by Toni Morrison

Hardcover, 1992

Call number




Alfred A. Knopf (1992), Edition: 1st, 240 pages


In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe's wife, Violet, attacks the girl's corpse. This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life.

User reviews

LibraryThing member girlunderglass
Forget the rating. It's really not important, and I'm not sure it has much to do with the book because I'm not sure it's a ratable book or, if it is, I'm not sure I'm the one that's qualified to do so. In fact, I'm definitely not.

I had only read a short story by Toni Morrison before and didn't find
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anything unusual about the writing then. This time the very distinct and peculiar writing style struck me from the beginning. One of the blurbs says the book contains "some of the finest lyrics passages ever written in a modern novel". Perhaps that's true. I wouldn't know how to phrase it. Maybe you can get idea of it by reading this, the first paragraph of Jazz (or maybe you can't):

"Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feelings going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, 'I Love You' "

There are two kinds of great books. There are great books you know they're great the first time you read them. And you have such an amazing time with them that you don't want to get back to them anytime soon for fear that you won't be able to replicate the first experience. And there is also the other kind. Great books that you sense they are great, but the first time is not enough for you to understand or feel or touch that greatness. And you want to go back to them immediately after you've finished them because you know you've missed something. You feel it. You got confused at times and at times you got distracted or thought "fuck this paragraph, I don't have the patience to try and decipher it, I'll just move on with the story" and then regretted it. Then the book is over and you love its ending so much you think you could've loved it all if only you paid more attention to it instead of just hurriedly getting through the words. That's Jazz for you.

If you decide to read the book, focus. Give it your full attention. Don't hurry through it. It's not an easy book. But I sense that it's a great one. I'm keeping this rating for now, but I don't think I got all I could get from Jazz. I think - or hope- that, inevitably, I will go back to it someday. And when that happens, I'll try to really get to its core.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
I’m slightly unsure what to say about this novel. It is not destined to be a favorite of Morrison’s for me, but the writing is so damn good I don’t want to turn people off of it. It’s a fairly straightforward story about a marriage and an affair but told in a non-linear way. I don’t know
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much about jazz music, but I think it has a lot to do with a central melody and then instrumental and vocal riffs off that center - which perfectly describes the novel. This is Joe and Violet’s story, but then a lot comes off of that – about the city, about their pasts, about their origins, about slavery and the unfulfilled promise of the post-Civil War South and the post-World War I North... It all comes together in a sort of chaotic whole that can be disorienting at times, but then Morrison returns to Joe and Violet, and the reader finds that center again. It is really remarkable as a piece of writing, even if as a story it didn’t fully engage me.

3.75 stars
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Again I found it rewarding to return to a Toni Morrison novel. In this story an unknown narrator tells the tale of Joe and Violet Trace. Joe got his name because that was what his parents left without.. .a trace, and Violet gets her named changed to Violent because she tries to cut the face of the
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dead 18 year old that her husband first wooed and then shot “just to keep the feeling going”. And that‘s only the first two pages. The narration switches back and forth between characters and time, also telling the story of Joe’s mom, the Wild One and the man Golden Gray who was raised by Violet’s Grandmother. There is a kind of music to the city of Harlem and the sensory images of the setting helps to establish this. I am always amazed at the catastrophic events that are seen as commonplace in the worlds of her characters. This story has the ability to make Joe, an adulterer and murderer, a sympathetic character who believe it or not is a good man. There is also a story of love here that we could never foresee until we get to know the history of these people. Morrison uses a narrator who in the end feels she has done poor job describing these people and wishes she lived her own life rather than just observed others. This perhaps is a reflective comment by the author, but I hope she nevers listens.

The Amazon description details:
In a dazzling act of jazz-like improvisation, moving seamlessly in and out of past, present, and future, a mysterious voice--whose identity is a matter of each reader's imagination--weaves this brilliant fiction, at the same time showing how its blues are informed by the brutal exigencies of slavery. Richly combining history, legend, reminiscence, this voice captures as never before the ineffable mood, the complex humanity, of black urban life at a moment in our century we assumed we understood.

Jazz is an unprecedented and astonishing invention, a landmark on the American literary landscape--a novel unforgettable and for all time.

