Albert Murray would have turned 100 this year, and in October the Library of America will publish Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs. Over one thousand pages long, this volume contains Murray's memoir, South to a Very Old Place; his social criticism, The Omni-Americans; and his classic music writing, The Hero and the Blues, The Blues Devils of Nada, and Stomping the Blues, along with eight previously uncollected pieces.
Alabama-born Murray began his writing career in his late 40s, after he retired from the Air Force. In his first book, The Omni-Americans (1970), Murray argues that jazz and blues reside at the fount of American culture and that the qualities of improvisation and grace — in the face of the adversity that's at the heart of this music — characterizes the heart of American culture. Murray, himself a novelist (Train Whistle Guitar), formed a deep friendship with Ralph Ellison, and Ellison's own Shadow and Act, as well as the essays later collected in Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings, reflect the deep influence Murray had on Ellison. The two also traded ideas about writing, and a selection of their letters is collected in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Murray also founded Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis.
Until the Library of America volume appears on shelves, though, we can celebrate Murray's centennial with the recently published Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (University of Minnesota Press), edited by Paul Devlin. The book's highlights include Murray's interviews with Billy Eckstine, John Hammond, Dizzy Gillespie, and a three-way conversation among Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Loren Schoenberg. The collection also includes Murray's now-famous essay, "Jazz: Notes Toward a Definition."
Devlin's volume offers a delightful introduction to Murray's work, which is always incisive, fearless, and courageous, and engaged deeply in pushing against cultural boundaries. Murray is an elegant writer, and a public intellectual whose work continues to inform — and perhaps can help define, if we read it carefully — our perspectives on jazz, blues, and their deep impact on our culture. Every selection in the book offers fresh insights on the topic under discussion, but in this week's column I simply offer a few examples of Murray's wit and wisdom, taken from the book.
From a wide-ranging conversation with Wynton Marsalis, Murray makes the following observations:
The objective of the blues musician is to get rid of the blues; is to stomp the blues and of course you stomp the blues not with utmost violence but with elegance. The more elegant you can be, the more effective you'll be at getting rid of the blues.
The jazz musician is a man who approaches all music as if he's filling the break on a traditional twelve-bar blues stanza. He starts out and plays a whole song as if that's the break … and he's always being informed by the changes that he's playing within.
In "Jazz: Notes Toward a Definition," published in 2004 in the New Republic, Murray offers a brilliant survey of the history and meaning of jazz. He had hoped to publish this in the New York Times Magazine to accompany photos of the new Jazz at Lincoln Center facility on Columbus Circle. The magazine cut it, but the New Republic published it, minus the penultimate paragraph, which is now restored:
Jazz music has come to be internationally recognized as something like the musical equivalent of Constance Rourke's idea of American humor: an emblem of a pioneer people who require resilience as a prime trait. Jazz is also the musical equivalent of what Kenneth Burke called representative anecdotes. By its very nature, jazz typifies the national dynamics or natural history of exploration, discovery, and improvisation; and the ever so tentative settlement of what might become a great metropolis, a pit stop, a ghost town of lost chords. As the musical equivalent of representative anecdotes, not only do jazz performances make people around the globe feel that they know what the texture of life in the United States is like, they also make a significant number of those people want to become American.
Murray's conversation with Greg Thomas amounts to a kind of intellectual autobiography in which he discusses his influences and the idea of human consciousness and culture:
The big problem in the mythosphere [the ideational equivalent of the atmosphere] is that people take very flimsy constructions of publicity as the real mythosphere. Literary criticism helps your insight into these things. If you think of yourself as somebody developing a more sophisticated taste on a higher level of profundity, you'd be more careful about what comes into your consciousness — publicity is not enough. You don't go out and read a book because it's number one on the best-seller list.
Murray Talks Music gives us a glimpse into Murray's brilliance, his refusal to seek the easy way out, his deep engagement with art, literature, and music, and his standing as one of the last great public intellectuals, willing to engage culture broadly from the perspectives of anthropology, literature, and music. While Murray on Music whets our appetites for the Library of America volume, it introduces us elegantly and quite wonderfully to Albert Murray.