This interview with Paul Devlin, scholarly editor of Albert Murray’s work and a writer, was originally published in three parts from July 18-23 as part of Full Stop’s Albert Murray Week, a celebration of the late author’s centennial, which also included excerpts from Devlin’s Murray Talks Music and a review-essay on “Murray and the Americas” by Matthew St. Ville Hunte. Presented here is a condensed and lightly revised version of the interview with Devlin. The original version is still online.
Since then, the following has occurred in relation to Murray’s centennial year: the Library of America’s edition of Murray’s nonfiction and memoirs was published in October and greeted with a glowing review by Dwight Garner in the New York Times, co-editors Devlin and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. were interviewed for Publishers Weekly, Murray Talks Music was reviewed in the New Yorker, and the Albert Murray Trust launched AlbertMurray.com. On November 28th, the 92nd Street Y will host a celebration of Albert Murray featuring Devlin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Renata Adler, Wynton Marsalis and Ayana Mathis. Also, an interview that Gates and Robert G. O’Meally did with Murray in 1978 will be published in the winter issue of The Paris Review (#219).
Discussed in this section: the Murray revival, Thomas Chatterton Williams on Murray, Nate Chinen on Murray, the forthcoming Library of America edition of Murray’s nonfiction, some of the artists Murray influenced, The Omni-Americans, identity, idiom as identity, the blues idiom statement, Murray’s relationships with James Baldwin and Gordon Parks, jazz and America’s postwar influence, Murray in Morocco in the 1950s, and jazz as diplomacy.
Paul Devlin is a leading scholar of Albert Murray’s work and a scholar of American literature and culture in general, as well as a freelance critic. He is the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, as told to Albert Murray (2011) and of the new book Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues. With Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Paul is co-editing the Library of America’s edition of Murray’s essays and memoirs, forthcoming in October. Paul earned his Ph.D. in English at Stony Brook University in December 2014 (his dissertation was on Murray, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Percival Everett). He has written for Slate, The Root, Bomb, The Daily Beast, Popular Mechanics, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, including scholarly journals. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Jazz Journalists Association, PEN American Center, and The Authors Guild, and is an appointee to the MLA’s Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada.
Albert Murray (1916-2013), whose work is an American treasure, was one of the most original and incisive writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. With a signature balance of humor and erudition, he created what he felt were accurate literary representations of the African American experience, while counter-stating sociological narratives of victimhood and pathology. He saw it as his duty to relay black life as he knew it, with its wit and wisdom, its heroism and elegance. He wanted non-black Americans to be aware of how much African American culture informs their identity. But he also had an expansive, inclusive vision of the “Omni-American,” a person whose identity is the synthesis of many traditions, and who, for Murray, is well prepared for the modern world. In 1996 he received the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Award for lifetime contribution to American arts and letters. After retiring as a major in the U.S. Air Force in 1962 he wrote twelve books: The Omni-Americans (1970), South to a Very Old Place (1971), The Hero and the Blues (1973), Train Whistle Guitar (1974), Stomping the Blues (1976), Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (1986), The Spyglass Tree (1991), The Seven League Boots (1996), The Blue Devils of Nada (1996), Conjugations and Reiterations (2001), From the Briarpatch File (2001), and The Magic Keys (2005). He also helped create content for four more books: Conversations with Albert Murray (1997), Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (which he co-edited, 2000), Rifftide (2011, edited by Devlin) and the recently published Murray Talks Music (2016), a collection of his previously unpublished and uncollected interviews and writings on music, which has an introduction by Devlin, a foreword by the eminent critic and biographer Gary Giddins, and an afterword by cultural critic Greg Thomas. Full Stop is running three excerpts this week, but here is a brief one the publisher ran in May. Devlin talked with Full Stop over a period of weeks from May through July 2016.
A.M. Davenport: Paul, this year is Albert Murray’s centennial. I recently read Thomas Chatterton Williams’ review of Murray Talks Music in the spring books issue of The Nation, in which he praises Murray for his contributions to American letters, yet describes Murray as a writer who is “not household familiar.” Williams goes on to praise the book for its collection of previously unpublished and uncollected material, and for your extensive introduction, which he calls “worth the price of admission” alone. Nate Chinen, in the arts section of the New York Times on May 21, called Murray Talks Music “insightful,” and he used it brilliantly as a frame for a long review of new jazz albums. “Mr. Murray’s legacy,” Chinen writes, “is now largely understood in musical, as well as literary terms.” Let’s talk about Murray’s legacy. We need his work now as much as we ever have. You and a number of other intellectuals are working to bring it back into the public discourse. Am I right in thinking that there seems to be a kind of revival of interest in Murray’s work?
