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This book saved me

How Toni Morrison’s Jazz (as well as the music) has dramatically altered my life

Finn Wagner 

Staff Writer 

May 8, 2024

While sitting on the couch,  I came to a stark realization:  my headphones were the only separation from the deafening silence surrounding me. Inside the barrier were walls of composed mellifluous cadence—saxophone solos lingering several counts longer than expected and warmth radiating from mellow guitar riffs; yet just outside my headphones was the rest of my family, bound to silence, stricken by grief. My mama had passed away unexpectedly the previous week.

Leading up to this moment in my 18th year, I had been uprooted, rearranged, and nearly erased. I spent much of my time moving from one location to the next—from one school system to the next.  Clearly, my life was discordant and though I longed for harmony, what I experienced instead were days consisting of Nirvana and unhealthy sleeping patterns. I would sit, my face painted with disdain in the back of the various classrooms. I held palpable frustration with everything. Why wouldn’t I? I was a teenager—assembled to be just strong enough to stand up to the opposing rhythms until a complete rift would come—slashing my strings, crumpling my composition, leaving me a disjointed mess to wallow in pitying applause. Thankfully,  this was just an interlude—a phase as it is called when referring to teenagers, and I have matured enough to “grow out” of it. Still, sitting there on the couch with my mama gone felt no different from those phases of misdirection and turmoil in my life. 

Her last breath of Texas air was taken in May 2023 as I was driving through windy Illinois to visit other family. My phone began to ring, and I looked to see “Dad” scripted across its top. Reluctant to answer because I was aware things had not been going well in Texas,  I took a deep breath and then tapped the accept button. His broken voice sounded distant, meandering through corridors of too-early-to-be-memories. I responded robotically. “I’m sorry, Dad. I love you.” A silent pact was signed, then we hung up and the song that was playing prior to the call resumed. “Tomorrow is a Long Time” by Bob Dylan, which just minutes before seemed to be rejoicing with me, was now mocking my new pain. Through a one-sided conversation, I resolved that I would fly to Texas as soon as possible. 

When I arrived in Texas,  most ironically and somewhat prophetically, “Back to the Old House” by the Smiths blasted my weary ears. I slid my headphones down around my neck as I opened my dad’s car door. However, summer’s sun failed to defrost the thick and cold layer of solitude that now engulfed me. Once again I felt the teen desire for isolation and propensity for anger and frustration overwhelm. As we drove from the airport to “home,” I forced myself to think of my dad, my siblings, and my grandparents, all lost in their own grief, and I realized I could not drift into my self-pity and I needed a means to escape that Finn of the past. Once there, time passed rapidly, and I found my idle hands busying themselves with mundane tasks that had never before been assigned to them. Wearing my headphones as I worked, I found Jazz. 

After a week or two of listening to the syncopated sounds, I realized that they were actually bringing a sense of calm to my restlessness. So, during a visit to Barnes and Noble, I not so randomly picked up a copy of Jazz by Toni Morrison. At first reading,  I was let down; not a single verseless passage enraptured me. Then I read her description of New York City. Morrison orchestrated a sky full of stars—seen differently by each character in her novel—constellations built upon the past experiences and future optimism of individuals.  It was then that I fully understood Jazz.

Jazz (both the music and the novel) holds such significance in my life that I see myself “inside” of it. Somewhere beneath the black ink on white-scored paper lives something of me—the refrains that I believed were lost, the incongruous pieces.  Losing my mama did not bring me to this realization, but the time I spent with Jazz while I was so intensely reflecting on the value of life, its past experiences, and its future enabled me to “see the whole” amidst the pieces. No longer do I perceive my life as separated into periods, verses, or stanzas in Illinois, Iowa, Texas, or Indiana, all distinct from one another. My life’s composition is now blended by dynamic, improvisational solos.

Just as the writing and playing of Jazz is a limitless experience, I perceive the limitlessness of my future.  Only through closed-minded thinking and lingering on the past will I circle back to the discord and confusion of my teenage years. Jazz, with its playful yet sometimes unexpected passages, is a synonym for my life. When I walk beneath the abyss of stars or hear gorgeous saxophone riffs, my life’s performance continues.

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