Mysterious Rootlessness: Jazz Improvisation and Divestment in Jackie Kay's Trumpet.

Citation metadata

Date: Spring 2021
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 86, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,926 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

As Ralph Ellison put it famously, "because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it." In the scholarly wake of this "cruel contradiction," however, the loss of identity has been mitigated, buffered by a tradition of call-and-response, a putatively distinct marker of the black creative process across disciplines ("Charlie" 267). Ellison himself tended to home in on the ways in which the music amplifies the open-ended formation of an authentic identity, and African American Studies has also privileged one side of the paradox: jazz, sound, is where identity is found, the arena where an authentically black human self can be articulated heroically against the dominant culture's taxonomic scripts. In both literary studies as well as in jazz studies, the critical tenor reads and hears in improvisation a communal process of diasporic identity formation, a dialogic transgression of social, cultural, and historical boundaries: the music sounds "an ongoing process of community building" that "reinvigorat[es] public life with the spirit of dialogue and difference" (Fischlin and Heble 17), an "utopian potential" for forging "transgressive social alliances" and a "regenerative mode of African diasporic expression" (Lowney 101, 105). Listening to improvised jazz, writes Fumi Okiji, "gives us access to a conflicted subject that will not cohere but rather is in a constant state of rejuvenation through the unstable, generative relations of its disparate ways" (6). (1) Musicians themselves have also emphasized the regenerative dynamics of jazz practice: for pianist Vijay Iyer, improvisation is simply but emphatically "the means by which we acquire selfhood" (Iyer 88). Or, as Charlie Parker declared categorically, "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn" (qtd. in Reisner 27). Hardly ever does scholarship engage the other half of the Ellisonian paradox in which identity is lost--in which, as Ellison notes later in the same essay, "we are left with an impression of mysterious rootlessness" (270). The artistic process Jackie Kay narrates in her novel Trumpet does not follow the standard progression of rebirth and renewal. The novel's protagonist, Joss Moody, a transgender, biracial jazz trumpeter born and raised as Josephine Moore in Scotland, uses his instrument as a tool of divestment. In improvising, Moody discards any and all identifying markers, foregoing even the antiphonal hallmark that characterizes jazz and other musics of the African diaspora. The oscillation of (textual) voices taking the place of musical call-and-response fails to explain the mystery of Joss Moody precisely because his improvisations aren't rooted, but routed toward "nothing" (135). Provocatively, not music, but only the literary text has the power to redeem what is being lost in the improvisations of Trumpet's hero(ine), troubling the charts of critical practice--worrying the line--and pointing to a critical aesthetic of responsive and responsible listening.

Loosely inspired by the stranger-than-fiction life of white American pianist Billy Tipton, Trumpet narrates the aftermath of Joss Moody's death. (2) Readers of Kay's novel...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A655503286