Paul Devlin: Yes, there is a revival underway, and I’m so glad to see it happening, because I’ve worked hard for Murray’s legacy for several years, alongside Murray’s literary executor, Lewis P. Jones. The essays you mention in your question are outstanding. Murray’s ideas are circulating again and a lot of people are realizing he was onto something. The reception of Murray Talks Music was a thrill. In October the Library of America will publish the definitive edition of his collected nonfiction, co-edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and me. Some of Murray’s books had been out of print, but now they’ll be available in perpetuity, and annotated for the first time. I hope the volume will do for his literary legacy what Chinen suggests Murray Talks Music may be doing to cement his legacy as a thinker about music. Also, a few unknown essays — some of his best — will see the light of day in the Library of America edition. The 92nd Street Y will be doing a tribute to Murray with a reading of his work on November 28, featuring Renata Adler, Ayana Mathis, Wynton Marsalis, Gates, and me. This past February there was a symposium at Columbia University on his work, featuring scholars from around the country. It was the coldest day of the winter in New York, with especially biting winds, but the venue was full, with people standing in the back. I organized a special session on his later fiction at the MLA convention in Austin earlier this year. Jazz at Lincoln Center and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem hosted readings and discussions. There is an event in the works at Harvard for next spring and there are several other projects in planning stages. There is a burgeoning sense that Murray’s work is central to understanding American culture, along with, dare I say, the human proposition.
About how long have you researched Murray’s work and how has the revival unfolded?
Murray was my mentor. We met in 2001, when I was an undergraduate in college. We quickly became friends and I became an assistant to him. I’ve been studying his work as a scholar for almost that entire time — along with studying plenty of other writers, movements, periods, and so on. Two and a half of the six chapters in my dissertation are on his work. When he died in 2013, at 97 (after some years of health problems) I was overwhelmed by the tributes in online publications and on social media (I link to some of them in this guest post I wrote for Ethan Iverson’s blog.) But the revival, in a sense, began just before that: I’d say 2011, when I transcribed, edited, and annotated the interviews he did with the jazz drummer Papa Jo Jones into a well-received book (Rifftide). I’m measuring the revival from there, because getting it published was an epic, uphill battle. Uphill doesn’t do it justice — it was like a battle up a sheer cliff side! After many rejections by academic presses and trade presses, I was almost ready to give up when I pitched Minnesota, where there was a vision for the book and wisdom about how to proceed with it. There was a lot of good publicity surrounding the book when it was published, despite a lot of deer-in-the-headlights-ism typical of many media elites. It got an enthusiastic review in the New York Times Book Review. The review in Library Journal is brilliant. I went on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and on Josh Jackson’s show on WBGO. Shortly thereafter, a portion of Murray’s art collection was exhibited, and that got attention too. (I wrote the wall text for the exhibition. I’d already published a book chapter on Murray and visual art.) In Spring 2013, a few months before Murray died, two major essays on his work appeared: by Walton Muyumba in Oxford American and by James Marcus in Columbia Journalism Review. The Schomburg Center did a tribute in late 2014. Ayana Mathis argued in a superb back-page essay in the New York Times Book Review in January 2015 that there should be a biography of Murray. Her essay got a lot of attention. I got a bunch of queries out of the blue. Murray Talks Music had already been under contract for a year at that point. That’s the outline of the current revival.
I should note that Murray was never really “forgotten,” but there is a bit of a paradox in that while he continued to receive awards until 2012, there was a steep drop off in fan letters, scholarly queries, and speaking invitations after 2005, when his health began to decline — and it’s not as if the state of his declining health was public knowledge. He received the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from the Du Bois Institute at Harvard in 2007. Gates bestowed the award in a ceremony at Murray’s apartment. There was a notice about it in the New York Times. In 2010 he was included in a New York Magazine photo essay on prominent New Yorkers over 90. The first academic essay collection on his work was published in 2010 — but it didn’t really get reviewed until 2013, except for the briefest of mentions. It was published right in the nadir of interest in his work and was greeted by crickets. (But there was a nice event and panel discussion for it, which I organized, at Jazz at Lincoln Center.) By 2008, his hearing was nearly gone. He used a device in which a person would speak into a microphone and he’d hear the voice in headphones. It kind of worked, sometimes. Sometimes he’d prefer near-shouting, so he could really make the words out. Often writing questions on a notepad worked best. Visitors were sparse. I visited regularly, sometimes with the writer Sidney Offit, one of Murray’s oldest friends. Lewis Jones and his family visited regularly. Others visited from time to time. But there was an unmistakable lull in interest in his work, from say, late 2007 through late 2011, despite awards and the essay collection. There were no thoughtful essays, like those by Muyumba or Mathis in prominent venues, to generate intellectual discussion.
Is this the first revival? His books from the 1970s seemed to have taken on a new life in the 1990s.
There were previous revivals. An article in Kirkus Reviews in 1995 mentions a Murray revival underway. The writer had it right, as that piece presaged an avalanche of attention and accolades in the late 1990s. There were revivals in 1982-83 and 1989-90, when some of his books from the 70s came back into print. Revivals come and go, but I have a feeling this one will be permanent. One bonus of the Library of America edition, in which all of his nonfiction is collected in one volume, is that people who know him mainly as a social critic, say, as the author of The Omni-Americans, or mainly as the author of the treatise on jazz, Stomping the Blues, or of the memoir/meditation on the south, South to a Very Old Place will also see and have the other books between two covers. Interest in his work has often been compartmentalized. Someone working in Southern Studies may think of South to a Very Old Place as his big book. Someone in Jazz Studies might think of Stomping the Blues as his big book, and so on. A lot of things had to fall into place and incalculable toil went into getting all those books into one edition, but here we are, and it’s a marvelous development — not easy to imagine ten years ago!
We know from the books you’ve edited that Murray enjoyed lasting relationships with a wide circle of artists, musicians and intellectuals. These relationships serve as yet another piece of the legacy he has left us with. Who are some of the men and women he influenced?
