Jazz & Ragtime

Analysing E.L.Doctorow's and Toni Morrison Novels and the Rise of Afro Music in America





There are several points in common between E.L.Doctorow’s “Ragtime” and Toni Morrison’s “Jazz”, which go far beyond the mere references to the music in their titles.


Just like Doctorow, who combined musical features in order to create an unique narrative style in his “Ragtime”, Toni Morrison also had the aesthetic care of reflecting the musicality already explicit in the title of her “Jazz”, in a peculiar text through which characters appear in “solo” performances, alternating repetitions and improvisations, but with the main purpose of reaching a final, harmonic ensemble. So, with variations that range from simple laments (very typical of the blues) to more sensual beats (that recall ragtime’s own pace), characters would be able to review the events of their own lives, having new and different perspectives about things.


One point in common between the two novels refers to the anonymous nature of the narrative voices. “Ragtime”, for example, has a narrator who is not specifically any of the characters (he/she could be either ‘Little Boy’ or ‘Little Girl’ or, still, both of them together or alternately). And, despite all historical concern present in the narrative, the person in charge of telling the story does not have full omniscience about all the facts involved in it.


         Notwithstanding the ostensible omniscience, “Jazz’s” narrator is also anonymous. However, he/she plays the important role of linking the various “solos” and improvisations performed throughout the novel, forming a sociological, concise whole (and not merely a primary historical context), composed of smaller, fragmented pieces, just like the “mosaic” that the peripheral “City” had become. So, “Jazz” plunges into the unfair history of the African-Americans in a very particular way, by exhibiting the ‘pyches’ of each character, while simultaneously revealing their desperate search for an individual (but common) identity.


Never going too far from the universe of New York’s Harlem (and using a minimum number of white characters), Morrison also reveals the slavery traces still present on those who, in an eagerness to escape from their past, inexorably seek for a shelter, on the outskirts of a big city (or completely out of it, in the case of Golden Gray and Wild, characters without well-resolved senses of the self, although for different reasons). Therefore, both Violet, Joe and Dorcas experienced the feeling of displacement in their new environment, as they were raised by distant relatives, somehow repeating the frequent ownership exchanges that their enslaved ancestors faced in the past: hence, the obsession in urgently looking for any identity that could fit to them.


         Despite the fact that “Ragtime” also leads to a sociological approach, Doctorow does it always in reference to some (but not necessarily true) historical circumstances which, merged to the lives of the most ordinary individuals, allow that each one of them may find (or not, in the case of Coalhouse Walker) a place in the society. Even the names of well-known figures like Ford, Morgan or Freud is used, but, paradoxically, providing a subjective overview of the own historical facts, instead of simply repeating already-known conclusions, easily found in history books.


Going back to the universe of music, we will realize that the effects of syncopation, present in ragtime rhythm, lead to an unique melodic accent, which always occurs between other metric beats (then the “ragged time”), resulting in a new regularity that makes listeners to mark the final beat in a more intense way, creating a “strange and intoxicating” effect of vibration.


Later, jazz developed a typical multi-rhythmic personality, which was enriched by improvisations, but never abandoning the original swing of the own ragtime music, becoming a new conceptual style without proper definitions or boundaries, despite of its universally accepted attributes. And, among such particularities, the most remarkable ones are rightly the various individual “solos” that interact with the whole, in a kind of game composed by “questions” and “answers” between instruments, resulting in a genuine dialog rich of harmony.


Finally, it is curious that such definitions can perfectly say a lot about the styles and purposes of both “Ragtime” and “Jazz” which, despite all formal cares in the construction of their narratives, still preserve extremely relevant sociological themes, which contribute to their deserved consecration as important canonical works from the most recent North American literature.