Morrison is the next author to read whenever you are disappointed in your latest book. Her language alone lets you know why you spend your quiet hours immersed in words.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Set predominately in 1920s New York City, Jazz follows Violet and Joe, a middle-aged couple who left the South for the City twenty years earlier. The book opens shortly after Joe kills his teenage lover, and Violet attacks her body during the funeral. Toni Morrison then takes readers into the past
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to understand the forces that shaped Joe and Violet and led them to that fateful day.

Jazz was Toni Morrison’s sixth novel, published five years after her previous work, Beloved. Each novel portrays a period in the history of Black people in America, with emphasis on culture over historic events. Beloved is set during slavery and its aftermath; Jazz during and after The Great Migration. In writing about the Jazz Age, Morrison very effectively imitates the jazz genre itself: the narrative can be lyrical, sometimes percussive, and subplots spin off like soloists in a jazz combo. The technique is mostly effective, although the novel faltered over one protracted “solo,” despite its satisfying resolution. This was followed by the denouement which, instead of tying up loose ends, seemed disjointed.

Only a writer of Morrison’s calibre could successfully produce two back-to-back experimental works like Beloved and Jazz. While I consider Beloved the better of the two, both are rewarding for those interested in literary form and the themes she chooses to explore.
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LibraryThing member BraveKelso
Impenetrable. Polemical novel of female grievances.
LibraryThing member Othemts
This is a complex novel in which story lines are repeated and improvised much like a jazz piece. It's also a unique novel in which the book itself is the narrator. I'm a big Toni Morrison fan, and while it's hard to say so definitively, this may be my favorite of her novels. It's fun to read both
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for its creative style, interesting storytelling, and even its humor.
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LibraryThing member ocgreg34
This book is one of the few that I put down after reading the first few sentences. The rhythm and pacing threw me as I tried and retried that opening paragraph, and I reluctantly gave up, returning the book to the library the next day. Of course, that was about 10 years ago. Since then, I've read
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two of Morrison's books and enjoyed them immensely so I decided to give "Jazz" another go.

"Jazz" tells the story of Violet and Joe Trace, a couple struggling with a strained relationship in different ways: Violet starts to slowly lose herself, sitting down in the street for no reason, releases all the birds in the apartment; Joe shoots his teenaged lover, Dorcas, to death. Weaving back and forth in time, allowing each character -- even Dorcas -- an opportunity to tell his or her part in the events, the reader learns not just about the story of Violet and Joe, but also their family histories, what lead them to such a drastic point in their lives.

I managed to make it past those first lines this time, finally understanding that Morrison used the language as her own interpretation of jazz music from the 1920s: flowing, rhythmic and repetitive, riffing off to tangents that hold you equally as strong as the original thread, but ultimately finding its way back. In that respect, the writing brilliantly created the feel of a big city just getting into the swing of jazz, affecting how people acted and spoke, how they walked, how they related to one another. While that held my interest, sometimes it detracted form the story, such as the tangent describing the City near the beginning going on for pages and pages though it didn't seem to have anything to do with the actual tale.

Many of the sections felt that way to me -- I enjoyed how they were written, but what they were saying didn't seem to have an impact on the story as far as I could tell. Golden Gray, True Belle, the Wild Woman -- all finely drawn characters, but I scratched my head trying to understand what their stories had to do with Violet and Joe. I grudgingly forged ahead with those areas because when Morrison stuck to the tale of Joe and Violet, the story picked up steam and a definite direction.

But I won't call this book one of my favorites. "Jazz" wound up feeling like more of an experiment in writing which sometimes worked.
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LibraryThing member Dorritt
Towards the end of this book the narrator impatiently posits: "What's the use of living in the world if you can't make what you want of it?" (or words to that effect). I think that's at the core of this story - that freedom and self-realization come not from the things that happen to us, but from
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the choices we make about how to respond. Sometimes we choose wisely and sometimes poorly, but even the worst outcome is better than allowing the world to define you.

Certainly the couple in this story, Joe Trace and his wife Violet, make heartbreaking choices. But how they face up to their choices, struggling not to give in to the violence, jealousy, and hardship that threatens to destroy them, not only makes for deep, empathetic characters and a compelling story, but also a pretty great life lesson.

You could say that Toni Morrison approaches this novel with a similar attitude: what's the point of writing a novel if you can't make what you want of it? The story eschews the conventional transitions of most novels, wandering through time and across geography and between narrators. Her prose is similarly unconstrained, alternately sleekly between narration and lyric poetry. Requires the reader to attend, yes, but love the way this allows Morrison to move around the story, telling bits of it first from one perspective and then the other, preserving the layers and complexity of the tale through to the final words of the final chapter.