He influenced a large and diverse group of writers, thinkers, musicians, and artists, from Elizabeth Alexander and Toni Cade Bambara to Ravi Howard and James Alan McPherson. Some very serious people sought his wisdom and he generously obliged: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, David Murray, Melvin Dixon, Tom Piazza, Clara Maxwell, Leon Forrest, Melvin Edwards, Ernest Gaines — among so many others. He was a mentor to Robert G. O’Meally, who founded the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. He was a mentor to Loren Schoenberg, who founded the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. He was a mentor to Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, with whom he co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center. Gary Giddins wrote a profound testimonial to Murray’s mentorship in his foreword to Murray Talks Music. Another prominent acolyte was Skip Gates, my co-editor of the Library of America volumes, who is a grand-scale institution builder, preeminent scholar, award-winning filmmaker, and familiar figure on PBS.
What’s behind Murray’s idea of the “Omni-American?” More than anything else in the last few years, that theory has shaped the way I view our cultural identity.
Murray railed against what he called “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology” — these narratives obscure(d) the reality of American life. An Omni-American is open to and formed by all influences, but from a foundation formed from black, white, and Native American cultures. Murray saw African American life as intrinsically heroic and intrinsically modern — that is to say, it is at the vanguard of modernity because of historical circumstances, and thus, the most American aspect or component of American identity. Murray said that the most ardent white supremacist in the South has much more in common culturally (and possibly even genetically!) with his or her black neighbors than with some distant relative in Europe — and thus should think of him or herself as an Omni-American. It is an inclusive and pluralistic vision of culture that accounts for history, economics, and individual choice or agency. Americans are “Omni-Americans” one way or the other, and so it’s better to not pretend otherwise. Elizabeth Alexander wrote a poem called “Omni-Albert Murray,” and she had the right idea, but the idea is also for Omni-Everybody. He was not the only Omni-American and there is no one perfect way to be an Omni-American, but the thing that is wrong and untrue is ethnic supremacism of any kind.
Murray despised what he called “racial mysticism” and spent decades trying to counter it at every turn. The “Omni-American” idea is a conception about the complexity of human life and culture and how it actually works and evolves. It is a necessary corrective to identity politics, which perhaps at one time were a vehicle to promote diversity and equal opportunity, which was good, and I suppose it can still have that use, but have lately been co-opted in the most cynical and pernicious ways, and have even become a sort of identity-hectoring in some quarters, especially when used for political deflection. Identity, for Murray, is idiomatic, which is to say cultural, and not genetic. Murray said people choose their own ancestors to go with their real ancestors. Ellison may have said that too, but Murray got the idea from a poem by W.H. Auden in the 1930s. He chose James Joyce and Marianne Moore and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Auden and Thomas Mann and James Weldon Johnson and Duke Ellington — and many others, including his own ancestors, whose labor in the cotton fields of Alabama he deemed heroic. He also viewed escape from slavery as heroic.
At this moment, there is a surge in ethno-nationalism around the world — a hideous development. It has been occasioned by politics and economics, but more significantly perhaps, by a worldwide decrease of emphasis on education in the humanities, which results in less critical thinking. Murray’s work undermines both exclusionary ethno-nationalism and the appropriation of identity politics for the purposes of deflecting other discussions about equality. If Murray’s work had caught on decades ago the entire political landscape of 2016 could be different. I have critical distance from Murray’s work, and a critique of certain aspects of it, but make no mistake: his ideas are an antidote, or a part of an antidote, for so much of what’s gone wrong in the United States over the past few years. He declared American culture to be “incontestably mulatto” and supported that thesis with one of the most swashbuckling essay collections ever: The Omni-Americans. The Omni-Americans should be taught at police academies, state trooper academies, and places like say, UC Santa Cruz and Bard College. If every police academy in the United States had started assigning The Omni-Americans twenty years ago, we’d live in a much better country today.
I’d be happy to do seminars for police groups. I have a hunch they’d dig Murray. He was a realist: he said “the fire next time” will be put out by next Wednesday! He loved America, thrived in the Air Force, and celebrated the possibilities in the American experiment. He had a heroic sense of life. But what his work offers is a radical reorientation of perspective on culture and American history. I think it could make a real difference. There is a certain type of police officer — and this goes for people in other professions as well — who gets carried away with power, pride, and arrogance, sometimes for simply being employed. In this stagnant economy, a steady paycheck can make a person of a certain personality type feel somehow anointed. Combine that with exclusionary race pride and it can become truly toxic — as we see on the news almost every day. These particular officers — and of course it’s not nearly all — need to understand that black youth is not “the other” and not the enemy. If Darren Wilson had read The Omni-Americans and then passed an exam on it, it’s hard for me to imagine that he could have used such dehumanizing rhetoric against Michael Brown. And without that rhetoric, how would his conduct have been different? Who knows — I think there would have been a different outcome to the situation. And I know police officers will say “you wouldn’t believe what we see out there.” Fair enough — people do crazy things. But police in homogenous societies would probably say the same thing. It shouldn’t be an excuse for more havoc. Protecting law-abiding people from criminals and not arbitrarily combining them should be the first job of the police. An enemy of every police department is widespread distrust of police and their motives, and subsequent tensions. Yet that seems to be what too many have been creating of late. Perhaps some join the force with every good intention and get overwhelmed. It would be good to get a new perspective. Walker Percy wrote of The Omni-Americans, in a long and perceptive review-essay in Tulane Law Review, “show me a book about race and the United States that fits no ideology, resists all abstractions, offends orthodox liberals and conservatives, attacks social scientists and Governor Wallace in the same breath, sees all the faults of the country, and holds out hope in the end–then I have to sit up and take notice.” I hope many will continue to take notice.
