From Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues by Albert Murray, edited by Paul Devlin (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Used by permission of the publisher. Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
On August 17, 2006, Albert Murray and I recorded the following conversation. This was around the time I had finished listening to all of the tapes of his interviews with Jo Jones and had begun transcribing them into what became Rifftide. I was to enter the PhD program in English at Stony Brook University in two weeks, and I wanted to get a start on what would become Rifftide prior to the start of the semester.
By this time Murray could not walk on his own. He spent his days in a hospital bed in his living room, though his outstanding regular nurses, Judy Lafitte and Neville Jones, would often lift him into a wheelchair so that he could sit at the kitchen table for meals and newspaper reading. This had been the situation since the previous year, after a variety of severe health problems caused him to spend most of July and August 2005 in the hospital. Murray’s physical activity was curtailed but his mind was still sharp, but at age ninety, time was taking its toll. His speech was generally at a low volume and the bewildering speed of his discourse had slowed to a more conventional pace. Sometimes, after a long warm-up period, he would be talking as fast as his old rapid-fire self and at a standard volume, but at ninety he was understandably not as spry as he had been at eighty-eight, as he was in constant pain and was deprived of his previously busy social and intellectual life. It didn’t help that his hearing was almost gone, and a visitor virtually had to shout to communicate. That made transcribing this interview a bit tricky, as I was constantly adjusting the volume to hear Murray and then to not hear myself shout.
Sometimes it took a long time to build into a conversation. It would annoy me when someone would tell me they had just visited Murray and he was “out of it” or “nonresponsive.” I wondered if the person actually tried to talk to him or just popped in for five minutes and made certain assumptions. Those who visited regularly knew that he needed time to adjust to company. He often did not seem like his old self at first, but it did not take long before it seemed as if nothing had changed. What bothered me most was when someone would say “I hear Murray is out of it” when I had just visited him and had a great conversation. During that summer of 2006 I made several evening visits with Michael James (discussed elsewhere in this volume). Mike passed away suddenly the following year. Mike felt that we needed to call and talk to Murray as much as we could in order to keep his mind active. Mike was a conscientious visitor and caller.
A day or so after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I visited Murray along with the writer Sidney Offit (one of Murray’s oldest friends—we would visit together several times a year). Earlier that morning David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, had called Murray to try to get his take on the magnitude of what had happened in the election, for possible inclusion in an article (so the nurse told us). Remnick and Murray had been friendly in the 1990s. Between Murray’s hearing and whatever else, the conversation with Remnick didn’t amount to anything. An hour or two later Murray was presciently telling me and Mr. Offit that “although they’re going to try to paint Obama as very liberal, he’s really not that liberal.” I wish that insight had made it into the New Yorker.
Now that my visits with Murray did not include errands anymore, it was logistically easier to bring visitors. I brought various professors (none from institutions where I was a student or teacher), along with personal friends and family, over the years. One of the last new visitors I brought, in 2012, was the writer and professor Aryeh Tepper.
Often Murray would be thinking about a topic before you got there and then would want to talk to you about it. This seems to have been the case with his riff below on the composer and music critic Virgil Thomson. You never knew what he’d want to talk about. I recall that he gave me and Michael James an unexpected lesson on Walt Whitman. On another occasion he told me all about Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.
Often his discourses in this period would include riffs on the earliest days of humanity. He was often thinking about the technologies and procedures of hunter-gatherers. His explanation below about how fishing and trapping are forms of play is representative of this direction of his thinking. I recall that Sidney Offit and I were dazzled, on a 2010 visit, by Murray’s impromptu yet scholarly history of the bow and arrow and its various iterations in different societies. In his precarious physical state, his mind turned to survival technology. On another occasion Murray gave me the fascinating volume Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men by Carl P. Russell (1967). From his insights into the origins of play—and thus the origins of humanity—he would make huge leaps of extrapolation and observation, such as that the rise in popularity of American football correlates to the growth of the power of the United States (as he notes below). But more often, his discourse on the fundamentals of play would set up a discussion of jazz.
Albert Murray: There’s a very good book I have somewhere. Look up there where you see the theater books. Three shelves down from the top. Do you see books on “play”? What are they?
Paul Devlin: Man, Play, and Games. The Seven Lively Arts. Lore and Language of School Children. Children’s Games in Street and Playground. Myth and Ritual in Dance, Game, and Rhyme. Free Play. Homo Ludens.
Homo Ludens! Yeah! Man the player. Pull that down. These are anthropological insights into how culture is made. I can drop Jo [Jones] into the middle of all this. You can always do that when you’re dealing with the fundamentals of something in an anthropological context. All those books in that section of my collection are on games: formalization of survival techniques. When you start playing with those ideas like that, then you’ll know why Negroes swing! You see what I’m saying?
