[Inspired by the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death—on which more in Thursday’s post—this week I’ll be AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. Please share your own responses and thoughts for a swinging crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Three engaging and important examples of jazz’s influence on American literature.
1) Langston Hughes’s Jazz Poetry: As I wrote in that post on Hughes’s Collected Poems, his voice, style, and themes can’t be reduced to any one element or influence. Yet as illustrated by his important essay “Bop,” Hughes was deeply interested in jazz and its many variations, and that interest manifested itself in a good deal of his poetry. Take, for example, the complex short work “Dream Boogie,” the opening part of Hughes’s book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). “Dream Boogie” both uses and analyzes the sounds, rhythms, and styles of “bop,” and in the process makes a subtle but compelling case for the genre’s social and cultural significance as well as its aesthetic appeals.
2) The Prologue of Invisible Man (1952): The Prologue of Ralph Ellison’s titantic mid-century novel has much to do as the rest of that sweeping book, but is anchored by a recurring allusion to one specific text: Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” (1929). In a Prologue—and a novel—defined so fully by metaphors and allegories, Ellison’s use of Armstrong’s song does two important things: illustrating how jazz specifically and African American art more broadly have likewise utilized such extended metaphors; yet at the same time grounding his metaphors and symbols in a song and sound that are quite potently concrete and real. When he ends his Prologue with the question, “But what did I do to be so blue?,” Ellison is thus reiterating how much the allusion, the song, and jazz itself can tell us about his narrator’s American story and identity.
3) Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992): Morrison’s historical novel, set in the 1920s (a period seen and defined as the height of jazz’s popularity and influence in America) in Harlem (the locus of those trends), has a great deal to say about that time and place, the potency yet also potential problems of jazz as both a cultural form and a way of life, and how those things connect to the long arcs of African American and American history. But it also offers a successful prose equivalent to Hughes’s jazz poetry, a fictional style that includes improvisation, call and response, and other hallmarks of the musical genre. Taken together, these three works trace jazz’s literary presence and influence across the 20th century.
Next jazzy connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Jazzy connections you’d share?
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