The Role Of Jazz In Invisible Man

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A famous musician named Louis Armstrong once said “You blows who you is” (Kunian). Through jazz music, Armstrong was able to make a name for himself in a time when the black man was equivalent to nothing. When writing Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison incorporates jazz to complement the narrator’s quest to find himself. Because he believed jazz was an “attempt to express the styles of the Negro American voice as raised in prayer, protest, shout and song” (Stewart), he made it a point to incorporate it throughout the novel. Ellison uses traditional jazz as a pathway to portray the harsh reality of living as a black man in the 1930s-40s.

Music played a major role in Ellison’s life and profoundly affected his lifestyle. Growing up, he studied music and aspired to become a musician before a writer. His musical roots began when he “listened and practiced hard-driving blues” on the trumpet when he was eight years old (Porter qt. in Lee et al. pg. 3). He was also influenced by iconic figures like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Lester Young who Ellison “credits … for helping to shape his literary skills and style” (Irwin 110). Ellison chose to use music because “however tragic its message, [music] is an affirmation of life, a celebration of the indomitable human spirit, in that it imposes order and form on the chaos of experience” (Margolies), which Ellison began to realize growing up. He started valuing jazz music as a “life-affirming art form”(Lee et al.) that he argues has the ability to “humanize the world in terms of sound”(Stewart).

Because he was heavily influenced by jazz music, Ellison’s novel contains many references to jazz. He implements it in the beginning by comparing how Louis Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible” to his own understanding of how “invisibility aids [him] to understand [Armstrong’s] music” (Ellison 8). He also highlights the protagonist’s suffering for having a darker complexion through Armstrong’s lyrics: “What did I do to be so black and blue” (Ellison 8), to bring the subject matter of racism to light early on.

Then, he uses several jazz techniques such as “swing, syncopation, and solo improvisation” (Lee et al.) to capture the jazz influence on the novel. Just how “invisibility gives one a slightly different sense of time” that makes a person never “quite on the beat,” the narrator maintains an off-beat, swing-like structure throughout the novel (Ellison 8). In the Battle Royale scene, instead of an uptempo beat, one would expect, the narrator falls into dreamlike trances: “I was transported… then I became aware…” (Ellison 19). He provides many images of the scene that makes the reader feel like it’s happening in slow-motion. For instance, when he describes the white woman’s “slow sensuous movement” (Ellison 19) and when he says the electric rug would be “over in a flash” but then contradicts himself when he says it “seemed like a whole century would pass before I would roll free…” (Ellison 28). Following the swing-like structure of Jazz music, Ellison then jumps ahead of the beat by using a fast tempo scene with “men [whirling] about like maniacs” in the “madness of Golden Day” (Ellison 85-86). He also swings forward in the riot scene. The explosion is meant to make the reader feel a sense of rush and vivid awareness: “I was down… conscious… struggling … and seeing the flashes as the guns went off…” (Ellison 535). By slowing down and speeding up certain events in the novel, he follows the distinct rhythm of a jazz musician that has rushed ahead and lags in a song.

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Following swing, Ellison also uses syncopation and solo improvisation that is often used in jazz music. Ellison uses syncopation, when a note is played unexpectedly “on a weak beat or off altogether” (Meeder qt. pg. 9 in Lee et. al) when the boiler explodes and the narrator falls unconscious. The accident provides an unexpected beat in the story that interrupts the steady course of events. Ellison follows a jazz musician’s technique when he or she places an out-of-place, jarring note in the song so that the listener cannot predict when the notes will rise or fall. This unexpected note makes the song more unique and sticks with the listener instead of a predictable song.

The technique of solo improvisation comes about when the protagonist follows his own path and hides from society underground. By doing this, Ellison compares the narrator’s free will to a jazz performer who improvises with freedom at any given time. He also uses language that is like a trumpet’s horn: “Ha! Singing achievement… Ha! As upon a xylophone” (Ellison qt. in Irwin pg. 114), to express an improvisational solo. Every “Ha!” punctuates like a sharp staccato in a trumpet’s horn, highlighting the improvisational thoughts that follow. This free movement “provides jazz music with its singularity” (Lee et. al), and a distinction that reflects the principles of jazz.

Furthermore, Ellison works jazz components into his novel because not only was it popular during the time the book was written, but it was “an art form that antedated and survived the Harlem Renaissance” (Morel). Instead of picking another genre of music like classical or R&B, he chose jazz because he saw it as “both a means and an end of Negro American freedom” (Morel). Just like any kind of music, jazz has a melody, rhythm, and harmony; however, what sets jazz apart from genres like R&B and classical is improvisation. Through improvisation, a musician focuses primarily on creativity and imagination instead of focusing on technique through sheet music like a classical genre. Ellison uses jazz because he can be more free and express emotions, which contributes to the protagonist’s identity in a world where he is seen as nothing.

He also wanted to highlight the “grandeur and greatness and complexity” of African-American culture ('Ralph Ellison… Stanley Crouch and Horace Porter”). By using Jazz music, Ellison accentuates African-American empowerment. Jazz was a part of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement where music grew and diversified dramatically. This movement created an identity for several prominent African-American musical figures such as “Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Lester Young” (Ellison qt. in Porter 4), who used jazz music to help identify themselves as human beings that play a role in society.

In conclusion, through swing, syncopation, and solo improvisation, jazz has the ability to highlight the experience of a black man in a society where he has no identity.

The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe. (Ellison qtd. in Margolies).

Ellison purposely uses jazz as an “exultation of life in the face of hardship and affliction” (Ellison qt. In Lee et al) because it represents feelings that can not be said in words. The protagonist relates to jazz music several times throughout the novel: “what did I do to be so black and blue” (Ellison 8). By relating to jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and using techniques like improvisation, Ellison can use jazz music as a pathway for the narrator’s struggle to find his identity. By borrowing jazz’s unique styles, Ellison not only shows the hardships of a black man in a harsh society, but he also employs his own unique voice, he empowers the black community, and he asserts his passion for jazz music through his novel.

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