Hearing the Breaks and Cuts of History: Ellison, Morrison, and the Uses of Literary Jazz
This chapter looks at Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Jazz, two novels that riff on the African American migration narrative, the movement of black bodies from the South to the North in the early part of the twentieth century. While this upward narrative promised opportunities and progress for black selves, these authors underscore how spatial and temporal movements are broken, fissured, and constantly being interrupted. Jazz, for Morrison and Ellison, becomes a literary trope that registers the breaks and cuts of history—the wounds and openings—as well as the disjointed quality of time (the present is never coherent and seamless but haunted by complicated pasts). In Ellison’s novel, jazz-informed notions of time cut against and challenge teleological histories associated with Marxism. In Morrison’s novel, jazz-informed ideas and sounds challenge early, optimistic visions of Harlem and the North as places of freedom for black people. At the same, jazz for both authors includes practices and styles that point toward more promising ways of relating to others, the past, ambivalence, and so forth. The final section of the chapter revisits Adorno’s infamous critique of jazz music. While Adorno might be right to think about how cultural forms are always subject to commodification, in the case of jazz, he does not think enough about what people do with jazz, how they perform and reinterpret jazz in ways that cannot be reduced to the logic of capital.