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Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Jazz | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Set in 1920s Harlem, Toni Morrison's Jazz is a literary classic reflecting and embodying the vibrant music and lifestyle of the Harlem Renaissance. Published in 1992, the novel follows Joe, Violet, and Dorcas, the novel's main characters. Joe, unhappily wed to Violet, falls in love with the much younger Dorcas. As the story unfolds and turmoil abounds, the narrator recounts the backstories of Joe and Violet, which enlighten the reader about the characters' challenging upbringings during the late 19th century.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison grew up listening to her family's stories about the South. This early introduction to storytelling led her to earn two degrees in English, become a senior editor for Random House, and publish her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970.

1. Toni Morrison was inspired to write Jazz by a book of funeral photos.

The Harlem Book of the Dead, published in 1978, was a compilation of funeral photographs. One of the photos showed the corpse of a young woman who had been shot and refused to identify her killer before she died. This photo inspired the character of Dorcas, who was shot and refused to allow the witnesses to call an ambulance.

2. Morrison may have also been inspired by her own family's history.

Like many of the characters in Jazz, all four of Toni Morrison's grandparents had migrated from southern to northern states. Morrison grew up hearing stories about the South from her maternal grandparents. She was particularly interested in the cultural and economic conditions that black people faced in their new northern homes, and this theme appears throughout her work.

3. The word jazz never appears in the novel—except in the title.

Jazz is set during the Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918–37), a movement in which African American artists embraced their culture and infused it into American life. This became known as the "New Negro" movement, which was greatly influenced by jazz music.

A Toni Morrison biographer noted that the style of jazz parallels with Morrison's style of writing, saying "the language itself reflects the rhythms and harmonies of music." According to one reviewer, 'You do not read this book; you listen to it.'"

4. Harlem is never named as the setting in the novel.

Although it's the accepted setting of Jazz, Harlem is never mentioned in the text. Instead, Morrison refers to the setting as only "the City." An additional clue that "the City" is indeed Harlem is the fact that three of the main characters reside on Lenox Avenue, the main street that runs through Harlem.

5. Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison has won many awards throughout her life. In addition to the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, she won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Beloved. In 2012 President Barack Obama awarded Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

6. The link between Jazz and Beloved is unclear, but readers have speculated for years.

Although the connection between Jazz and its predecessor, Beloved, is not explicitly made clear, many readers and critics have tried to discover ties between the two novels. Some have speculated that Joe Trace, the main character in Jazz, is the character Beloved's son, noting that Joe was born at roughly the same time that Beloved's baby would have been. Even Morrison herself has alluded that there could be a connection, saying, "Wild is a kind of Beloved. The dates are the same ..."

7. Morrison has an unusual approach toward plot: she puts it all on the first page.

Morrison once said in an interview that she put the entire plot on the first page for her novels Jazz and The Bluest Eye. She explained that she wants plot to be about not what happens but how and why it happens:

You put the salient elements up front and the reader is hooked into wanting to know how did that happen. Who did that and why?

8. Jazz received mixed reviews.

Though most early reviews of Jazz were positive, some were more critical. A review in the New York Times states, "It is as if Ms. Morrison ... hesitates to bring us to the last frontier, to a predicament that is both physical and metaphysical, and which in certain fictions ... becomes our very own experience." Still, the majority of reviews were favorable, as captured here in a Kirkus Review: "One of Morrison's richest novels yet" and "In all, a lovely novel—lyrical, searching, and touching."

9. Morrison objects to the term magical realism being applied to her work.

Magical realism refers to the coexistence of the ordinary and the magical or supernatural in literature. Though Jazz has often been characterized as part of the genre of magical realism—and Morrison concedes that her books encompass a supernatural element—she does not embrace the term, believing that the word magical dilutes the realism of her work.

10. The Toni Morrison Society was established to promote study of the author's work.

The Toni Morrison Society, founded on May 28, 1993 is dedicated to furthering the work of Toni Morrison. As an official member of the American Literature Association, the society has more than 600 members from all over the world, many of whom hold prominent positions in business, the arts, and academia.

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