An array of writers, musicians and friends will gather at The Center for Fiction on Wednesday, for “an evening of readings, music, reflection, and gratitude in celebration of the life and legacy of Toni Morrison.”
Morrison, who died on Aug. 5 at 88, was an American novelist of profound craft and penetrating vision, as well as a writer of oracular authority on the subjects of race and social justice.
She also had a deep connection to jazz, so much so that she made it the title of a 1992 novel. The following year, in an illuminating interview with The Paris Review, Morrison had this to say about the process of writing Jazz:
I thought of myself as like the jazz musician—someone who practices and practices and practices in order to be able to invent and to make his art look effortless and graceful. I was always conscious of the constructed aspect of the writing process, and that art appears natural and elegant only as a result of constant practice and awareness of its formal structures.
Wednesday’s event will feature a performance by an improvising wind ensemble conducted by trombonist Craig Harris, who read Morrison extensively, and met her on several occasions. “We would see her around,” he says. “She understood the importance of the music in our culture.”
Along with Harris’ trombone, the ensemble will include Vincent Chancey on French horn; Omar Kabir on trumpet; and Jay Rodriguez, Richard Fairfax and Lee Odom on saxophones. “I’m going to conduct a set of improvisations, looking at some of her texts,” Harris says. “It’ll be spontaneous, but it’ll have a shape to it.”
The musical organizer for the evening is Erroll McDonald, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for Fiction. He is Vice President and Executive Editor in the Knopf Doubleday division of Penguin Random House. (Full disclosure: he was the editor of my book Playing Changes: Jazz For the New Century.)
McDonald was a student at Yale when he first met Toni Morrison, and became both a colleague and a friend. I reached out over email with several questions about her legacy, her love of the music, and Wednesday’s tribute.
Toni Morrison meant so much to so many, but you knew her for more than 40 years. Is there something about her that you feel is ignored or misconstrued?
Throughout her career — even when celebrated as recently in the outpouring of adoration upon her death — there has been an implacable cultural will to marginalize her as a totemic figure of only African-American literature, as the unsurpassable black literary woman warrior. But the truth is that Toni was a titan in “the world republic of letters.” Critics, in emphasizing the politics of her art, tend to give short shrift to her intense engagement with 20th century literary modernism — as practiced by, among others, Conrad, Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner — and her re-invention of many of its narrative strategies and procedures. Even when paeans are offered to the beauty of her language (whatever that might mean), attention is rarely paid to her narrative structures, and to their philosophical implications for being in the world.
Before she pivoted to her calling as a novelist, Morrison had a trailblazing career in publishing, as an editor. Did one discipline somehow feed the other?
As editor to major figures of social and cultural moment—such as Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones — Toni refined her preternatural word-consciousness and talent for realizing the integrity of a manuscript even if that integrity was only subtly implied (which is to say that sometimes she had to persuade authors of the cogency of their own vision). As a writer, she needed no such persuasion. What’s more, editing requires a skill set informed by a presumption of objectivity, and I’m not sure that this skill set had much to do with her writing. Her editorial prowess would, to my mind, have compromised her visionariness and ability to write in a multiplicity of registers. Too, Toni wasn’t terribly interested in what critics said of her work — she rarely read reviews. What she thought of her own achievement was paramount. After not having read Beloved in nearly 30 years, she dove into it and delivered her verdict: “It’s pretty good, isn’t it?”
Morrison’s feeling for jazz is well known, but I wonder whether you have any particular insights about it? (Could you shed light on her affinity for Keith Jarrett, for instance? Nina Simone?)
With respect to jazz, Toni understood that its definition was always ever more about to be — which is to say that, as a result of the never-ending agon between the individual and tradition, jazz is willy-nilly protean, shape-shifting, always evolving. The music therefore insists on saying Yes to life, is by its nature life-affirming. Her affinity for Keith Jarrett and Nina Simone might have something to do with this. They share a transcendent trait: both are free artists of themselves, unconcerned with the notion of “performing” to please an audience. Both refuse to be shackled by sclerotic categorizations. Keith Jarrett and Nina Simone are known for their elastic musical identities, integrating classical, jazz, blues, gospel, and pop propensitites.
Just a few weeks ago I was perusing The Source of Self-Regard and got stopped in my tracks by the opening of “Racism and Fascism,” an address delivered at Howard University in 1995. I’m sure this uncanny sensation is familiar to you; does it resonate differently now that she’s left us?
It is not so much that Toni was prescient, that she foretold the resurgence of racism and fascism in our times, or was uncanny in her observations. She had a keen appreciation of the dormancy of murderous white nationalism in American life because it was foundational, as evinced by its decimation of native populations and its centuries-long enslavement of, and terrorism against, black people. I doubt that she would have disagreed with D.H. Lawrence’s pronouncement in Studies in Classic American Literature: “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
Wednesday’s event, “In Praise of Toni Morrison’s Enduring Legacy,” will accommodate multiple forms of tribute: encomiums, readings of her work, musical performance. What’s the core principle as you piece it all together?
The feeling was that no single form of artistic expression, no single aspect of her art and achievement, could encompass Toni Morrison. She contained multitudes. Each one of us can say of her, as Sixto, in Beloved, said about his love: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gathers them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
In Praise of Toni Morrison’s Enduring Legacy: Wednesday, 7 to 9 p.m., at The Center for Fiction, in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Admission is free.