As the title suggests, jazz is important for the novel, in more ways than one. First, jazz is African American music that was created in the South and by the 1920s had become extremely popular in African American communities such as Harlem. Jazz is ever-present in the Harlem that is presented in the novel; it is part of the air people breathe, as shown in the following surreal image, from the narrator’s first extended description of the life of the city: “A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone” (p. 8). Everyone feels the power of the music and is influenced by it, whether they hear it live in clubs, on the street or on records at dance parties, and it affects how people feel: “the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot to cool” (p. 51). People hear jazz played on the streets in summer, and they cannot escape it unless they close their windows and endure the heat.
The influence of jazz may be pervasive but it is not for everyone a positive influence. Some people do not like it; they are scared of what this kind of music can do to people. Alice Manfred, for example, believes the music the young people love can arouse dangerous desires, either sexual or violent. This is the “dirty, get-on-down music the women sang and the men played and both danced to, close and shameless or apart and wild” (p. 58). The narrator holds that the music seems to control people without their being aware of it. Dorcas loves to attend dance parties, for example, and the young people as they dance “believe they know before the music does what their hands, their feet are to do, but that illusion is the music’s secret drive: the control it tricks them into believing is theirs” (p. 65). Joe Trace has a similar feeling about being controlled, or at least negatively influenced, by music as he walks the streets searching for Dorcas following their breakup: “I dismissed the evil in my thoughts because I wasn’t sure that the sooty music the blind twins were playing wasn’t the cause. It can do that to you, a certain kind of guitar playing. Not like the clarinets, but close” (p. 132).
But if the music of Harlem has a power that can sometimes lead people astray, these cautionary images are balanced by others that affirm the power of this music to offer people something unequivocally uplifting. When spring comes to the city, for example, “young men on the rooftops changed their tune; spit and fiddled with the mouthpieces for a while and when they put it back in and blew out their cheeks it was just like the light of that day, pure and steady and kind of kind. You would have thought everything had been forgiven the way they played” (p. 196).
Even the form of the narrative in Jazz resembles an improvised jazz piece, since it does not proceed in a linear fashion but doubles back on itself, exploring its themes in a variety of different approaches, riffing (repeating a melodic phrase), and allowing the characters to sing their melancholy, bluesy songs in prolonged solos (the first-person narrations given to Joe, Dorcas, Felice, and the narrator).