Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Almost all of Morrison's characters migrate to New York City from other parts of the country in an attempt to escape economic and social prejudice and in search of a new start in Harlem. The motif of migration goes hand in hand with the numerous allusions to birds and recurs frequently in the narration of the characters' histories. Malvonne's nephew, William the Younger, exemplifies a constantly shifting and itinerant Black population with his sudden departure from New York for "Chicago, or was it San Diego, or some other city ending with O." His young restlessness indicates an inability to establish roots or a connection in one place and echoes the "homelessness" of Morrison's principal characters.


The absence of a strong parental presence in Jazz ties together many of Morrison's characters and connects their shared sadness to one cause. Raised by aunts, grandparents and adoptive parents, Violet, Joe and Dorcas all experience a feeling of displacement, and feel that they are handed over with no control. Unable to control the fact that they are orphans and placed in homes without any choice in the matter, characters are relocated in a way that resonates with the paternalistic adoption of slaves. Their true parents would be the tie to a history and would provide an identity for the characters. Thus, the lack of parents creates the characters' sense of displacement and their obsessive desire to find a stable and complete identity.


As the name of the novel implies, music operates both thematically and formally to provide structure to the book. The jazz music of the 1920s situates the narrative in a specific cultural and historical moment, when a Black aesthetic style was gaining ground in New Orleans and New York. Both the City and the woods of Virginia are described as having their own music and rhythm and the pace of the narrator's storytelling ranges from upbeat and fast to slow and "bluesy." Music also speaks to the individual characters on a deep level, as when Alice Manfred worries about the sinful powers of the music. However, music can also be restorative, as Felice facilitates the healing process between Joe and Violet by bringing over her records and watching them dance.