rather than any of the other girls, has him. Acton treats her very differently from the way Joe did. He never buys her gifts and tends to take her for granted. It is she who likes to try to please him rather than the other way round. When Dorcas is shot, Acton is more concerned with the blood on his jacket than the condition of his girlfriend.
Dorcas is the eighteen-year-old girl with whom Joe Trace has an affair. After she tries to break up with him, he shoots her at a party, and she dies after refusing immediate treatment and losing too much blood. At the funeral, Violet Trace tries to slash her face.
Dorcas was orphaned at an early age in East St. Louis, and she was raised by her aunt, Alice Manfred, in Harlem. Alice tries to shield her from all the dangers in the city, especially those posed by men. But Dorcas is a passionate young woman and she does not listen. She wants to experience the earthy, sensual side of life; she loves jazz, clothes, men, and dancing. Rejected by one young man at a dance, she is amenable to an involvement with Joe, even though he is over thirty years older than she. She tires of him within a few months, however, and is much happier when she takes up with Acton.
Felice is Dorcas’s best friend. They are about the same age and go to parties together. Felice was raised mostly by her grandmother; her parents work in Tuxedo and she sees little of them. At school she had few friends other than Dorcas, and they were picked on by some of the girls because they stuck together even though Dorcas was light-skinned and Felice darker. Felice and Dorcas would fight them and enjoy the fights. Some months after Dorcas dies, Violet and Joe Trace befriend Felice, and goes to their house for supper several times. They enjoy her presence, and she helps to comfort them.
Golden Gray is the mixed-race son of Vera Louise Gray and Henry Lestory. At the time, Henry was a slave on the Gray plantation in Vesper County, Georgia. Golden Gray was named because of the golden color of his skin. His mother took him as a baby north to Baltimore, where he was raised in affluence as a white boy. It is only when he is eighteen that his mother tells him about his father. The information angers and confuses him. Within days, he sets off to find his father, and during the course of that journey he also stumbles upon Wild, the pregnant woman.
Vera Louise Gray
Vera Louise Gray is a wealthy white woman who lives in Baltimore with her servant True Belle and son Golden Gray. The daughter of Colonel Wordsworth Gray, she grew up in Vesper County, Georgia, but when she became pregnant by one of the slaves, she was sent away in disgrace. She took True Belle and the baby north and made a life for herself in Baltimore, doting on Golden Gray and concealing from him the knowledge of who his father was. She only tells him when he is eighteen.
Colonel Wordsworth Gray
Colonel Wordsworth Gray is the father of Vera Louise Gray. When he learns from his wife that his daughter is pregnant by one of his slaves, he is furious. He gives her plenty of money and disowns her.
Honor is a thirteen-year-old boy who lives in Vienna, Georgia. He comes to Henry Lestory’s house just after Golden Gray arrives, and he tends to Wild, the pregnant woman who is there.
Henry Lestory, also referred to as Hunters Hunter, is Golden Gray’s father. Henry was a slave when he had an affair with Vera Louise Gray, and he never knew that she had fathered his child after she moved north to Baltimore. After he became a free man, Henry developed a reputation as the finest hunter in the county, and he took the young Joe Trace under his wing and taught him and his brother Victory to hunt. Henry finally meets his son when at the age of eighteen Golden Gray travels to see him. Henry also takes care of the pregnant woman he names Wild.
Malvonne is a woman who lives near the Traces. She lives alone and knows all the local gossip. She raised her nephew, Sweetness, from the age of seven, but he became a thief and went to live in a big city. Malvonne works evenings and nights as an office cleaner, and she reluctantly allows Joe to rent a room in her apartment for his meetings with Dorcas.
Alice Manfred is a fifty-eight-year-old widow with no children of her own. Dorcas is her niece, and after Dorcas becomes an orphan at the age of seven, Alice raises her. Alice is of a conservative, even Puritanical turn of mind. She imbibed these qualities from her parents and swore not to pass them on. However, when she takes charge of Dorcas, she treats the girl in the same way that she was treated by her own parents. But she has no success in trying to instill in Dorcas the values of modesty and restraint. After Dorcas is murdered, Violet comes to see Alice. Alice eventually agrees to talk to her, and the two women develop a relationship in which they speak honestly to each other.
