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Playing the Changes: from Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse by Craig Hansen Werner

Playing the Changes differs from the bulk of modernist texts by focusing attention on the ways in which modernism and postmodernism have shaped Afro-American culture. The first part of the book examines the work of Charles Chestnutt; the response of Afro-American writers to Faulkner; Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby; and Afro-American autobiography. The second part looks at Afro-American poetry in the light of modernism. Werner’s analysis, of necessity, takes into account the significance of gospel, blues and jazz in Afro-American literature, and it is in the final section of the book where this relationship is explored. Here, Werner looks at the work of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Leon Forrest and August Wilson. The chapter on Forrest deals with the “jazz impulse and the Chicago Renaissance,” while that on August Wilson addresses neoclassical jazz, with a small section devoted to Wynton Marsalis. “Highly aware of the tension between received notions of ‘universality’ and the specific circumstances of American-American communities, Wilson crafts a vision closely related to the ‘neoclassical’ jazz of Wynton Marsalis.” Readers are forewarned that the above quoted passage reflects the prevalent style of Playing the Changes and that the book is primarily intended for academics and other readers well versed in the numbing language of modernist discourse.

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