James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, are notable literary and cultural giants of the twenty-first century, who wrote important books about African American experiences in New York City. Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Morrison’s Jazz (1992) are classics in American literature. Both focus on crime and romance, and both feature music and the soundtrack of the modern city. Written twenty years apart, Beale Street was published in the 1970s during the Black Arts Movement, while Jazz’s release in the early-1990s followed Morrison’s publication of Beloved and came a year before she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. These novels of Harlem are distinct but share some common features. Morrison’s book takes readers into the Great Migration and Jazz music scene of the 1920s, while Baldwin’s love story brings us to the 1970s and a time in which Black men faced increasing incarceration rates. The two authors admired one another, and they had some similar concerns and commitments as writers. Drama and intensity define both Beale Street and Jazz, and, as the titles of these novels suggest, music is critical to the way both authors portray New York, key characters, and Black struggles of the 1920s and the 1970s.
“… for the beginning of the twentieth century, I wanted that feeling of dislocation and inventiveness and startling change that was representative of those enormous migrations that were taking place among African Americans, and certainly is characteristic of the music.” — Toni Morrison (Hackney 5)
Music shaped the careers of both Morrison and Baldwin, how they understood the culture and how they connected with others. Morrison’s mother was a jazz and opera singer, and Baldwin as a child preacher knew the sounds of Black churches. As an adult, he connected with jazz musicians, including Nina Simone and Miles Davis, and he had a deep appreciation for instrumentalists and vocalists.
“The beat — in Harlem in the summertime one could almost see it, shaking above the pavements and the roof.” — James Baldwin, Another Country (Open Culture)
Baldwin had an impressive record collection (Open Culture). In portraying Harlem at different moments of the twentieth century, Beale Street and Jazz emphasize that New York is a city of music. Morrison’s account of the 1920s features descriptions of music being played on street corners, on rooftops (Morrison 196–197), in house parties, and in nightclubs. We encounter musicians, music lovers, dancers, and African American record collectors.
The characters in Jazz find excitement and danger in the music of the city. The sounds of clarinets and horns had been unknown to people like Violet and Joe in the rural South who arrived in New York “train dancing (Morrison 36)” on a railroad that brought them north. Cultural historian Daphne Brooks emphasizes that Jazz is a “Great Migration Epic (Brooks 326)” featuring Dorcas, a Black teenage girl who is a music fanatic. Morrison first introduces this character as “coming into the building with an Okeh record under her arm and carrying some stewmeat wrapped in butcher paper, another girl with four marcelled waves on each side of her head (Morrison 6).” In an interview in which she described the character, Morrison explained that “I wanted this young girl to have heard all that music, all the speakeasy music, and to be young and in the city and alive and daring and rebellious and, naturally, to get in trouble (Hackney 5).” Dorcas’s enthusiasm for music showed her independent spirit in the 1920s, but it also leads to her murder. Aunt Alice Manfred, who became Dorcas’s guardian after her parents were murdered in the race riot in St. Louis, despises the sounds of jazz and fears correctly that “the dirty, get-on-down music (Morrison 58)” will only harm her niece. Brooks stresses that Alice on the other hand sees jazz as “the source of self-destruction for a Negro people trying to get free (Brooks 328).”
In Beale Street, Baldwin does not emphasize music as entertainment for newly-arrived African Americans, but instead as deeply-rooted culture in New York’s Black communities of the 1970s. Music is played in Harlem churches and homes, and Tish’s family has a strong record collection. Music is enjoyed by residents of different generations.
James Baldwin and Toni Morrison’s influence today can be heard in the work of musicians like Chicago artist Jamila Woods.
At the beginning of Beale Street, when Tish tells her sister and father that she is pregnant, her sister Ernestine “put on a Ray Charles record and sat down on the sofa.” The sounds of Ray Charles, a jazz and blues artist, seem to bring the family together and calm Tish. She notes that “I listened to the music, and the sounds from the streets and Daddy’s hand rested lightly on my hair. And everything seemed connected — the street sounds, and Ray’s voice and his piano and my Daddy’s hand and my sister’s silhouette and the sounds and the lights coming from the kitchen.” In this scene, Tish does not feel like she is experiencing something brand new as much as she feels connected to the deep past. She feels that “It was as though we were a picture, trapped in time: this had been happening for hundreds of years, people sitting in a room, waiting for dinner, and listening to the blues (Baldwin 41).” The novel encourages the reader to imagine Tish’s family comforted by a common soundtrack.
Both Baldwin and Morrison emphasize the connections between Black music and love. Music’s power in Beale Street is evident when Tish remembers going to a Sanctified church service with Fonny’s family. She witnesses intergenerational joy in that place, and she sees the church music moving the bodies of worshipers. Lost in the moment, Fonny’s mother was “singing and clapping her hands. And a kind of fire in the congregation mounted (Baldwin 24).” Music affects the bodies and spirits of listeners, Baldwin shows us, although the love it inspires is not necessarily what the choir intends. Tish notes that “the church began to rock. And rocked me and Fonny, too, though they didn’t know it, and in a very different way (Baldwin 26).” In this passage and others in Beale Street, music brings Black people together in physical ways. In another section of the novel, Fonny describes his parents’ lovemaking as musical. In Jazz, as well, music is a sexual force. Dorcas and her best friend Felice are spellbound by the urban music of the 1920s as sexually active young women. Music excites the romance between Dorcas and Joe, and jazz eventually brings Violet and Joe together. At the end of the novel, the two make peace when music enters their apartment window, according to Felice, who describes how “Mr. Trace moved his head to the rhythm and his wife snapped her fingers in time. She did a little step in front of him and he smiled. By and by they were dancing (Morrison 215).”
Music can be both divisive and connecting in these novels, but above all, it is something shared and discussed by Black New Yorkers. In Morrison’s work, Aunt Alice sees jazz as the devil’s music, and she complains that “the dances were beyond nasty because the music was getting worse and worse with each passing season the Lord waited to make himself known (Morrison 56).” Alice recalls working as a seamstress and hearing the sounds of jazz music everywhere she went in New York, and that she associated these tunes with the Black activists who resisted the race riot in St. Louis (Morrison 56–57). For her, jazz brings back earlier trauma. We see and hear 1920s Harlem as a place where music is heard in common and both enjoyed and debated. In Beale Street, as well, Baldwin suggests that African American New Yorkers share important musicians such as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles as beloved cultural figures. While Jazz describes the world of music without any mention of the famous artists of the 1920s, major art figures like Franklin and Charles are important in Beale Street. Instead, Morrison focuses on nameless clarinet players and percussionists, and everyday Black Harlemites who love urban sounds. The Nobel Prize-winning author writes that Harlem is a city full of music all around.
In both Beale Street and Jazz, music plays a central role. Baldwin and Morrison use African American musical artistry to describe how the city works and how characters interact with others. Both novels are similar in some ways to genres of music. Morrison has commented that she wanted Jazz to seem like a work of musical improvisation as if many soloists were playing a similar theme. She told one interviewer that in developing the style of her book, “I was very deliberately trying to rest on what could be called generally agreed-upon characteristics of jazz (Hackney 5).” For that reason, we hear from a variety of narrators, including Joe, Violet, Felice, and Alice. On the other hand, Beale Street might be more blues than jazz. Its title references a place in Memphis where that genre might have been born, and Baldwin tells a story of tragedy, love, persistence, and creativity. Fonny is a tragic hero, and the story of Tish and Fonny is accompanied by the bluesy sounds of drummers, piano players, and wailing voices.
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Brooks, Daphne A. Liner Notes for the Revolution. The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. The Belknap Press, 2021.
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“Happy Birthday Toni! A Celebration of Black Women.” Brooklyn Academy of Music, n.d. https://www.bam.org/film/2020/happy-birthday-toni?alttemplate=MobileProgram&m=1
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“Listen to James Baldwin’s Record Collection in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spotify Playlist.” Open Culture, 29 December 2020, https://www.openculture.com/2020/12/listen-to-james-baldwins-record-collection-in-a-478-track-32-hour-spotify-playlist.html
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2019.
“A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance,” National Museum of African American History and Culture Blog, n.d. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance
Pierpoint, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone Turned the Movement into Music.” New Yorker, 3 August 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice
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“Jamila Woods — BALDWIN (Official Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 25 June 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOylrOyohnU.
“Jamila Woods — SULA (Paperback) (Official Audio).” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Aug. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LzR2lCl8VQ.
Vaipan. “Toni Morrison Interview on ‘Jazz’ (1993).” YouTube, YouTube, 9 Aug. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsiETgcYM7s.