Which, when you get down to it, is a lot like the musical form after which the book is titled. Like life, jazz is shaped by the choices that the artists make. Sometimes the result is lyrical, other times cacaphonous, but anyone who's every listened to jazz understands that the music is, at its core, entirely about freedom and self-realization.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz is a book that I really enjoyed at times. But, at the same time, there were portions of the novel I could barely force myself to endure. It is that uneven.

Jazz, mostly set in 1926 New York City, is the story of Joe Trace, a 50-something-year-old man whose marriage
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is not what it used to be. There is a general sense of optimism now in the city’s black community. The Armistice ending World War I is already seven years old, and the future appears bright for everyone brave enough to have traded life in the rural South for what the City has to offer. Joe, though, is not content.

When his job as a door-to-door beauty product salesman for the Cleopatra company brings him into contact with Dorcas, an18-year-old neighborhood beauty, Joe makes his move. But only three months later, when Dorcas unceremoniously dumps Joe for a younger man, he cannot accept it and shoots her dead in a crowded room. Joe’s wife Violet, cheated of her chance for vengeance, brings a knife to the open-casket funeral where she does her best to disfigure the corpse. But life goes on, and Violet will find herself almost inadvertently helping her husband through his grief.

Morrison’s mysterious narrator reveals most of this in the book’s first six pages (the book jacket reveals the rest), and uses the remainder of the book to fill in the details. Through a series of flashbacks, the author tells the individual and joint stories of the central characters, going back one or two generations in some cases to remind the reader just how closely linked to the days of slavery the residents of 1920s Harlem still were. But, as Morrison points out in the following passage, the City gave its residents hope for a better future:

“The wave of black people running from want and violence created in the 1870s; the ‘80s’ the ‘90s but was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it. Like the others, they were country people, but how soon country people forget. When they fall in love with a city, it is forever, and it is like forever. As though there never was a time when they didn’t love it.”

Bottom Line: Jazz is a highly atmospheric novel filled with many truths about the human condition – a novel that vividly brings 1920s Harlem to life. Some of the generational flashbacks, however, poignant as they may be, are overwritten and heavy-handed enough to obscure, rather than reinforce, Morrison’s overall theme. Jazz is still worth a look, but it is not one of Toni Morrison’s best efforts.
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LibraryThing member AnesaMiller
This is the compelling story of a tragic attraction between an older man and a nihilistic young woman. It was the first book I'd ever read by Toni Morrison, and it totally blew me away.

The plot focuses on the aftereffects of the extramarital affair as well as the motivations behind the crime of
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passion the man commits when his paramour jilts him for someone closer to her age. The real story seems to concern how such events arise from a set of African American experiences and are ultimately recontained within that community.

Enthrallingly told, with compassion for all & justification for none, this wrenching tale and its beautiful language captured me completely. I was only a bit disappointed when the narrator asserted herself as an outside observer near the end, confessing that she hasn't caught the essence of her characters or their conflict. I respect her making these admissions, but I was loving the strong heady substance of the tragic love story undiluted by them.

Then, Morrison does something that--oddly enough!--reminded me of Wm Gibson's futuristic neural surgeries: She lifts her characters' emotional struggles out of the story, like an old photo from a frame, and says of their image: "I wonder, do they know they are the sound of snapping fingers under the sycamores lining the streets?"

The agony, the loss, even the lifelong love scarred by betrayal and sickness of the old married couple -- the immortal feelings beat on in the sounds of the music of their people -- JAZZ.
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LibraryThing member Terzah
This book, one of my all-time favorites, speaks to me every time I read it. It exemplifies the best fiction to me, in that it takes the most sordid of human sins (adultery, murder) and transforms a tale centering on them into art, which is to say, into something beautiful. The beauty is not in the
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sin but in redemption and forgiveness. When I complain about other books, what I'm coming to realize I really mean is that the plot lacks some element of redemption. Redemption for me is hope.
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LibraryThing member ratastrophe
While I loved the lyric quality of the writing (definitely living up to the title), the story itself didn't speak to me...I was a little disappointed, not because the book wasn't good (it was) but because I've had such strong emotional responses to other books by Toni Morrison.

