Over the weekend I had a chance to catch up on a little novel re-reading. One book that I pulled from a high-up shelf was Jazz by Toni Morrison. Originally published in 1992, the novel takes place in New York in 1926 and looks at the social and psychological strains endured by African-Americans who migrated north to the city from the rural South after World War I.
The novel has nothing to do with jazz. And I'm not a huge Morrison reader. But her writing style and tempo in Jazz has everything to do with the rhythm and and feel of the music, which is why I like it so much. So for a change-up, I thought I'd share a sample, as told by the book's unseen narrator:
"I'm crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces, and it's not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blase thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It's the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-copper halls of apartment buildings, I'm strong. Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructible—like the City...
"Nobody says it's pretty here; nobody says it's easy either. When it is is decisive, and if you pay attention to the street plans, all laid out, the City can't hurt you. I haven't got any muscles, so I can't really be expected to defend myself. But I do know how to take precaution. Mostly it's making sure no one knows all there is to know about me. Second, I watch everything and everyone and try to figure out their plans, their reasonings, long before they do. You have to understand what it's like, taking on a big city...
"The young are not so young here, and there is no such thing as midlife. Sixty years, forty, even, is as much as anybody feels like being bothered with. If they reach that, or get very old., they sit around looking at goings-on as though it were a five-cent triple feature on Saturday. Otherwise they find themselves butting in the business of people whose names they can't even remember and whose business is none of theirs. Just to hear themselves talk and the joy of watching the distressed faces of those listening. I've known a few exceptions. Some old people who didn't slap the children for being slappable; who saved that strength in case it was needed for something important. A last courtship full of smiles and little presents. Or the dedicated care of an old friend who might not make it through without them. Sometimes they concentrated on making sure the person they had shared their long lives with had cheerful company and the necessary things for the night."
Jazz and Toni Morrison may or may not be your cup of tea. But her writing in this novel has a terrific timbre and beat that you may find interesting and illuminating.
JazzWax tracks: Reading passages from Morrison's Jazz made me want to hear Duke Ellington from the 1920s. So I put the book down and put on Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings 1926-31. You can find it at iTunes as a download or buy it here. It's a natural soundtrack for this novel.