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JAZZ!. and Invisible Man. Jazz History. Jazz has roots in Western African, Ragtime, Hymns and Marching Band music. It came into the forefront of American pop music during the 1920’s, when artists such as Louis Armstrong became well known for their talent in improvisation and “scat” singing.
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JAZZ! and Invisible Man
Jazz History • Jazz has roots in Western African, Ragtime, Hymns and Marching Band music. • It came into the forefront of American pop music during the 1920’s, when artists such as Louis Armstrong became well known for their talent in improvisation and “scat” singing. • Jazz focuses on underlying chords and syncopated melodies, from which artists use their freedom to improvise, or elaborate, on the musical structure, making each piece their own. • Of particular interest to Ellison was New Orleans jazz, which incorporated Dixieland influence and blues, focusing more on improvisation than other forms. • Jazz has a particular importance to the African American community because it is rooted in uniquely different compositional roots than traditional European orchestration. Thus jazz was a tribute to the slave hymnals and African beats that African American history spoke to. • Jazz made use of traditionally European instruments such as the piano, trumpet, saxophone, and clarinets, yet used them in such a unique way that they were completely renewed.
Jazz and Literature • Ellison uses strong contrast between traditionally rooted African American music and classical European as an allegory for the Invisible Man’s own conflicted identity. For example, though the Invisible Man is listening to a magnificent orchestral composition, Dvorak’s New World Symphony he cannot deny the underlying hymn of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The Invisible Man’s unwillingness to admit that he hears the hymn represents his unconscious denial of self. • Ellison’s inspiration from improvisation could come from the fact that improvisation gave the musician artistic freedom, which at its most elemental, quotes the ongoing theme of the struggle for freedom and identity in the Invisible Man. • The book itself is organized like a musical composition, structured to include solos, improvisatory stages and the overwhelming undertone of “the blues.” Ellison has been famously quoted as saying America is “jazz shaped.” Indeed, jazz, though a culmination of many cultures, is unique to America, ironically referencing the ongoing liberty/freedom theme throughout the book.
Musical Allusions from Invisible Man! • “Listen to me, the bungling bugler of words, imitating the trumpet and the trombone’s timbre, playing thematic variations like a baritone horn…connoisseur of voice sounds…riding the curve of a preachers rhythm” (Ellison 113). • Then the orchestra played excerpts from Dvorak’s New World Symphony and I kept hearing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (Ellison 134). • “Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music” (Ellison 8). • “And this brother Tod Clifton, the young leader, looked somehow like a hipster, a zoot suiter, a sharpie” (Ellison 366). • “I had just begun to feel the pulsing set up between myself and the people, hearing them answering in staccato applause and agreement when Tod Clifton caught my eye…I saw a bristling band of about twenty men quick-stepping forward” (Ellison 368).
"Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld, to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking, What did I Do To be so black And blue?"
"Black and Blue" lyrics Cold empty bed...springs hurt my headFeels like ole ned...wished I was deadWhat did I do...to be so black and blueEven the mouse...ran from my houseThey laugh at you...and all that you doWhat did I do...to be so black and blueI'm white...inside...but, that don't help my caseThat's life...can't hide...what is in my face How would it end...ain't got a friendMy only sin...is in my skinWhat did I do...to be so black and blue How would it end...i ain't got a friendMy only sin...is in my skinWhat did I do...to be so black and blue
I chose to work with Jazz imagery and allegory in Invisible Man, not only because of my own musicianship and love of music, but because of the genius of Ellison’s parallel literary “composition” in reference to jazz music. He realized the importance of music in everyday life, and more imperatively, the way different music represents cultures. I found quotes and deduced imagery from Ellison’s history and his writing. I always listened to Louis Armstrong as a child, and other jazz musicians have emotional significance to me. Music is imitates life, and life consequently imitates the way we feel when we hear certain music. Ellison’s use of the “improvisational” technique is genius as well as ironic since it evidently took Ellison such a long time to finish the book.