It's possible I'm at
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the wrong age to read this book, though.... too old to be Dorcas or Felice, too young to be Violet. If I'm going to give the story another chance, I think I need to wait about 20 years.
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LibraryThing member Lisa.Johnson.James
I REALLY love Toni Morrison as a writer. There's just something about her that is a mesmerizing storyteller. Jazz hooks you right from the start, with Violet showing up at the funeral of Dorcas, & trying to attack her as she lies in her coffin because Violet's husband Joe "took up with" this young
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girl, who was barely 18.

These characters are REAL, you hurt for them, you shake your head at them, you feel for them as their stories, histories, & back stories are told. The City, which is all it's referred to in the book, but which I finally figured out was actually NYC, is described in 1920's terms. I enjoyed the fact that you don't quite know who the narrator is, because it seems to change with each section of the book.

I thought this was a wonderful read.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
In the opening scenes, Joe shoots the woman with whom he'd had an affair after she ends the relationship. His wife Violet attacks the corpse at the funeral. Much of the rest of the book deals with the aftermath and with trying to put the pieces of the relationship back together. The characters are
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very flawed. The writing is excellent. It's one of those novels that has to be re-read to be fully appreciated. It's a book that would create some excellent discussion in book groups or classroom situations. I'm not certain I enjoyed it well enough to commit to a re-read.
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LibraryThing member GingerbreadMan
Violet is Joe Trace’s woman, but she is battling the other Violet who lives inside her, the one who wants to steal babies and say weird things. Joe Trace, almost to his surprise, starts up a relationship with eighteen year old Dorcas, and shoots her when she leaves her. Violet loses her mind at
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the funeral, attacking the coffin and trying to slice the corpse’s face. Yes, it sounds violent, and it is, a bit, but more than anything Jazz is a book about what shapes a person, about redemption, passion and love. Set in the first decades of the last century it slides back and forth between now, then and long ago, in a writing style that uses jazz music’s restless variations around themes. New York, just referred to as City, is very present, almost a character in itself. Not least is the contrast between it and Joe’s and Violet’s rural upbringing central. An almost gentle anger flavours the pages throughout.

It’s cleverly and organically done, but I lack some sort of core here. Too many threads are left hanging, and I have a strong feeling that I won’t remember too much about this novel the second time around either. It’s not often I say this, but I think this one might have actually benefited from being a hundred pages longer.
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LibraryThing member pinkcrayon99
Joe and Violet that comfortable kind of love. Joe was gentle. Violet could have been labeled eccentric. They owned a bird that said, "I love you." They came to the City from the South. They were products of that great migration. Then Joe laid eyes on teenage Dorcas while peddling beauty products.
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Dorcas drowned out Jazz and brought along the Blues.

Initially Morrison set all the characters before us along with all the necessary details. The rest of the story is the background and breakdown of all these characters and events. This was the wilderness for me. There were numerous times while reading through this wilderness, I wanted to scream, "Get to the point already."

Violet was always on the perimeter of the story to me. Her presence never bore any weight. Joe was gentle, weak, and possessive all at the same time. Dorcas was a dark cloud that loomed over the narrative. When Dorcas's friend Felice gave her account of events, I began to enjoy the novel. That came at the end.

When I read that this book involved a scorned wife trying to stab a corpse, I thought it has to be good. I must have missed it. I felt as if I was in a black hole the entire time. Even though I did not enjoy the entire book, there were passages that were simply brilliant.
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LibraryThing member MaryAnn12
Superbly written, Jazz is the tragic yet hopeful story of Joe and Violet. Born down in Virginia in the late 1800s, they move to "the city" (never named, but I'm guessing New York) when they are in their thirties. Life there for them is more different than they ever imagined, and they change for
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both better and worse.

Also, Jazz is the story of Dorcas, a confused teenage girl trying to wiggle her way out from under her strict aunt's thumb. Dorcas collides in a way with Joe and Violet that is horrible, yet will make you feel sympathy for everyone involved.
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LibraryThing member thorold
One way or another, all of Toni Morrison's books are about how the lives of black women in America have been damaged by the consequences of slavery. But that doesn't mean they're all the same. Her characters, especially her women, are always unexpected and original in their conception. By the time
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she came to write Jazz, she had also developed a strong, individual and very engaging style of writing. It's a constant pleasure to read her, the narrator's voice keeps taking you by surprise with the images it uses and the leaps it takes from one topic to another. You never feel you're being lectured about African-American history, having the stories of hate and oppression rammed down your throat. All the same, the message is very clear.
As others have said, when you take a step back from the book you might find yourself wondering where the story has gone. It isn't made clear who the narrator is, and various crucial threads seem to cross arbitrarily, or are simply left dangling. But that doesn't seem to be a problem. All the illogicalities of the story somehow seem to make sense at the moment you come across them, and there's a suspicion at the back of your mind that it will all fit together somehow if you start again at the beginning.
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LibraryThing member Winshoe
beautiful language but weak plot
LibraryThing member seasonsoflove
In the 1920s, a man named Joe Trace cheats on his wife, Violet, and shoots his lover. Violet then attempts to attack the corpse at the funeral, after releasing her beloved birds into the cold of New York. Morrison takes readers from present to past and back again to tell the stories of her
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characters, cultural experience, and what love (or lack thereof) can do to a person.