Yeah. And specifically in the context of Jo—
We try to deal with him in very broad, philosophical terms. Jo, with all that talk and so forth, is really onto something. There was another guy—we became friends—he could go back and show you philosophically, that play is always work. Work-and-play. Play-for- food—like fishing, trapping, all that. When you go fishing and trapping you find that these are stylized games. Homo Ludens—this is probably the most popular of this kind of study. When you think of man the player, you see the element of play in all human being. In the element of play you also find the aesthetic element. In some of the art forms it’s still there—you play music, you play a ballgame. But it’s also play when you’re hunting. You’re getting it in chasing. The chase! Those are some expensive guns out there. These are types of equipment for consciousness. Basic anthropological technology for survival. In the end, it’s all got an aesthetic quality. It makes it enjoyable. See, you still have this shit in football. You’ve got to take this precious thing and put it in the other end between those poles down there. It’s interesting that Americans came up with the game and they called it football—you’ve got to run it, throw it, whatnot. As you see football getting bigger and bigger, Americans feel more natural because of their conception of exerting power or creating order. You learn it as a kid. It’s never really hidden. These are all lessons about life. Gotta get that thing across that line! Do you remember Caillois’s four types of play? What are they?
Competition, chance, mimicry, and vertigo?
Vertigo—that’s gettin’ high or dizzy, like a seesaw.
Then there’s Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo.
Oh, yeah. It’s Christmas? No, Vertigo, that’s out west. There’s that tree in Northern California?
In one scene they go out to the Redwood forest. Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak.
That’s right. Anyway, there was a guy—a composer. Composer/ scholar. He was from Kansas.
No, no. He was a great critic.
Yeah! Virgil Thomson. He lived down in the Village. There’s that hotel down there [the Chelsea Hotel]. That stuff used to be heavy on that side. Real cultural depth over on that side. You’d go down the street and see the jazz clubs. If you look over to your right they have the hotels and so forth going back to the turn of the century. The Village as an art community—it developed, and you got characters and actresses and a lot of pop art. When I was in college it was still thought of in terms of Edna St. Vincent Millay—modern poetry. Dancers and composers, in that area about a block from the Village Vanguard. But Thomson did some good writing. You’ll want to look at it sometime.
I met all these guys. I met them around time I was hanging out with, you know, the composers society. I’ve been down to Virgil Thomson’s apartment. Maurice Grosser—he was an Alabama guy. He used to live with Virgil Thomson. He was a painter. I guess I was a board member of the [American] Composers Orchestra (1) Some of my friends, they’re still around, they’re older Park Avenue people who were financing serious types of American music—out of a Euro-pean background—and using American material. But then they got prejudiced against jazz! And the place of jazz. Some of them are still around. Some of the younger composers, they like jazz. But they also take it as a challenge that some of the other modern composers didn’t. The syncopation and the swing and so forth—they’re not very good at it. But a lot of the stuff that jazz musicians do comes from the spirituals, comes from the blues, stuff like that. But this stuff that Jo and these guys were doing—that’s still a puzzle to them. It’s like abstract art of any kind. It’s a challenge of improvisation. You want a certain evolution of the perception of the music by other Americans, because it never was just a folk music. Anywhere they went people liked it, no matter what their own music was. The French made it sacred immediately. The British didn’t fight it as not being British.
Did Jo play tennis with the king of Denmark or somebody? Mike told me something like that.
The king of Denmark? Well, Jo would play with anybody. But jazz really got to sophisticated Europeans. There really is a lot of fuel for elegance in America. Yeah, Jo and these guys, you know—they had ambition and imagination derived from what they learned in school, which was impressive once a guy went over and saw all that shit, they were ready to celebrate it.
I was thinking about a way to arrange the Jo Jones material. I was thinking of arranging it with subject headings, in a way similar to Music Is My Mistress [Duke Ellington’s memoir].
Duke? I don’t know. I didn’t get moved by the composition and so forth. He had more stuff than he could handle (2).
I mean, we can take various topics from various tapes and put them together. Jo jumps from one topic to another. One section could be Jo Jones on literature. Another could be Jo Jones on drummers—Louie Bellson, for instance. Then, Jo on Basie, Jo on Ellington. There isn’t one coherent narrative.
That sounds OK to me. Subject matter. One day he’d feel like talking about this, the next he’d feel like talking about that. In some of your favorite books, you’re not thinking about the narrative. You’re thinking about certain passages. Then you can go into how it’s related to other parts of the book if you want to. But you can fit it into a context that’s autobiographical or historical.
Do you have any other ideas on how to arrange the material?
I experienced his career once it hit the headlines. And that was in Kansas City with Count Basie. You could then go back the other way and look for where he came from. Birmingham and whatnot.
Yeah, he mentioned he went out there. He was always on the freight trains. Going outside, carrying his drums with him—putting them in a tree! [laughter]
Jo loved Gem of the Prairie [book by Herbert Asbury].