I hear you. But what if people read it and reject it?
Even those inclined to disagree with Murray would be compelled to tip their caps to his inexorable logic. Some discourse on race, especially on the internet or whatever, can sometimes have a scolding tone and maudlin attitude. Murray’s work is free from that. As Jack Point says in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeoman of the Guard, “I can teach you with a quip if I’ve a mind; I can trick you into learning with a laugh.” Not that Murray was a comedian, not that he was out to make jokes — but he’s able to treat heavy ideas with a perfectly timed light touch, and has a knack for a kind of comic relief by throwing the absurd into stark relief. There’s a lot to be said for methods of delivery. (And by that I don’t mean to imply that I’m in favor of the canard that academic discourse should always be clear and well-written.) So, it’s not as if Murray’s style is simple or anything, far from it, but I think people can relate to his tone. That’s one thing Murray implies about Lyndon Johnson in South to a Very Old Place (in the “Mobile” chapter) — his idiomatic discourse went a long way toward getting Civil Rights legislation passed.
Just what is it about Murray’s conception of American identity that has so much political potential?
For a lot of people it’s like a lightbulb going off. And it’s all so deft, and argued with such formidable intelligence, elegance, and aplomb. Following and elaborating upon the work of the woefully and absurdly underappreciated historian Constance Rourke (1885-1941), who in 1931 identified four quadrants of “American humor,” Murray envisioned the mainstream of American identity as composed of four tributary streams: African American (he preferred the terms “colored” or “Negro”), Yankee, Native American, and Frontiersman. Murray used this to reconceptualize American (and thus African American) identity as the literal vanguard identity of modernity, not one lagging behind modernity, for better or worse. That’s a synopsis of what gets explained, as you know, in rich and dynamic essays. Murray’s conception of African American identity is parallel in many ways with (in fact, it’s almost exactly the same as) Édouard Glissant’s later theorization of Caribbean identity: a new cultural formation that is hybrid, flexible, informed by various complex sources, and not directly descended from Africa — having to do with relations between people, customs, cultures, ideas — not in any way a straight line of descent — and reflective of actual life in the Caribbean, rather than a theory conceived by a myopic academic. I don’t know if Glissant was influenced by Murray. I’m bringing up Glissant to illustrate that it’s not an American nationalistic thing. It’s a thoughtful observation informed by vast knowledge of texts and human relationships. Look at the last paragraph here for a fine application of Glissant’s thought. Murray and Glissant both see the Middle Passage as a dividing line, after which new cultures and identities emerge in the Western Hemisphere. This statement comes at the beginning of Murray’s The Omni-Americans and at the beginning of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. Murray applies Thomas Mann’s insight about the depth of “the well of the past” — explained by the narrator at the opening of Joseph and his Brothers — to the African American experience. The narrator says (so much more poetically than the way I’m about to paraphrase it) that the well of the past is bottomless, it recedes forever, but stories have to start somewhere. So, Murray chooses the Middle Passage. But it can also apply to a steerage passenger in 1895 or an immigrant on a plane in 1970 or someone making a mad dash across the border in the 2000s. I am not comparing those journeys to the horrors of the Middle Passage, but simply saying that they demarcate new cultural beginnings. And — and this is critically important — upon entering the United States, one partakes, in one’s new cultural environment, in what has developed out of the new cultural beginning that began with the thousands of Middle Passages. Murray then combined Rourke’s insight with Paul Valéry’s insight (1922) that “the European” identity is a combination of Greek, Roman, and Jewish heritage. It may be other things too, but for Valéry, that combination is what distinguishes it from other regional identities. Of course, those traditions had myriad influences at work in them as well. There was an interesting book a few years ago called Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture by Walter Burkert (Harvard UP, 2004). There are plenty of “pre-Greek” things in Ancient Greek culture as well — residual archaic things, influences from the north and the south, as well as elements from the broad current of proto Indo-European culture. But that’s not the point. The point is new identities form organically out of a variety of combinations. American identity, for Murray, first took shape from the 1600s through the early 1800s. Other groups came and augmented it. Any group that comes here can and often does augment the base. It’s not a rigid conception. I’ll share a brief vignette, which I’ve gotten a few laughs from at panels and such. Parsing this could keep people busy for the next few decades. Haha. Murray is not the first person to point out that race is a construction or that whiteness is an ever-expanding blob or whatever, but his own take on it was something else:
Murray: What kind of Irish are you?
Murray: You know, New York Irish, Boston Irish . . .
Me: Oh. Well, my dad came here from Northern Ireland and my mom’s family is New York Irish. Her father was from Boston, but moved to New York in 1941.
Murray: So you know about the Boston Irish?
Me: I mean, a little, but not really.
Murray: You know why they’re mad?
Me: They’re mad?
Murray: They’re mad at Negroes, man!
Me: Oh yeah, I guess I’ve read about that. James Brown at the Boston Garden and such. Why are they mad?
Murray: Because they can’t afford to hire Negroes to teach them how to be white! (big laugh)
Murray loved jokes like that — and he had a few more. The point is that identities are complicated constructions and the attempt to construct a pure one is absurd. He said in an interview in the 90s that of course Negroes know that whiteness is a myth — we helped invent it! It was black women who were slaves, he said, who created the glamour of the white southern belle. Here’s an addendum to that: how many affluent white golfers have learned the fine points of the game from black caddies? (A lot!) Murray said at the Alain Locke Symposium at Harvard in 1973 (organized by Lewis Jones, by the way) that he recoils from the idea of a pure identity. Murray’s conception of a flexible Omni-American identity is ultimately (and perhaps the ultimate) anti-authoritarian and anti-fascist conception, in part because it undermines and repudiates the possibility of there having been a golden age or mist-cloaked time of purity, on which those conceptions rest. The Omni-American concept is not unrelated to the mestizaje concept about Mexican culture. It has worldwide applicability. It requires a deep breath, a step back, and an honest assessment. Of course, its roots go back to Frederick Douglass, in works such as “Our Composite Nationality” (his 1869 defense of Chinese immigration) and there are cognates in the early work of Du Bois. Ellison articulated something similar, but in a more diffused way. Murray nailed it and put his own spin on it.
What was the reaction to Murray’s theory of America as a “mulatto culture”?
Very positive! Many people have described The Omni-Americans as a breath of fresh air when it appeared in the spring of 1970. It was irreverent, learned, funny, and accessible. What a combination! But that was Murray. That was his personality: hilarious and erudite. It got enthusiastic reviews, including a long one in The New Yorker, by Robert Coles. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. Murray went on the David Frost Show. He also appeared on the cover of Book World, the Sunday book review section that was a joint venture between the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. Writers as different from one another as Larry Neal, Walker Percy, Alfred Kazin, and Skip Gates all admired it. It caused Horace Kallen, who was nearly 90 years old, to take notice and adjust his views of American culture! Ain’t that something? The worst review it got was by J. Saunders Redding in the New York Times — but that was the outlier. Redding and Ellison had been feuding in dueling book reviews since about 1950, so it’s no surprise that he took a shot at Murray. But Redding’s review had little influence. The book was reprinted in paperback the next year, and there were subsequent editions in 1983 and 1990, printings of which continued through the early 2000s. Redding must have felt bad by the mid-1970s, because he tried to get Murray a job at the Library of Congress (but Murray didn’t need a job and wasn’t interested).
Now, there’s a phrase Murray likes to use, and others, too, that not everyone might be too knowledgeable about. That phrase is “the blues idiom statement.” You and I know it to be a crucial aspect of his views on culture and art, but could you talk a little bit about how we can reconcile the blues idiom statement with Murray’s theory about the Omni-American?
There is no contradiction between Murray’s celebration of African American cultural achievement and the Omni-American concept, because for Murray, the black contribution is, in general, what is most American about American culture. Murray emphasized the importance of the idiomatic and the cosmopolitan. Along the same lines, he also emphasized an apparent paradox: the more idiomatic a work of art is, the more universal its applicability and reception. He looked to James Joyce as a model — a cosmopolitan who was exceptionally idiomatic, and who made his idiom feel universal. Another writer like that, I think, is Mahasweta Devi: her writing is very idiomatic, yet you get it. Murray said one difference between him and Ellison is that Ellison explains a lot of black stuff for white folks, which he (Murray), refuses to do. But Joyce and Devi don’t explain either. See what I mean? He wanted to be the most universal writer by being the “blackest” writer, just as he found other writers who plunged into their own idioms to be the most universal. He said in a 1994 interview:
My work doesn’t ever stick to ethnicity and yet I don’t want anyone to ever be thought of as a greater authority on ethnicity. They should say, ‘Ask him, he knows.’ Or, ‘He’s got the voice. He’s got the this, he’s got the that.’ . . . I want to say that Negroes never looked or sounded better than in Murray and Duke.
Yet ethnicity resides in the idiomatic. I’ll get to that. He felt that his work and Ellington’s work reflected the Omni-American ideal — but not any more so than Hemingway’s work! I’m looking forward to more people getting a chance to read his sixty-page essay on Hemingway as the exemplar of the blues writer, especially the rollicking second half of it, in the Library of America edition.
So how did Murray understand the idiomatic per se?
Murray went so far as to redefine race in terms of idiom — he sought to redefine ethnic difference as idiomatic difference. In a late notebook entry he wrote “My so-called blackness should be considered as a matter of idiomatic variation (nuance and sample), much the same as is William Faulkner’s southernness, or Fitzgerald’s mid-western Ivy Leagueness or Hemingway’s mid-western internationalism.” This is remarkable. Every group has an idiom of some kind, from broadly defined ethnic groups in general, down to combinations of a few individuals: families, couples, siblings. Idioms develop in physical proximity and they are diverse, flexible, and divisible. Definition number one in the Oxford English Dictionary defines “idiom” as “the specific character or individuality of a language; the manner of expression considered natural to or distinctive of a language; a language’s distinctive phraseology. Now rare.” But not rare in Murray’s work! Murray had a wonderful Yogi Berra-esque phrase to quickly describe the idiomatic: “mispronouncing the words correctly.” (!)
Idiom, by the way, always implies community and is the product of an exchange between others. If an individual has a quirky, personal way of speaking, then, that’s an idiolect, not an idiom. Now, an idiom is not an accent, but an accent is part of an idiom. Hurston notes the difference between writing in idiom and writing in dialect in her essay “Art and Such” (1938). So, Tony Soprano speaks in a blue collar Northern New Jersey Italian immigrant-derived idiom. Other characters on that show speak in other idioms — such as the doctor who lives next door to Tony, for instance. Paul Volcker speaks in another New Jersey idiom. I like how Volcker talks. People don’t talk like that anymore. Volcker’s idiom is not the old WASP idiom, which also survives in a few places yet and is also pleasant to listen to. I think most old, long-simmering idioms have a musicality to them. Class figures into this as well. The people of the Gold Coast of Long Island knew the idiom of their servants and the servants knew their idiom in return. Servants could speak in the idiom of their employers on the job and then switch back to idioms they were more comfortable with when off the clock. When this gets into masks and parodies and parodies of parodies, things can get interesting. Physical proximity and idiom are also connected. Slavery and later segregation enforced physical proximity, which helped lead to the development of the blues idiom — a term coined by Murray — which is a particularly enduring idiom (partially because of continued, de facto segregation). And yet physical proximity also meant various forms of cultural sharing, borrowing, and theft. The blues idiom is the southern, working class African American idiom, very broadly defined. Music and painting and clothing and anything people create is in an idiom of some kind. Humanity itself is an idiom of sorts. When Wallace Stevens writes of “the idiom of the innocent earth” he is highlighting the difference between the human and non-human. Every idiom has subsets and there is diversity within any idiom. There is overlap between idioms and one person can be an authentic speaker of several. Murray was once asked why he lived in Harlem even though he could have afforded to live elsewhere. He said he (and Ralph Ellison) didn’t want to be too far away from the idiom. Harlem has varied idioms, and different idioms there have been influencing one another for the past hundred years, but Murray meant, more or less, the southern African American idiom. As I said, to say idiom implies community, being with others. If we had another fifty thousand words I’d bring the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy into the discussion. Haha. Now, I’ll bring this to the “blues idiom statement” in music. When Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn were re-composing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite in the late 1950s, there was a point where Strayhorn left something in the score exactly as Tchaikovsky wrote it. Ellington asked him “why is that like that?” Strayhorn said, “well, I didn’t want to alter the great man’s choice in that particular section.” Ellington said “no, that’s not right for my band.” In other words, he was telling Strayhorn to restate it in the blues idiom (as they were doing for the entire composition). Murray was there, in the studio, and witnessed the exchange. He liked to tell that story. It’s in the “Tuskegee” chapter of South to a Very Old Place as well, so much better than I’ve paraphrased it here.
That’s beautiful. The “observer,” whether it’s Murray witnessing the exchange between Ellington and Strayhorn, or a third line apprentice musician trying to learn the blues idiom, plays quite the role in disseminating both history and culture. One of the more controversial episodes of Murray’s career occurred upon publication of Stomping the Blues when he referred, in a photo caption, to a group of white musicians as members of the third line behind Harlem schoolchildren who were following Count Basie. Many white jazz writers who had a bone to pick with Murray read that caption, seized upon it, and said “Murray doesn’t like white musicians.”
That’s what they said, in the cheapest and laziest readings they could muster. That’s why Murray wrote a short essay explaining himself (“Notes on a Jazz Tradition”), which appears for the first time in Murray Talks Music. I recently interviewed Harris Lewine, the art director of Stomping the Blues. Lewine told me he specified character counts for each caption, and that Murray wrote those captions to fit the specified counts exactly. So, perhaps with an extra few sentences in 1976 Murray could have cleared it all up. Still, the controversy didn’t seem to bother him much until 2003, which is when he began to work on the explanatory piece. He wasn’t too interested in the opinions of some white jazz critics in the 80s and 90s who felt Jazz at Lincoln Center was too black. By the way, John Gennari defends Murray on that point in his comprehensive history of jazz criticism, Blowin’ Hot and Cool (U of Chicago P, 2006). In my introductory note to “Notes on a Jazz Tradition” I explain the controversy and quote Gennari on Murray’s critics. Murray’s point, in short, is as follows (and this is my paraphrase): first line/second line/third line doesn’t mean first best/second best/third best. It identifies physical position in the traditional New Orleans parade and is not a value judgment. Those closest to the idiom by having been born into it comprise the first line of musicians and second line of dancers, while the third line is comprised of those who are admiring and observing the idiom in order to learn about it. (Perhaps people know more about this today from second line videos on social media than they did in the past.) In the original version of Murray’s essay on James Baldwin (which appeared in 1966 in the book Anger, and Beyond), he has, as an aside, the following quote, of exceptional clarity, which did not make it into the expanded version published in The Omni-Americans:
This music [jazz], far from being simply Afro-American (whatever that is, the continent of Africa being as vast and varied as it is), is, like the U.S. Negro himself, All-American. This is why so many other American musicians, like Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan and all the rest, identify with it so eagerly. The white American musician (excluding hillbillies, of course) sounds most American when he sounds most like an American Negro. Otherwise he sounds like a European.
The reason African American musicians, in Murray’s opinion, tended to play blues and jazz more idiomatically than white musicians was because they tended to have a larger idiomatic musical vocabulary from their exposure to and/or involvement with the black church. You remember the line in Murray Talks Music about the difference between Gershwin and Aaron Copland? Gershwin was hanging out on 135th Street, where he was absorbing the idiom in a studious and non-frivolous way — not just music, but the way people talked, walked, and so on. It’s all connected. Copland wrote marvelous music on American themes — it’s just not in the new form that developed here. Copland is my go-to music for grading papers, along with Virgil Thomson.
Let’s talk about that essay on Baldwin and the sections pertaining to Baldwin in particular. I’ve been curious about that, as well as about Murray’s essay on Gordon Parks, both in The Omni-Americans. Murray presents harsh critiques of two of his friends. Yet Parks and Baldwin both seemed to forgive him for it or at least seemed not hold it against him. I’ve seen the late 1970s clip of Murray in conversation with Baldwin, Bearden, and Alvin Ailey (and the transcript in Conversations with Albert Murray). I’ve also seen photos of Parks and Murray in what seems to be the 80s or 90s. You recently reviewed the catalog to the new exhibition on the Ellison-Parks collaboration. How well did Murray know Parks, and how was it different from Ellison’s friendship with Parks? How well did Murray know Baldwin? How did they feel about his criticism?
I haven’t read the private papers of Parks or Baldwin, so I don’t really know, but you’re right: they didn’t seem to have held it against Murray in the long run. And why? The essays pull no punches, but if they are harsh, they are harsh in a corrective sense: harsh in the sense of Murray wanting Baldwin and Parks to be the best they could be. Murray felt that each man had profound insight and talent, and each man’s story reflected an achievement for black Americans, yet a reader wouldn’t get the sense from their work (he was critiquing Parks’s books, not his photography) that the worlds they grew up in could produce artists as great as they were. In other words, their writing, in Murray’s opinion, didn’t live up to the dynamism of their personalities or reflect the possibility inherent in their personal stories and thus, at the same time, they were giving short shrift to the dynamism of black communities. Murray often talked about how it is difficult for a novelist to create a protagonist as smart as he or she is. Parks has an incredible story, yet Murray argues that his novel and memoir to this point don’t portray the world of possibility in which the dashing, debonair, and brilliant Parks could have developed. Murray argues that you wouldn’t know from Baldwin’s depictions of Harlem life that a writer and conversationalist as talented as Baldwin could have emerged from that same Harlem. Such depictions are something Murray sought to counter-state by portraying these communities from different angles in his own fiction. Incidentally, Murray was pleased when John Leonard, in Harper’s, noticed this and called his 2005 novel The Magic Keys “a thank-you note to the entire sustaining community of black America” (among other nice things).
Murray was something like a mentor to Baldwin in Paris in 1950. (Murray was eight years older.) There’s a 1951 letter from Baldwin to Murray, expressing the wish that Murray was still in Paris. So I mean, there was a deep personal connection there prior to Murray’s essay, which first appeared in 1966, and which appeared again, in an expanded version, in The Omni-Americans in 1970. I think Baldwin knew him too well and admired him too much to hold it against him.
There isn’t as much of a paper trail about his friendship with Parks. He could have met him in 1947, through Ellison, or he could have met him in the late 50s, through Ellington. Murray was spending a lot of time in 1947-48 hanging out with Ellison and Ellison was collaborating with Parks on the photo-and-text series that is now part of the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Parks stayed at Ellison’s place now and then and Murray went to parties at Ellison’s — in short, they could have crossed paths. But you’re right, there are several photos of Murray and Parks from the 80s and 90s. Michael James told me about a party he and Murray went to at Parks’s apartment in the late 90s. My hunch is that Baldwin and Parks either saw some legitimate points in Murray’s critiques and/or that they knew Murray had constructive intentions. Incidentally, in Murray’s third novel, The Seven League Boots, he includes a charming and affectionate portrait of a very Baldwin-esque writer, whom the semi-autobiographical protagonist, Scooter, meets in Paris.
Murray had deep admiration for French culture and the French language. Let’s talk about his 1950s lectures in Morocco, delivered in French while he was serving in the Air Force, which were also his first public statements on jazz. Murray says in one of those lectures that jazz demonstrates “the necessity of continuous creation in a perpetually oppressive and unstable world.” By the time this talk appears in the book, we’re used to Murray referring to jazz as something that is both idiomatically American and universal. The series of talks he gave in 1956 and 1958 were well-attended. Do you think jazz is the first American expression or product to go global? How does it figure into America’s postwar influence?
