Jazz : Essay & Questions
1. Where is Harlem and what was notable about it during the time period of the novel?
Harlem is a neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City, that has long been a residential, business, and cultural center for African Americans. Harlem is located between the Hudson River and the East River, with its northernmost point 155th Street, stretching southeast as far as 96th Street. In the novel, Joe and Violet lived for a while on 140th Street and then moved to Lenox Avenue, which runs north to south from 110th Street to 140th Street. Black people began to live in greater numbers in Harlem beginning around 1904, and many (like Joe and Violet) moved to Harlem from their previous neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, which is farther south. The black population of Harlem rose rapidly over the first two decades of the twentieth century. By 1920, one-third of the residents of central Harlem were African American, and this figured increased to about 70 percent by 1930. Harlem became very densely populated, far more so than other areas in Manhattan. Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s was also the home of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of blacks arts and culture. Novelists, poets, dramatists, and musicians flourished at this time, including the poets Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, and novelists Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston. The music, as any reader of Jazz will know, was jazz, the popularity of which among African Americans soared during the 1920s in Harlem. Famous figures in jazz from this period were Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, who played at venues in Harlem such as the Apollo Theatre and the Cotton Club.
2. What was the Great Migration and what is its relevance for the novel?
The Great Migration is the term given to the movement of African Americans from the south to the other parts of the United States, including the Midwest and the northeast, from the early years of the twentieth century up to about 1940. Before that, nearly 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South. The Great Migration is a central element in Jazz; not only the time span but also the settings, in both south and north, give insight into this period in African American history. Joe and Violet were part of the Great Migration when they left the south for New York City in 1906. Some scholars date the Migration as beginning in 1910, but Morrison in the novel states that “The wave of black people running from want and violence crested in the 1870s; the ‘80s; the ‘90s but was a steady stream in 1906” (p. 33). Blacks in the south, suffering from poverty and racism, wanted to gain new opportunities for themselves in the big industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York that were rapidly growing. In New York City, they established a strong presence in Harlem, where much of the novel is set. It is estimated that two million African Americans were part of the Great Migration from 1910 to 1940. Although many improved their prospects and standards of living, African Americans still faced many hurdles due to discrimination. This was particularly so in housing, because white people resisted selling or renting their homes to African Americans. In the novel, Joe and Violet have their battles over high rents charged to black people, and areas where they are simply not wanted, but the problem eases over the years. As Joe puts it, when they move uptown (the northern part of Manhattan above 59th Street), “Used to be a colored man could get shot at just walking around up there.” But then just before World War I new houses were built there and were rented to black people.
3. How does the novel present the contrast between city life and country life?
The novel has two main settings: the rural south in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and city life in Harlem in the 1910s and 1920s, especially 1926, when the central action occurs. The city is presented as vibrant and exciting. It is a place of great possibilities but also a place where people can be misled by the energy of the city into violence and wrong actions. The narrator is clearly in love with the city, as were Joe and Violet and the thousands of other black people when they first arrived there. It was like arriving at the Promised Land. The narrator describes how she is “crazy about this City,” in which there are “clarinets and lovemaking, fists, and the sound of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things” (p. 7). But the City also has a way of getting hold of people, as if it is a character in its own right, and it has the power to take people on a ride they do not necessarily want to go on. The narrator states, in connection with Joe Trace, that the city “Makes you do what it wants, go where the laid-out roads say to. All the while letting you think you are free” (p. 120). Violet tells Felice near the end of the novel that living in the city was the best thing she had experienced when she first moved there, because there was so much more to do, but now she realizes that she allowed life there to change her for the worse. She points out that in the country, they had nothing but missed nothing: “Before I came north I made sense and so did the world” (p. 207). Torn from their roots and free to make of their lives something different, many people succumb to the temptations the city present.