I love Morrison's books, period. Morrison is an absolutely brilliant writer with an expert command of language. The book is lyrical, flowing, and cuts deep to the core of the human experience.

If you haven't read any of Morrison's work, you must. I started with Beloved, but I've loved everything of hers I've read.
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LibraryThing member aethercowboy
Morrison has soul, which is apparent from reading her novel, Jazz. Written in the style of jazz music, Jazz tells a story of Harlem, but drifts across time and space to help fill out the respective motif.

The story focuses on Joe and Viole(n)t trace, each on opposite but similar ends of a spectrum
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when it comes to Joe's late mistress, Dorcas. As part of a larger, Dante-inspired trilogy (c.f. Beloved and Paradise), Jazz falls somewhere in between, which would put it in Purgatory, aptly so.

Leveraging unique narrative and engaging characters, Morrison has put together a great piece to listen to by yourself, or improvise with your friends. Highly worth a read.
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LibraryThing member amaryann21
Though it took me awhile to get into, this book struck a chord and made my heart ache by the end. Like any good jazz song, it runs through the gamut of emotions and leaves you wanting more.
LibraryThing member Frenzie
There is a lot that is good about this book, but I somehow just quite really like it. There are a lot of beautiful phrases and the narrative jumps are executed well enough. One of the main characters is said to have reinvented himself seven or eight times, and perhaps so did this book by switching
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between different characters, eras (mostly 1920s and 1870s), and different narration styles. That makes it interesting, but I didn't think the 1870s storyline contributed much, even if it arguably linked the novel to Beloved with archetypal images of a cave in the woods and the like. I should think this book will leave you with a taste for more Morrison, even if it can be a bit in your face.

“Perhaps it's the artificial rhythm of the week — perhaps there is something so phony about the seven-day cycle the body pays no attention to it, preferring triplets, duets, quartets, anything but a cycle of seven that has to be broken into human parts and the break comes on Thursday. Irresistible.”
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
"Don't ever think that I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn't fall in love, I rose in it."

'Jazz' opens in 1926 Harlem and Morrison looks at broken families and lives using a tragic love triangle. Middle-aged Joe Trace meets eighteen-year-old Dorcas whilst selling cosmetics at her aunt’s home
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and begins an affair with her. Months later when Dorcas begins to tire of him, Joe shoots her dead. Violet. Joe's wife, attends the funeral and slashes the dead girl’s face with a knife. But then weeks later Violet starts visiting Dorcas’s aunt and these visits become a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, Joe who isn't arrested for the murder is lost in grief for his dead lover.

The plot flips from various perspectives and tenses, connecting the love triangle's participants' past and present. In doing so Morrison creates a web of fractured identities as we are shown the same tragic events from differing standpoints and the motivations behind them.

I loved the writing and felt that the storytelling read like a long and beautiful poem. But, you have to really focus on it otherwise its easy to lose the thread. 'Jazz' is undoubtedly a piece of literary art but personally I didn't feel that it was as powerful as the previous novel by the author that I read, 'Beloved', and consequently I felt compelled to mark it down.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
Jazz focuses on the lives of a black couple, Joe and Violet Trace, who moved from rural Virginia to NY fairly soon after they married. The story goes back and forth in time, from Violet's childhood after her mother dies to Joe's origin as the child of a "wild woman". Though a short book, this is
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not a quick read.

Joe and Violet have no children, and all seems fine, until he becomes obsessed with a teenager, Dorcas, in their NY city neighborhood. Honestly this part of the story does not fit with Joe's personality as we have met him, so it's a bit confusing. Violet forgives him, Felice (Dorcas's best friend) seems to forgive him, and life in the city goes on.
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