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Week 8

Toni Morrison Jazz (1992)

Please read

Henry Louis Gates. "The Trope of the Talking Book." The Signifying Monkey:  a theory of African-American literary criticism. Oxford University Press, 1988, 127-169 & 272-275.

Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination. Harvard University Press, 1992, v-xiii & 1-17.

Please listen to or read Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize Lecture (1993) 
  • How does this lecture affect the ways in which we read and understand Jazz?
Please think about the following topics in advance of the seminar
  • How would you describe the "voice" or "voices" of this text? Can you say whether it/they are gendered?
  • In what ways is this an historical novel, and a novel about the city?
  • In what ways is this not only a novel about the jazz era but also a novel that deploys jazz strategies and creates a "jazz" of its own?
  • How would you describe the discourses of the novel?
  • Decide how the notion of "unreliable narrator" and trope of the "Talking Book" are applicable in this text. Find examples of both. Which term do you find more useful?
  • In what ways does photography inform this text? (The novel was inspired by a photograph by James VanDerZee, from Camille Billop's The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978), of a young girl shot dead by her lover at a party, who refused to identify him as her assailant. Toni Morrison wrote the foreword to this now out of print publication)
  • Compare the "Preface" to Playing in the Dark with Jazz. Written at about the same time, what do they have in common in terms of ideas, themes, and approaches?
  • Think about the ways in which characters in the text are represented in states of disintegration. Find some examples of this. Why do you think Morrison depicts African-American characters in these states?
Further Resources

You will find a chronology of Toni Morrison's life and work at the Toni Morrison Society website.

You will find a recent interview with Toni Morrison at:

YOu will find a short film about the making of Miles Davis Kind of Blue here.  Arguably, Toni Morrison uses Miles Davis as a model for Jazz performance more than the kinds of jazz musicians that are alluded to in the book.


Timehost presents question #1043 from Doormouse: What is your favorite jazz album or artist?

Toni_Morrison says, "That's difficult.Among the jazz musicians I like Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett."

Timehost presents question #1044 from Lisaak: How do you view the struggle for African Americans today?

Toni_Morrison says, "If you mean by that economic strides that some African Americans have made, I am very encouraged by the changes since the 60s and the increased number of professional African Americans in all walks of life, from Wall St. to the Academy, to corporations and business community.If your question refers to the level of violent racism in the U.S., I am not at all optimistic.It seems as though the progress that African Americans make historically is accompanied by an equally negative response to that progress."

Timehost says, "Here's a follow-up to the question about jazz..."

Timehost presents question #1045 from Doormouse: Are there any similarties between jazz and writing? And why do you like Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett?

Toni_Morrison says, "I try to echo some of the basic characteristics of jazz music in that book by refusing to have a narrator or leader who knew everything and exactly how the music was going to turn out. Instead, the narrator had to listen to the characters the way Miles Davis listened while he performed with his musicians, and depending on what they did, that would affect the next solo or alteration in the music." 
(transcript from Jan. 21, 1998,