Jazz begins in Harlem, New York City, in 1926, with the unnamed first-person narrator giving some basic facts about a murder that took place a little while earlier. Joe Trace, the husband of a woman named Violet shot his eighteen-year-old lover. Violet, who is fifty years old, went to the funeral in the first week of January and tried to cut the dead girl’s face with a knife. Joe Trace was never prosecuted for the crime.
Violet tries to punish her husband by taking a boyfriend, but Joe does not care. Then she tries to fall back in love with him, but that doesn’t work either. Next, she tries to find out all about the dead girl who came between them. She gets a lot of information from Malvonne, a neighbor, since Joe and the girl used her apartment as a meeting-place. She also befriends the girl’s aunt, who gives Violet a picture of the girl. Violet places it on the fireplace mantel in her parlor.
The narrator then gives a vivid portrait of life in Harlem in 1926, in which many people feel optimistic about their prospects. There is violence as well as progress, however. The narrator enjoys the glamour and excitement of life there and would not live anywhere else.
Joe and Violet Trace often gaze at the photograph of the girl, whose name is revealed as Dorcas Manfred. Since her actions at the funeral, Violet has found it harder to get clients for her business as an unlicensed, self-taught hairdresser, and now she goes sometimes to the apartments of prostitutes to do their hair. One morning she talks to one of these women as she fixes her hair, complaining that Joe still thinks about Dorcas all the time. Violet finds that she is increasingly obsessed with thinking about Dorcas, too.
The narrator says it is likely that no one was surprised at Violet’s strange behavior in the funeral home, because she had behaved strangely before. Once she just sat down in the street for no reason. Passersby carried her to the nearest steps. There was also an incident in which some say, including the narrator, that she had tried to steal a baby. Violet went to a morning hairdressing appointment at the house of two women named Dumfey, who were mother and daughter. No one was at home, however. Violet sat down on the steps to wait. A woman asked her to watch a baby in a carriage for her while she ran back into her house for a moment to collect a record called “Trombone Blues.” Violet decided to pick up the baby, named Philly, and she walked with Philly in her arms to the end of the block. Violet was then accused of kidnapping the baby. A crowd gathered, and Violet insisted on her innocence. Some people believed her, but some did not.
The narrator comments on Violet’s fragile psychological state and says she was not always like that. When she was younger she was determined and hard-working, strong-willed and able to get her own way. But now she tends to keep quiet. She rarely talks to her husband, and he finds this depressing.
The focus in the first chapter is mainly on Violet Trace and the strain she is under following her husband’s murder of a girl he was having an affair with. Violet’s disturbed state of mind, what the narrator calls “her private cracks” (p. 22), shows itself in her attempt to cut the dead girl’s face at the funeral, and possibly trying to steal a baby. After the incident at the funeral, she faced some social ostracism, losing clients and gaining little sympathy from the Salem Women’s Club, who decline to offer her any aid, saying that only prayer can help her.
Of interest in this chapter is Morrison’s narrative technique. The story is told by a first-person narrator whose relations to the characters is unstated. The narrator is unnamed and is not even identified by gender (although will be referred to as “she” in these notes). She offers some personal information, saying of herself, “I haven’t got any muscles” (p. 8); she appears to spend a lot of time alone: “people say I should come out more” (p. 9), and she is seemingly married but not much enamored of her partner, who does not give her much attention. She is prone to digressions in which she captures with relish the vibrant life in Harlem in 1926. The narrator knows the participants personally and knows all the neighborhood gossip, but she is not what is known as an omniscient, reliable narrator. On one occasion in this opening chapter, she offers her opinion of what may have happened, and reports that not everyone saw it that way. This occurs in the incident in which Violet may, or may not, have tried to steal a baby.
This chapter hints at the themes that will be developed as the novel unfolds, including the contrast between age and youth: Violet tries to learn everything she can about Dorcas, including the way she danced, but when Violet tries to imitate the steps, people laugh at her. There is also an emerging contrast between the life in Harlem, always referred to as the City, and the lives in the rural South from which African Americans escaped in the Great Migration north—a movement of people that began in the 1870s and continued until about 1930.