Theses Doctoral

Rhythm Changes: Jazz Rhythm in the African American Novel

Levy, Aidan

In Rhythm Changes: Jazz Rhythm in the African American Novel, I demonstrate how novelists from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement adapted jazz rhythm into literary form. In the prologue to Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison famously defines invisibility as a state of being “never quite on the beat.” Ellison frames the novel as a kind of translation of the “invisible” rhythm the narrator hears in Louis Armstrong, a syncopated rhythm rooted in Black aesthetic and cultural forms. “Could this compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white be thus an urge to make music of invisibility?”

Ellison was not alone in this project. The writers I study all exemplify what Duke Ellington calls a “tone parallel”—the concept that literary form could reproduce or “parallel” the particularities of musical form. However, these writers find literary strategies to transcend parallelism, such that the lines between medium begin to touch. Considering devices that cut across music and literature—anaphora, antiphonal dialogue, polysyndeton, parataxis—I argue that novelists, not just poets, respond formally to the rhythmic concepts they hear on the bandstand, synthesizing these innovations with a broader literary tradition.

Rudolph Fisher’s novel The Conjure-Man Dies brings the complex rhythmic sensibility of Louis Armstrong to detective fiction; Ann Petry’s The Street channels the rhythmic phrasing of Ethel Waters in a “novel of social criticism”; Ellison’s epic unfinished second novel follows the paratactic rhythm of the preacher and jazz trombonist; and Amiri Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell projects the rhythm of Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor onto Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” By finding the literary in the musical and vice versa, these novelist-experimenters move beyond Pater’s credo that all art aspires to the condition of music.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Edwards, Brent Hayes
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 4, 2023