Jazz Writing: Identity and Multiculturalism in Jazz Literature

By Sawyer A. Theriault
2011, Vol. 3 No. 06 | pg. 2/2 |

For example, she begins the poem by stating “it was graduation night & i waz the only virgin in the crowd” (Shange, 7), and later goes on to reiterate “…graduation night had to be hot/ & i waz the only virgin” (9). The isolation that is apparent with being the “only virgin in the crowd,” and the lady in yellow’s self-consciousness are evident pressures attributing to her loss of virginity. This societal insistence on a girl losing her virginity before graduating high school illustrates the role of gender inequality in Shange’s work.

Moreover, the poet uses the image of “male violence to comment on the ways in which women are robbed of life” (Mitchell, 269). Namely, in the lady in red’s disturbing account of Beau Willie’s monstrous act, the audience experiences the helplessness and defilement the mother’s circumstance provides. Willie fools Crystal into letting him hold their children, which she previously got a police order against, and then uses the children as a device to get what he wants, leaving Crystal in a helpless plight:

“i stood by beau in the window/ with Naomi reachin for me/ & Kwame screamin mommy mommy from the fifth story/ but i cd only whisper/ & he dropped em” (60).

Crystal is left at the mercy of Willie and realizes the horror he can and will cause. Consequently, Crystal is forced to succumb to Willie’s drastically harmful tendencies, relinquishing her ability to articulate any true emotions. All seven speakers endure such treatment as Crystal has throughout their lives, resulting in an existence that “both maintains and depends on [their] silence and invisibility”; on their inability to express individual identity (Mance, 130).

Finally, Shange’s implementation of irony in her language demonstrates gender inequality towards the black woman. This “recognition of a reality different from appearance,” is evidenced in exclusion of names for each of the seven characters who are referred to only as “lady” (Harmon and Holman, 258). As Cheryl Clarke points out in “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, the denomination of “lady,” is a “designation of gentility historically denied [to] black women” (100).

Shange ignores that discrimination by ironically naming seven poor, beaten, and tattered black women “ladies.” By operating outside of the perceived contextual norm of the story– that the women are lowlier than “ladies” and have lived a life not deserving of the term– Shange uses the names as an allusion to the characters defiance of discernment. This irony plays out in the performance as each woman overcomes her subjugated role as society’s lower class. Ultimately, the use of the word “lady” lends itself to Shange’s artful disposition to resist conformity.

The likeness between the author’s inventive form and the characteristics of jazz music renders for colored girls as a work of jazz literature, one that arouses a multiculturalist sentiment through the seven ladies’ self-searching. This sentiment is especially demonstrated through Shange’s experimenting “with kinship along feminist lines” (Cooke, 111). Additionally, Shange’s defiance of dramatic and poetic norms in this work provide reason to consider for colored girls “more American than white literature, given [white America’s] traditional use of European forms and need for European approval” (Boan, 105).  

Although her piece is of the African American woman’s life in the twentieth century, its prominence as a piece of American literature allows it to speak to a vast cultural audience, specifically aimed at the intimacy of female social relationships. Indeed these seven women provide a multiculturalist rhetoric that touches deeper than skin color, effecting the emotions shared by all races and cultures.

Ralph Ellison’s homage to Mahalia Jackson, “As The Spirit Moves Mahalia,” also emphasizes the racial transcending abilities of self-identity within jazz literature. Utilizing the musical review, and ultimately the literature of jazz, Ellison “points to the importance of the blues and jazz…as he highlights music as one of the richest contributions of African American culture to the American amalgamation” (Busby, 130). The use of this jazz literature as a medium to express identity is apparent in Ellison’s description of Jackson’s singing as a cradle for a human connection, not just an African American one: “…whatever its source, it touches us as a rich abundance of human warmth and sympathy” (88).

By using “human,” Ellison avoids isolating Jackson’s abilities to only African American art, and suggests that her songs can move a wider culture and society. Ellison later reiterates this notion when he claims Jackson’s function as a singer goes beyond entertainment, due to her application of “voice and rhythm to evoke a shared community of experience” (93). Robert G. O’Meally points out that “one of Ellison’s major points here is that black American musicians, throughout their history in the New World, have functioned not as politicians but as artists, leaders of transcending ritual” (O’Meally The Craft, 167).

By identifying Mahalia with this “transcending ritual,” Ellison’s essay epitomizes the multiculturalist effect that jazz and its literature has on national sentiment. His review illustrates jazz literature’s facility to illuminate a cross-cultural identity of an African American artist. In this illumination, Ellison has shown the reader the significance of African American art merging with American culture. This amalgamation of African American art into American culture has helped to dissolve segregation by creating a common ground of interest; an interest that resounds deeper than the color of a persons’ skin, touching the very human-nature we all share and which ignores the hindrances of racism.

