Jazz Literature

ENG 399, Spring 2014

This course examines jazz’s influence on literature during the century since the music began on the streets of New Orleans. Whether you are an aficionado of jazz or unfamiliar with the music, this course will hip you to the history, genres, and culture of jazz through poetry, fiction, drama, film, and recordings. Jazz literature traces the reciprocal relationship between improvisational forms of black American music and literary experiments from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement and beyond. Readings focus on major black writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, August Wilson, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. Students will also listen to jazz literature by experimental poets including Amiri Baraka, Sarah Webster Fabio, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and Gil Scott-Heron, who recorded with musical accompaniment.

The course begins with variations on jazz’s origin narrative. Historical sources like Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress sessions and concept-albums by Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington reveal what is at stake in retelling the story of jazz. Such narratives affirm and challenge cultural investments in racial and ethnic identities, gender and sexuality, and social class. Jazz is also a record of regional, national, and international collaborations and collisions. We then delve into the decade during which jazz entered the mainstream. The 1920s are often called the “Jazz Age,” and the twin birth of jazz and film during this decade highlights the importance of hybrid media. Early jazz films like St. Louis Blues, Black & Tan, and Symphony in Black feature Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday. The Roaring Twenties—Cagney and Bogart’s last film together and a foundational gangster movie—begins in the trenches of the First World War, covers the prohibition era, and ends on Black Tuesday, with the onset of the Great Depression.

The evolution of jazz both reflects and shapes the cultural movements and historical shifts around it. Our course explores how the Second World War impacted jazz; by mid-century, bands got smaller and the music grew more dissonant. The changing forms of jazz—from swing to bebop, and then again from hard bop to fusion and avant-garde jazz—scores the movement from Civil Rights to Black Power. Our course concludes by considering the dwindling role of instrumental music in contemporary popular culture and the shift from acoustic to electric instrumentation, suggesting both the possibilities and pitfalls of technology. Hip-hop, for example, is a literary extension of the jazz impulse, but what resemblance does rap bear to jazz poetry? We look at contemporary writers and musicians who illustrate jazz’s evolution through new hybrids of literary and musical form.

Jayne Cortez, Jazz Fan Looks Back
Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues
Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
Toni Morrison, Jazz
August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom