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Jazz Literature

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America of the 1920s was very extraordinary country that witnessed the time of dry law and gangster showdowns, the time of enchanting parties, organized by “new Americans,” and time of generalized poverty. Jazz Age is one of the most controversial periods in the history of the United States. Many artists dedicated their works to the analysis and characteristics of that time, which was based on searching for the phantasmal American Dream. Jazz is the key notion for analyzing the essence and meaning of the novels "The Great Gatsby," "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love" and "Sonny’s Blues." This paper seeks to describe the ways in which jazz is characterized in the three texts. What is more, it will discuss the jazz’s purpose as well as its role and contribution to the overall meaning of the stories.

In all the three pieces, jazz is perceived as art, in which the most remarkable feature of the era, namely psychological brokenness that was hidden behind the chaotic activity, was described. The feeling that life is built on a solid foundation totally disappeared and the thirst for change was the only stable feature. People began to think that they just needed to adapt to the rhythm of the century, living in a harmony with this rhythm and not worrying about tomorrow. The new post-war reality strongly influenced the worldview of the people; it required finding the other non-traditional forms of display of notions that were previously unknown. Thus, it was necessary to obtain a new understanding of life of that time. Disappointment, frustration, and the "Lost Generation" were the main topics of a number of novels.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald had the fame of a harbinger of the Jazz Age; he was the creator of deceptive fairy tales about fatal human errors. Reflecting about his legacy, Mitchell Newton-Matza notes that if there is a single writer who has come to embody the sentiment, spirit, and even frustration of the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation, it is F. S. Fitzgerald (1896–1940), who actually coined the term "The Jazz Age" (p. 160).

In American literature, the novel "The Great Gatsby" is one of the most famous representatives of the Jazz Age. Following the chaos of the First World War, American society entered into an unprecedented streak of prosperity: the US economy developed rapidly into the "roaring twentieth".

In "The Great Gatsby", jazz plays a decisive role. Indeed, it is not just the music of the Jazz Age. Jazz also combines the principles of the music piece, elements of which have been used in "The Great Gatsby" in unexpected ways. Indeed, jazz music is based on improvisation; however, any improvisation is built around some determined topic. Thus, the ability to make a flight of fancy is the highest manifestation of the writer’s talent. It should be noted that Francis Scott Fitzgerald was a true genius who managed to combine the literary elements with jazz motifs in his works. He believed that it is very important to improvise, that is to translate the content of the story in an acceptable form to the reader, while the author's idea should not be lost in its fascination. Therefore, Fitzgerald, as a talented artist, chose the most convenient form of improvisation in literature, which embodied a game with words. In "The Great Gatsby," he improvises like the jazz soloist, playing with the audience. Understanding of jazz greatly contributes to the overall meaning of the text through the lines of which the reader can hear the sounds of accordion, saxophone, cello, guitar, piano, trumpet, and flute.

Searching for the American Dream accompanied by the sounds of jazz is brilliantly depicted in "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," where two ambitious Cuban musicians came to America in 1949 in order to reach the hall of fame. Jazz for them was the tool for submission of the United Sates. However, in their case, the American Dream was, as usually, ruthless. Under the rhythms of Cuban music, they were trying to find their place under the sun. In this story, the elements of jazz help to understand all the controversies of the musicians who, searching for the American Dream, found themselves in a new culture, which appears to be alien and hostile. In "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," Oscar Hijuelos masterfully transfers the melodies of Jazz Age via the Cuban motifs and depicts a vivid evocation of music. The real human emotions, foibles, disappointments and weaknesses are depicted in this novel, as well as in jazz music. Two passionate Cuban musicians infuse melody, rhythm, fragrance and color in this story. However, analyzing "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love", Paula W. Shirley came to a conclusion that "César and Nestor Castillo’s American Dream does not materialize." (p. 74).

Some critics confessed that Oscar Hijuelos was writing music of the heart. This book became bestseller because it could touch the most hidden strings of human soul. The reader may perceive that owing to César’s song and playing the drums, as well as Nestor’s trumpet performance, all life’s troubles can disappear. Jazz unites two different brothers into one musical unit.

"Sonny’s Blues" is one more unmatched story written under the auspices of the Jazz Age. In this short story written by James Baldwin, playing jazz is not only playing an instrument, but it is also cohesiveness and the state of the soul. Sonny’s life is music, and the narrator, his brother, endeavors to understand him. Sonny struggles with depression and drug addiction and he sees salvation only in music. Only sitting at the piano, Sonny can convert his personal pain into art and purification of sin. Robert McParland proves that Sonny's consciousness is a dynamic force, the expression of a rhythm (p.134). Indeed, in this story, jazz’s purpose is to save the young soul. In "Sonny’s Blues," jazz also symbolizes the characters of main personages according to their relation to the music. Sonny is a musician, free of prejudices. He is trying to find his place in the world and hide from the drug addiction. The narrator comes to the emotional epiphany when he begins to listen to Sonny’s music. For all his life, he has been trying to understand the younger brother and only listening to his music, the narrator sees Sonny’s suffering and pain. Robert McParland states that "In "Sonny's Blues," music is everywhere; it is the atmosphere and soundscape of James Baldwin's story. Making of music connects Sonny with his fellow musicians, with jazz listeners, and with his interior life" (p. 132).

During the Jazz Age, nervous and pulsating rhythms of jazz most closely met the hectic atmosphere of fun. This music staggered "moral principles" of Puritan America that seemed unshakable; they collapsed with a deafening roar. Afterwards, "indecent" tango and two-step dance became popular. However, all the characters of the Jazz Age fiction had a premonition of the imminent end of the carnival and eagerly sought to live for today, because they did not believe in tomorrow. Boys and girls of "cheerful twenties" flew to frustration and failure like moths to a flame.

Jazz Age is a critical layer of modern culture since it has paved new paths in art and expressed some fundamentally important spiritual aspirations of the era through the language of sounds. Jazz is the key motif in all the three stories and reveals a unique purpose in all of them. "The Great Gatsby," "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love" and "Sonny’s Blues" transfer frivolous grace, tinsel glitter and internal alarm, as well as painful feeling of emptiness and fragility of the Jazz Age.

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