Chicago. Yeah. I have that up there. In the world of entertainment, they got to know a lot of outlaws, gangsters, people like that. Especially in the Prohibition Era, especially out in Chicago—they’d bring the stuff in from Canada and so forth. When you get into a product of that such as the music, then you can understand it better when you get the whole thing that surrounded it. It’ll tell you something about the public personality. It was a part of that milieu. This is background stuff. Once you’ve read that kind of stuff and you see Jo coming into it—the skyscrapers and stuff are here—and [you can see how] they’re responding to it, they know it’s here. It’s influencing what they’re doing and how they feel about the type of range their audience might include. So, you end up talking like Jo Jones! [imitates Jo Jones’s voice] “I’m not just a natural artist, I’m giving some thought to this! Some thought and some research. I know the world that these sounds come out of!” That kind of thing. There’s an element of play in art, but there’s an element of play in everything. He had a feeling for it.
He understood this anthropological dimension.
Oh, no question about it! I think all successful artists do that. They don’t have to be able to objectively define what they do, it’s just that certain things make them emphasize certain aspects of their experience. Some people get status relating it to something else. If something relates to the opera or something like that. Sonny Greer used to say “I’ll be right out, I gotta finish putting on my opera clothes.” Sonny Greer and Jo—they were very humorous guys. And tough guys. You knew they knew the gangsters and so forth. And yet there’s all that delicate stuff they did with those sticks, you know. And all the subtle stuff they did with the cymbals and various things. The jazz musician is a very interesting vehicle for studying Americana.
Like a prism.
Right. You put it in these larger contexts.
And Sonny Greer brought Duke to New York.
He brought Duke to New York?
That’s what I read, because he was from New Jersey—
I’d have to think about it. Baltimore and New York stride players—that’s what Duke knew about. In Baltimore and New York were the great piano players.
Eubie Blake in Baltimore.
Yeah! They were just loaded with stride piano players. They were all over New York, before jazz. It was Baltimore, New York, and New Jersey.
Willie “The Lion” from Newark.
They had all those German teachers and so forth. When you came into New York—those guys were all around the wall, man. Pittsburgh was another one. Earl Hines. Billy Strayhorn! Mary Lou Williams. The Baltimore guys hauled off and claimed it, but Pittsburgh and New York, boy. It depends on where these borderline and Southern Negroes went. If you were from Mobile you went to Pittsburgh, maybe Philadelphia, and Detroit was straight up the L&N [Louisville and Nashville Railroad]. Chicago—straight up the L&N. Georgia and Florida—they went up the Atlantic seaboard. From Alabama and whatnot they took the Pan-American down. You find many Negroes from Mobile in California. Maybe some in Texas, but they mostly went out to the coast.
To change topics for a minute, and because this relates to Jo, you told me once when you were on summer vacations from Tuskegee that you’d pick cotton to earn extra money (3).
No. I didn’t pick cotton every summer.
Or was it between high school and college? That one summer?
Yeah. That was down the Bay—an area of Mobile called “Down the Bay.” Bay-side.
Your theory behind it was not just that it was a summer job but a reenactment of a heroic experience.
Yeah, it was like that. But I needed some money! I had scholarships, but I needed carfare.
You told me one time it was something the slaves had done, so you wanted to do it.
Oh, yeah, I was thinking romantically of the Negro past. By this time we were reenacting the whole business—what great-grandpa did. You didn’t reject it or feel sad. I thought it was heroic!
How did it feel as work? Was it hard labor?
No. Hell, I was Clark Gable by that time! Shit. I wasn’t Gary Cooper—but he was all right. I might be George Raft from time to time—’cause he walked like us! Clark Gable didn’t walk like us. He had his own walk, but that was a white walk we could do, just like some of the military walks. But George Raft walked like us.
I wonder how that ever came about.
He liked to dance! He’d go to dance in Harlem—that’s where you were gonna dance. If you’re gonna be there with everybody else dancin’, you’ve got to dance like the kids in Harlem. They always conceded that.
Who were some of your favorite actors of the thirties?
Clark Gable was the man. He was the one I most identified with. Name some others.
Yeah, I liked him. He was sophisticated. A city boy, see. Gable was anything—he could be the sharpest guy on the boulevard.
How about Errol Flynn?
Errol Flynn was OK, but he was a lighter-weight. I mean, I could see through him. I didn’t like Franchot Tone. The other guys you didn’t want to be all the way, you could still be them. Like—William Powell! People liked him!
When did you first meet Jo?
I don’t know.
It had to be by the fifties, because of that letter in Trading Twelves. You must’ve known him pretty well by ’54 or ’55.
Do you recall when you first became acquainted with him?
