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Flight as improvisational solo in jazz and blues fiction

Jeffrey P Kosse, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation examines the roles played by jazz and blues in African American fiction of the post-World War II era. I contend that scholars of jazz and blues fiction generally discuss the authors’ treatment of the music in terms of how it shows up, is alluded to, or is played; however, few address performative elements that are central to much African American literature. Their performances, whether as narratives or geosocial movements, often draw upon forms of flight as defining actions that send them into new territories and necessitate acts of improvisation. The characters analyzed here, through their own improvisatory acts, create something akin to what happens in jazz solos, during which musicians draw upon their own knowledge, past experiences, skills, and wit, all enabling them to make it up on the spot and create new art in the process. Forms of flight manifest themselves as improvised solos in numerous ways, including in this dissertation the path of Ellison’s narrator going north and ultimately underground in Invisible Man, brothers leaving their Harlem pasts and coming together while on ever-divergent paths in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Milkman Dead discovering the secret of literal flight by improvising through a journey to his familial past in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, or the members of Macon Street’s “flesh-and-blood triangle” choosing the expatriate route of Paris instead of America in Paule Marshall’s The Fisher King. While considering the ways that characters embody a jazz aesthetic in terms of performances, solos, and improvisations (often rooted in blues sensibilities and themes), this study also differs from the work of most scholars by arguing for a reading of the literary works themselves as jazz performances. Jazz elements generally permeate all four works studied here by inhabiting the dialogue, narrative structure, character development, and overall evolution of themes. Because of both the performative and structural foci, I believe this dissertation is a unique contribution to the oeuvre of African American literary studies as a means of engaging these important literary works and of theorizing others in terms of jazz and blues aesthetics.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Black studies|Caribbean literature|Music|American literature

Recommended Citation

Kosse, Jeffrey P, "Flight as improvisational solo in jazz and blues fiction" (2012). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3546199.