“You can’t touch music—it exists only at the moment it is being apprehended—and yet it can profoundly alter how we view the world and our place in it” (“Preface” 7).1 Music is a form of art enjoyed by millions of people each day. It is an art that has continued through decades and can be seen in many different ways. That is why Ellison chooses to illustrate his novel with jazz. Jazz music in Invisible Man gives feelings that Ellison could never explain in words. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator’s search for his identity can be compared to the structure of a jazz composition.
In order to see the parallel between the novel and jazz, one must first see how Ellison incorporates jazz music in the prologue of the novel. He not only sets the scene with jazz music in the background but also gives the narrator a deep understanding of music. The music that the narrator listens to is Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue,” which is appropriate because Armstrong is a prominent African-American jazz musician who protests the treatment of African-Americans through his music. The narrator embraces every line of the song and gives an apt description of its message:
The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music, but descended, like Dante, into its depths (Ellison 7).2
The allusion to Dante refers to the poem “Divine Comedy,” which tells a story of a man traveling through the depths of hell. The narrator takes a deep metaphorical journey through every line that makes up that song. He likes Armstrong because “he makes music out of being invisible,” and his own invisibility “aids [him] to understand [Armstrong’s] music” (Ellison 7). 3 This scene both introduces the theme of jazz and to gives the narrator the characteristics of a jazz musician. An understanding of music imagery in the prologue gives a reader an understanding of jazz in the novel.
After Ellison introduces jazz as a motif, a reader can then see that Invisible Man is composed much like a jazz composition. Many people, including Ellison, “have likened it more to a jazz composition than a novel” due to its “themes, riffs, and digressions that build a mood rather than hammering down a straight line” (Shmoop web).4 The builds are evident during sermons with their rhythmic feel and steady beat. The narrator of Ellison’s novel often uses rhythmic prose to portray a specific feeling to the reader as illustrated in this quote: “Ha! to the grey-haired matron in the final row. Ha! Miss Susie, Miss Susie Gresham, back there looking at that co-ed smiling at that he-ed… Hey! old connoisseur of voice sounds, of voices without messages… now riding the care of a preacher’s rhythm…” (Ellison 89). 5 This use of rhythm in Ellison’s prose gives the idea of “an improvisation of...