At Tuskegee. Some of the Tuskegee aristocrats—he knew them. The Drivers, a family at Tuskegee, he knew them. He was showing the young guys in the band what Booker Washington did, what George Washington Carver did. [imitates Jo Jones voice] “Hey, hey, boy—go down there and look at that. Dr. Carver was a genius!” It was during the days of Sugar Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray was traveling with a band, and I was taking Sugar Ray around Tuskegee [circa 1950].
What was Jo doing at Tuskegee?
He was traveling with a band!
And they played a gig at Tuskegee?
Or, they stopped for the hotel! You’re traveling in the South—which was mostly segregated—and you stop on a campus, you’d get first-rate service, first-rate universal taste in food. And Negro colleges love jazz! They may have those choirs and so forth, but they’re very serious about jazz. They’d have some type of jazz band but they usually couldn’t make it. I never heard nobody talk about a Morehouse jazz band, or a Fisk—wellllllll . . .
[Devlin and Murray] simultaneously: Jimmie Lunceford! [laughter]
Jimmie Lunceford! He cleaned them up.
Was he the only one who did that on that level?
There were one or two others.
Wasn’t Erskine Hawkins the leader of a college band?
OH, YEAH! BAMA STATE! Bama State was strictly big league.
So, when you first met Jo, he was with Basie, and they were stopping at Tuskegee?
No, he was with Sugar Ray Robinson and another band.
Who was the leader?
I can’t remember. So many bands came through. Cootie Williams came through a number of times. And the other guy, the singer.
Yeah, he came, but another guy.
“Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
Oh, Nat King Cole.
Nobody was hotter than he was. He was carrying another band with him. They stayed at our house. Mozelle cooked breakfast—hot Alabama biscuits. Alabama Sunday morning biscuits. Nat King Cole—he was an Alabama boy. I saw him briefly among the Hollywood and Los Angeles musicians. By this time he was so big I didn’t get a chance to get near. But then I knew a bunch of key Los Angeles musicians, like Buddy Collette. You know that name? He was my closest friend.
He was your closest friend when you were in LA?
My closest local friend. He and some of the Ellington guys did a [version of] “Perdido.” That long “Perdido”? [scats opening of that version of “Perdido” ]
Like the late-fifties arrangement of “Perdido” that was played in the Paris concert?
Yeah. I had just come from Morocco. Of course, all those records were being flown to me. When I got to Hollywood, Long Beach, and so forth, for my next station from Casablanca, I had all this stuff. I had seen Mingus at the Village Vanguard. I had gotten “Fables of Faubus.” Guys were flying them over—French jazz buffs, radio people, and so forth came by the consulate. The embassy is in the capital, but Casablanca was the biggest city. The embassy was in Rabat, which was the capital. They invited me to give talk at the consulate. This was in Casablanca, which was the city.
The American consulate in Casablanca? And you gave a lecture on jazz?
I gave a series! Because they’re French! They had write-ups in the paper. A French guy found his way to my house—on the base! [Records] that were hard to get elsewhere—you could find them at our house. I used to have parties. Somebody would call up, bring around the wine. And we used to play records. “Ah, Cap-i-taine Murr-ay, est-ce que vous avez le dernier disque de Sarah Vaug-han?” You heard the latest from Sarah Vaughan? It was almost like The Albert Murray Jazz Club! We had a lot of wine and the latest records from the United States. The first thing I did when I got back to New York was see Mingus at the Vanguard. I knew some Arabs too.
Were these westernized Arab intellectuals? Like, French-speaking jazz fans?
A few. I don’t remember why the Arabs came to visit. But I was invited to the home of rich French Moroccans who had more jazz records than any Negro I ever saw. Then, some local Arab sheiks invited me to their house!
What was that like?
Well, he’d invite you into the living room, and you’d sit down and talk. He could speak English. You’d see his wives passing by.
Like, a harem?
Well, it was a family. He was some type of high official. He wanted me to visit, so I brought some records.
Paul Devlin is the editor of Murray Talks Music.
Albert Murray (1916-2013), a novelist, essayist, and poet, was the author of twelve books, published from 1970-2005. He was raised on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama, and after a career in the Air Force, lived in Harlem from 1962 on.
- Murray was on the board of directors of the American Composers Orchestra from 1986 to 1989. He was friends with the orchestra’s cofounder, Francis Thorne. Surviving letters suggest that Murray was an active board member and worked closely with Thorne on certain projects. It is unclear when the major donors to the ACO might have turned “against jazz,” but the ACO performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s fall fund-raising gala in 2006.
- Murray’s review of Ellington’s Music Is My Mistressoriginally appeared in the Village Voicein 1976. It is included in his essay collection The Blue Devils of Nada.
- Murray addresses this topic in detail in his Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Interview Project with Robert G. O’Meally, but not in the excerpt of that inter- view included in this book.