In contrast, even though terrible things went in the rural South, life had a kind of authenticity in which people lived closer to nature. It was a simpler, more innocent life in which people had a sense of belonging to their environment. This is most noticeable in the descriptions of Joe’s life as a young man in Vesper County, Virginia. He “worked gins and lumber and cane and cotton and corn . . . butchered when needed, plowed, fished, sold skins and game. . . . He loved the woods. Love them” (p. 106). When Joe decided to move north, it came as a surprise to those who knew him. No one understood why he was willing to “leave his fields and woods and secret lonely valleys” (p. 107) for the city. In the novel as a whole, then, the busy, dangerous life of the city is contrasted with the pastoral world that has been left behind, both in time and place.
4. What attitude to the different characters, including the narrator, have to Wild?
Wild first appears in the novel naked, pregnant, covered with mud and leaves, and looking wild. The first person to encounter her is Golden Gray, and he shudders at the sight. It is for him an encounter with raw blackness—and he has yet to come to terms with his racial heritage. He does take her into the house of his father, Henry Lestory (Hunter’s Hunter), however, so in a sense Wild provides him with his first opportunity to act outside his racial comfort zone. Henry Lestory gets firsthand experience of the woman’s nature when she bites him, and it is this prompts him to name her Wild. After she leaves his care and goes back to living in the woods, no one ever sees her for sure. Her presence is elusive but felt. Hunter’s Hunter senses when she is watching him from a tree or behind a knoll. She is a kind of mythic figure: he feels her tapping him on the shoulder with her fingertips but still never sees her. Joe desperately searches for her, the mother he has never known, and he finds that she lives in a stone room accessible by a burrow. She has assembled there everything that she needs to live. Joe feels a sense of peace when he discovers her makeshift home. This points to a paradox about Wild. Although she lives outside of the scope of society, and people are scared of her, and her story is used to caution children, she also represents peace. Hunter’s Hunter remembers her laughter “and how peaceful she was the first few days following the bite” (p. 166). Joe feels her peaceful presence when he lies in bed with Violet after their love has been rekindled, and Wild also represents peace and security for the narrator, “a home in the rock . . . a doorway never needing to be closed, a view slanted for light and bright autumn leaves but not rain” (p. 221). The narrator says she would “love to close myself in the peace left by the woman who lived there and scared everybody. . . . She hugs me. Understands me” (p. 221). This is Wild in her mythical dimension as a woman who lives independently and close to nature, completely apart from the so-called civilized world which has the power to disrupt and harm people’s lives.
5. What symbolic role do birds play in the novel?
In the second sentence of the novel, the narrator announces that Violet Trace “used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue” (p. 3). After Violet tries to cut the face of the dead Dorcas at the funeral she rushes home and frees all the birds from their cages, including a parrot, and puts them outside. They can either freeze to death in the January cold or fly. The immediate effect is a sense of emptiness and lifelessness in the Traces’ apartment, especially given the absence of the parrot that used to say “I love you.” But the parrot just sits on the window sill, having forgotten how to fly. On the second day Violet tells it to go away, and it did, leaving just one feather behind. She does not know what happened to it. Was it taken by someone or did it actually fly away “on wings that had not soared for six years. Wings grown stiff from disuse and dull in the bulb light of an apartment with no view to speak of” (p. 93)?
The fate of the parrot is emblematic of Violet herself. She has lost her spirit in life, and this is reflected in her loss of weight. She is skinny, unlike the strong young woman who used to be able to haul hay. Like the parrot, she has wasted away, lost her wings. At the end of the novel, however, Violet acquires another bird in a cage. At first it refuses to eat and takes no notice of Violet. Then she takes it to the rooftop and allows it to listen to the music that can be heard from nearby. The bird cheers up and after that is happy. The bird becomes a symbol of Violet’s restored happiness with Joe.
The other birds alluded to in the novel are red-wings, “those blue-black birds with the bolt of red on their wings” (p. 176). These birds are associated with Wild. They like her, so the legend goes, and whenever four of them are seen together, Wild is close. These birds, then, in their natural environment, are a symbol of the positive aspects of Wild’s unusual life—her independence and closeness to nature.