Frances and Neola Miller
Frances and Neola Miller are two sisters who look after the young Dorcas after school. Neola was deserted by her fiancÈ, and she tells Dorcas many cautionary tales about the dangers associated with men. These stories achieve the opposite effect than intended.
Rose Dear is Violet Trace’s mother, the daughter of True Belle. Rose Dear has a hard life. Her husband deserts her, leaving her to raise her five children on her own. She is turned out of her house by debt collectors and the family then lives in an abandoned shack. True Belle returns to take charge of the situation, but eventually Rose Dear commits suicide by jumping down a well.
Stuck and Gistan
Stuck and Gistan are close friends of Joe in Harlem, although he does not tell them he is having an affair with Dorcas, and they do not tell him what they know about Violet being accused of kidnapping a baby.
Sweetness is the nephew of Malvonne. He steals mail and opens the letters to see if they contain any cash. Eventually he moves away to a big city, but Malvonne does not know which one.
Joe Trace is the son of Wild, although he never meets his mother or knows who she is for sure. His father is unknown. Joe is adopted by Rhoda and Frank Williams, and he names himself Trace. In his youth in Vesper County, he is taught hunting by Henry Lestory. Joe meets Violet when they are both employed picking cotton near a town called Palestine. In 1906 they move north to Harlem, where Joe works in hotels and then sells cosmetics. He and Violet are happy at first, thrilled to be in the City, but over the years their relationship deteriorates, and a couple of decades later they have little to say to each other. At the age of fifty, Joe tries to rekindle his youth by starting an affair with Dorcas. He lavishes gifts on her and feels alive again, but the relationship lasts only a few months. She ditches him and he responds by shooting her at a party. He is never prosecuted for the crime, and for months he is deeply upset by what he has done. Eventually, however, helped by visits from Felice, he recovers his spirits, and his relationship with Violet improves. They develop a genuine love between them.
Born and raised in Vesper Country, Virginia, Violet Trace is the daughter of Rose Dear. After her mother’s suicide, she is raised by her grandmother, True Belle. As a young girl she is enthralled by the stories True Belle tells of Golden Gray. Alice meets Joe when they are both picking cotton near Palestine, and she falls for him straightaway. Some years later, at the age of thirty, Violet accompanies her husband north to Harlem. She works as a hairdresser, although she has never acquired a formal license. In 1926, Violet experiences a crisis when her husband has an affair with Dorcas and then murders her. Violet is almost unhinged by her anger. She goes to the funeral and tries to cut the dead girl’s face. In a dilemma about what to do about her husband, she talks to Alice Manfred, who thinks she should stay with Joe. Violet survives the crisis. She eventually befriends Dorcas’s friend Felice and forgives her husband, and they successfully rebuild their relationship.
True Belle is Violet’s grandmother and Rose Dear’s mother. She is born a slave and is taken north to Baltimore by Vera Louise Gray after the birth of Golden Gray. True Belle then spends many years as a servant in Vera Louise’s house, helping to raise Golden Gray.
Wild is Joe Trace’s mother, although he is taken from her at birth and never meets her. She is named Wild by Henry Lestory, who looks after her immediately after she gives birth to the baby in his house. Wild is named after her own nature. She lives outside in all weathers, in the woods, refusing to be socialized. She is found naked and pregnant by Golden Gray, who takes her to Henry’s house. Joe repeatedly searches unsuccessfully for her. He senses her elusive presence but he never finds her.
Rhoda and Frank Williams
Rhoda and Frank Williams are the foster parents of Joe Trace. It is they who name him Joseph, and they raise him along with their six other children.
Victory Williams is Joe Trace’s foster brother. As boys they are very close, but Joe loses touch with him after he marries and heads north.