By Greg Thomas
Albert Murray, one of America's most significant writers and thought leaders of the 20th century on the blues, jazz and their influence on American culture, died in his Harlem home on the evening of August 18, 2013.
In his non-fiction books The Omni-Americans, The Hero and the Blues, Stomping the Blues, The Blue Devils of Nada
and From the Briarpatch File
as well as in his novels Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots
and The Magic Keys
, Murray detailed his philosophy about the affirmative nature of art vs. chaos and entropy; the power of a literary, historical and cultural perspective over the limiting box of social science and race; and vernacular identity and heroism as basis for action, with the blues idiom serving as an intellectual compass and touchstone.
In a 1996 interview with Tony Scherman, Murray described the blues idiom as: “...an attitude of affirmation in the face of difficulty, of improvisation in the face of challenge. It means you acknowledge that life is a low-down dirty shame yet confront that fact with perseverance, with humor, and above all, with elegance.”
The blues idiom and jazz were to Murray quintessential American lifestyles, attitudes and artistic forms grounded in a black American experience, available for embrace by all. In Stomping the Blues, winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor award in 1977, Murray placed the music in a context of myth and ritual, with blues music and jazz serving the communal and psychological function of banishing the “blues as such,” at least momentarily.
Murray, born on May 12, 1916, grew up in Alabama during Jim Crow, was a star student at the Mobile County Training School, and a scholarship student at the Tuskegee Institute from 1935-1939, where he met and married his beloved wife Mozelle in 1941. Their daughter Michele was a professional dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. At Tuskegee he also met fellow writer Ralph Ellison, with whom, later, he formed a close personal, musical and literary friendship. Their selected letters from the 1950s were published in 2001 as Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
In 1943, during World War II, Murray enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps; he retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of major in 1962, the year he settled his family in New York City. He had met his hero Duke Ellington
in 1946, and they remained friends until Ellington’s death in 1974. Duke described Murray as a “man whose learning did not interfere with his understanding. . . He’s the unsquarest person I know.” In the summer of 1950, Murray met the visual artist Romare Bearden in Paris. Their close friendship and artistic collaboration resulted in Murray being the source of the titles of many of Bearden’s classic works.
Murray taught at Tuskegee, Colgate University, Barnard College, Drew University, Washington and Lee University, the Columbia School of Journalism and Emory University, where he was writer-in-residence. In 1997, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, received an honorary doctorate at Hamilton College and the Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award from the National Books Critics Circle. In 2007, he was given the Du Bois Medal by Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.
In addition to his non-fiction, fiction (which details the maturation and adventures of a protagonist nicknamed Scooter) and book of poetry Conjugations and Reiterations, Murray is the writer of the as-told-to autobiography of Count Basie
, Good Morning Blues
. His 1971 masterpiece, South to a Very Old Place
, was nominated for a National Book Award. In 2011, through the efforts of Murray scholar Paul Devlin, Murray’s conversations with jazz drumming pioneer Papa Jo Jones
from 1977-1985 were collected, transcribed, edited and released as Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones
In concert with the big band sounds grounded in the swing feel of Louis Armstrong
that were the soundtrack of his youth and young adulthood, Murray called jazz the “fully-orchestrated blues statement,” a fine art that extended, elaborated and refined the folk, pop and classical music around it. His profound influence on Wynton Marsalis
—introduced to Murray by the writer Stanley Crouch—resulted in the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, for which his conceptions are the intellectual pillar, and on whose Board of Directors he served. Jazz at Lincoln Center honored him in 2009 with an Ed Bradley Award for Leadership.
He is survived by his wife and daughter, and several generations of writers and readers influenced by his ingenious originality. Through the oeuvre of Albert Murray, JAZZ became firmly ensconced in the pantheon of Western Art.