Moreover, by revealing and examining the analogous characteristics between Mahalia Jackson’s voice and the jazz idiom in “As the Spirit Moves Mahalia,” Ellison exemplifies the way in which these essays speak to jazz literature. For example, Ellison describes Jackson’s application of various jazz-related timbres within a song “from the rough growls employed by blues singers, the intermediate sounds, half-cry, half-recitative, which are common to Eastern music, the shouts and hollers of American Negro folk-cries, [to] the rough-edged tones and broad vibratos…” (90).

Ellison’s review of Jackson “contains a fine thumbnail sketch of the renowned gospel singer,” and exposes an undeniable resemblance between her vocal qualities and jazz (O’Meally, The Craft 167). One instance of this connection may be heard in Duke Ellington’s “Portrait of Mahalia Jackson” from his New Orleans Suite. By omitting any vocal performance and instead emphasizing the instruments, Ellington pays tribute to Mahalia’s unique vocal inflections through a jazz composition.

Throughout the song Ellington arranges the brass section to repeat a long, drawn out three-note phrase in a low register. This phrase resonates similarly to Jackson’s actual voice on another of Ellington’s compositions, “Come Sunday,” from his Black Brown and Beige suite. The similarities in these songs occur between Jackson’s voice and the brass section’s depiction of the “rough-edged tones and broad vibratos,” that Ellison describes in the above excerpt. Patrick Colm Hogan’s cognitive analysis of musical interpretation may assist in better understanding this correlation. “To hear a melody,” says Hogan, “…is to hear a structure” (8). He goes on to reiterate the significance of “structural organization or patterning of different sounds” (8).

In these two songs, that structural patterning of sounds is strikingly alike between voice and instrument, a clear representation of Jackson’s vocal inflections catalyzed through Ellington’s jazz. Furthermore, the emotional reaction provoked by both Mahalia’s voice in “Come Sunday,” and the brass section in “Portrait of Mahalia Jackson,” reinforces Ellison’s claim of her “uncanny power to evoke our love” (Ellison, 88). Hogan accounts for this type of psychological and emotional response as “listening grammar,” or the “set of rules the listener follows (most often unconsciously) in hearing the piece” (11).

Because Jackson’s low, vibrato voice often emulates the sounds of a moan or wail, the listening grammar that accompanies such sounds arouses a common emotional response. This emotion, as Ellison suggests, does not only pertain to African Americans; it is an emotion on the level of any human. An emotion that illustrates Jackson’s racial-transcending ability to evoke a multicultural response.

In each of these texts, establishing self-identity runs salient. Baldwin, Shange and Ellison present their readers with character and context that stem from the development of jazz and its literature in American culture. The Amen Corner, for colored girls and “As the Spirit Moves Mahalia,” must not be considered in isolation from mainstream American literature and culture. The narrative that runs consistent in these works of jazz literature is essential in understanding African American culture in unity with white American culture.

Indeed, the “non-knowing,” or ignorance that Mills points out among white Americans may begin to diminish with reading such texts as those previously discussed. Mills claims that only by breaking the preconceived rules of education, fashioned by white America and its negligence of African American history and culture, can we “begin the long process that will lead to…the achievement of an enlightenment that is genuinely [multicultural]” (35). Jazz literature, especially in its operation of self-identity, may not only be considered a source of artistic expression that defies the negative perception of blackness. It is an institution that can inform the world of a true American culture; an institution with the ability to help cure white ignorance, and lead to a genuinely multicultural society.


Baldwin, James. The Amen Corner; a Play. New York: Dial, 1968. Print.

---. “My Dungeon Shook.” The Fire Next Time. New York: Dell Press, 1963. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Biocritiques: James Baldwin. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2006. Print.

Boan, Devon. The Black "I": Author and Audience in African-American Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Print.

Busby, Mark. Ralph Ellison. Texas: A. & M. University, 1991. Print.

Clarke, Cheryl. "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005. Print.

Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: the Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.

Ellison, Ralph. “As the Spirit Moves Mahalia.” Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. Ed. Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Pearson, 2009. Print

Hogan, Patrick Colm. "My Favorite Things." Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: a Guide for Humanists. New York [u.a.: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Mance, Ajuan Maria. Inventing Black Women: African American Women Poets and Self-representation, 1877-2000. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2007. Print.

Mills, Charles. “White Ignorance.” Race an Epistemologies of Ignorance. Ed. Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana. New York: State University of New York Press, 2007. Print

Mitchell, Carolyn. “’A Laying On of Hands’: Transcending the City in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls…”. Black Feminist Cultural Criticism. Ed. Jacqueline Bobo. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 263-279. Print.

"Multiculturalism." The American Heritage Dictionary. Fourth ed. New York: Random House, 2001. 577. Print.

O'Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980. Print.

---. Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Roth, John K. American Diversity, American Identity: the Lives and Works of 145 Writers Who Define the American Experience. New York: Holt, 1995. Print.

Shange, Ntozake. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow Is Enuf: a Choreopoem. New York: MacMillan, 1977. Print.

Williams, Dana A. “Contemporary African American Women Writer.” African American Women’s Literature. Ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

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