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Abstract

Paule Marshall’s jazz novel, The Fisher King, weaves an intricate tale about women and jazz in the late nineteen forties and early fifties. From the novel’s description on the inside flap of the book to the reviews and scholarship that attempt to unearth it’s meaning, the narrative has been predominantly read as a patrilineal text. This article proposes a matrilineal reading that focuses on the women who populate the narrative and serve as the archival bodies that “pass on” the legacy of jazz and ultimately free the music from its structural bondage through language and image. This article attends to the way that Marshall challenges and revises major tropes and concerns of jazz literature in The Fisher King. Drawing on cultural criticism and feminist theories, three motifs in Marshall’s jazz novel —wild women, the jazz moment of improvisation, and call and response demonstrate how Marshall uses jazz’s essential elements of improvisation and freedom to reconstruct traditional notions of the female body through rhetorical dialogue and moments of improvisation. I argue that Marshall creates a space (literally and figuratively) for black female agency and challenges the male-dominated narratives about jazz music in America and abroad. I contend that Marshall constructs varied images of black women as improvisers/innovators/creators in order to place women at the center, rather than on the periphery, of jazz literary discourse. Ultimately, The Fisher King becomes a prime example of Marshall’s uncanny ability to (re)inscribe the interconnections between black women, jazz music, and African Diaspora literature.

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