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Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Jazz | Context


Jazz, published in 1992, is the second in a loose trilogy of novels. The novels do not share characters but rather the theme of excessive or obsessive love.

  • Beloved (1987) deals with the love between parent and child. The novel tells of a mother who murders a child to keep her from being enslaved.
  • Jazz (1992) deals with romantic love and parental love. Its main plot is set just after World War I in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. A young woman is murdered by her older, married lover.
  • Paradise (1998) deals with the love of God and is set in the post–World War II period. A group of men attempt to establish a new Eden and keep it pure from what they consider immoral behavior.

Together the three novels trace an arc of African American history. Of the three Beloved is the most popular and has been adapted into a movie, but Jazz has also been well received.

The idea for Jazz's central story came to Morrison when she saw a photograph of a young woman in a coffin in photographer James Van Der Zee's The Harlem Book of the Dead. Van Der Zee recalled that the girl had been killed by her lover at a party. She told her friends that she felt unwell. As her friends were caring for her, they asked about the blood on her dress. "I'll tell you tomorrow," she replied, giving her lover time to escape. Morrison writes that the girl's reaction seemed "so foolish, so wrapped up and entangled in the sacrifice" of romantic love. She explores this excessive love from various perspectives in the novel.

Critical Response

In a 1977 New York Times Book Review interview, Morrison describes the language of African American communities as "graceful and powerful" and argues that "black people's grace has been with what they do with language." In Jazz Morrison plays with language and perspective as if they were melodic lines and harmonic contexts. The result is a challenging novel, she has acknowledged, but one that rewards rereading, just as a complex jazz piece rewards repeated listening. Morrison says in a 1993 interview in The Paris Review that the interweaving plot lines and points of view "bum[p] up against that melody time and again, seeing it from another point of view" as jazz musicians do.

The novel received critical praise, though some reviewers found the emphasis on musical language too much. Of the novels in the trilogy, Beloved overshadows Jazz and has received more attention, but the nature of the nonlinear narrative structure of Jazz pleases many readers. Morrison has described jazz as music that never totally satisfies and always leaves the listener wanting more. In the same way, Jazz ends without a "final chord." Violet and Joe do not reach a "happy ending"; their story goes on beyond the novel.

The Great Migration

The characters in "the City" have arrived as part of the Great Migration, the movement of millions of African Americans from the rural South to Northern cities in the first half of the 20th century. The Southern states relied heavily on agricultural work early in the century, but sharecropping proved financially hazardous, and crop failures and other agricultural problems cut into available work. Northern cities with factories and other industries needed workers, especially during both world wars, and attracted hopeful people, many of whom sought greater racial tolerance. African Americans migrated to cities such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York, but they also traveled to and settled in cities on the West Coast. Longtime white urban dwellers often held racist beliefs and sometimes looked down on the rural backgrounds of African Americans from the South. Yet over the decades families continued to move north, seeking better educational opportunities and futures for their children.

The Northern cities were not, of course, free of racism, and the newcomers often found themselves segregated into specific neighborhoods and resented by white people. Violence sometimes broke out as a result of these tensions. Jazz incorporates a historical example—the East St. Louis riot of July 1917. About 10,000 recent arrivals from the South were at work there in wartime industry, but white people in the area resented their presence. After a rumor spread that an African American man had killed a white man, violence against African Americans erupted. Over the course of a single week, shootings, assaults, and arson claimed the lives of several white people and hundreds of African Americans and resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage. Many African American families fled the area.


Many of the African Americans who migrated to New York City in the 1920s and 1930s settled in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, called "the City" in Jazz. Harlem became a center of African American culture, art, music, and writing after World War I. The explosion of creative work during this time is referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. Not only did the arts flourish, but African American scholars and historians began to reclaim, examine, and celebrate their culture, past and present. The literature of the Harlem Renaissance became a source of a new pride and identity for many African Americans, while the jazz that developed in Harlem revolutionized music.

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