Jazz is not the first American cultural creation to go global — look at Whitman, Poe, and Emerson. Jazz reached global audiences by the 1920s, but was used as propaganda by the U.S. State Department from the mid-1950s through the 70s. There have been several books about this — the big one is Satchmo Blows Up the World by Penny von Eschen (Harvard UP, 2004). I recently published a peer-reviewed article, “Jazz Autobiography and the Cold War,” on the way that the influence of the Cold War seems to have shaped key texts in the tradition of jazz autobiography. Those propaganda tours had a whirlwind of complex motives behind them, but they were not all bad all the time: a lot of people behind the Iron Curtain and in the so-called third world got to hear a lot of great live music and plenty of jazz musicians got paid well. For musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, the tours helped to offset the prohibitive costs of running a big band. And of course, many musicians got to hear a lot more sounds than they would have heard otherwise. Who knows, perhaps Ellington’s Far East Suite and Latin American Suite may not have been composed if he had not jammed with local musicians in places like Baghdad and Montevideo. Overall, the tours were, as people like to say, “problematic,” but just about everyone involved was well aware of that from the get go. It all got going shortly after Gillespie gave an impromptu concert in Greece, which helped to calm student unrest in spring 1956. It wasn’t part of a coherent, subtle, clandestine strategy, like the C.I.A.’s well-documented support for literature (or support for literary journals in order to provide cover for operatives) — the jazz/propaganda machine was thoroughly improvised, and full of contradictions. Following Gillespie’s concert in Greece, the State Department soon launched a massive program featuring Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and many others. By 1962, Brubeck and his wife, Iola satirized these propaganda tours in their musical The Real Ambassadors, which starred Louis Armstrong (and which features some beautiful, non-satirical songs), who nevertheless made an album called Ambassador Satch.
Murray’s early lectures in Morocco, delivered in French and sponsored by the U.S. Information Service, preceded Gillespie’s 1956 concert by a few months. Murray doesn’t seem to have done any in 1957. They picked up again in 1958. Maybe he did a half dozen altogether. It’s kind of funny, and also kind of cool that his first public statement on jazz — his first public nonfiction statement in general — was in French, when he always emphasized jazz as a cultural contribution of the United States. Murray’s lectures may have been the very first official attempt to use jazz for diplomacy. Their specific goal was to improve relations between the U.S. Air Force and the locals. Flyers for the lectures were printed in French and Arabic. Incidentally, despite the success of Murray’s well-attended lectures — he received enthusiastic letters of commendation from American diplomats and superior officers, including a general — they did not help his Air Force career or his writing career at all. He probably should have been sent to lecture around the world. He was an enthralling speaker! But he also didn’t have a book out yet — another long story. Imagine a scenario in which he’d been sent to lecture all around North Africa and the Middle East, drawing bigger crowds all the time. Who knows — maybe history would have turned out differently.
As we gather from the conversations collected in Murray Talks Music, we know Murray could really tell a story and communicate. He could improvise in conversation like it was nothing. There’s this great conversation between Loren Schoenberg, Stanley Crouch and Murray that was recorded on a WKCR radio show in New York and which you’ve published for the first time. It’s an enormously rich conversation, and one truly receives an understanding of who Murray was, what his humor was like, and how he interacted with colleagues who were decades his junior. What’s the wider significance this interview holds for the study of Ellingtonia?
Aside from containing a treasure trove of information and a variety of valuable perspectives on different moments in Ellington’s career, as well as intriguing glosses on specific works, it models the level of rigor that must be brought to study of his life and work. It features three world-champion quick wits and unparalleled Ellington experts, so it’s really special. It’s like the combination, in the old west, of being fast on the draw and having aim. I’m grateful that Loren and Stanley gave their permissions for the conversation to be included in the book. Stanley recently won the Windham-Campbell Award, by the way, and it is well-deserved. Profound scholarship and depth was and has long been out there in Ellington studies, in the work of Mark Tucker, Harvey Cohen, Maurice Peress, and many others. Ellington’s work, like that of Ralph Ellison, Wallace Stevens, and plenty of others, attracts top scholars. But hacks, like the blues, will always be back, and so, vigilance in defense of reputations — especially those of black artists, especially when it looks like fair play and historical accuracy has gone out the window in the interest of demoting their reputations — is always needed. Hacks often try to exert downward pressure on the reputations of the great: look at the recent backlash against Joan Didion. Soon — bet on it — there will be an essay called “Hear Me Out — Maybe Marilynne Robinson Isn’t That Good? [Ducks]” on some literary website. You’ll be pitched it in the near future. Haha. Watch. People will gasp and get mad and debate it, and so on. The same people who liked to play hall monitor in grade school often like to do the same thing on the literary-cultural internet. But I suppose it is not just a feature of the internet: Delmore Schwartz published an attempted takedown of Hemingway in Southern Review in 1938. Then there was James Baldwin’s essay on Richard Wright. There are many other examples. But the click economy, and the need to drum up outrage and debate on a daily basis, leads to more of that kind of thing. Yet it’s slightly different with Ellington: there has been an effort to undermine him ongoing since the 1940s. The anti-Ellington stuff a few years ago was disconcerting, as I describe in my introduction, but it was a rehash of a similar thing in 1987. And the fact that they keep trying is a testament to his achievement. Imagine the amount of bullshit he had to endure in order to see his grand artistic vision come to life over six decades? That’s the story, a heroic story, that an editor should want to sign up.
Why are Ellington and Armstrong so important to Murray? Are they deserving of being considered the best American artists?
I’d say Armstrong and Ellington are among the most important artists in all of human history. I don’t think they need any qualifiers. To qualify their achievements would be like saying Tiepolo was one of the best painters of his day, in Italy, or later Spain, where he moved for commissions. Take a look at Roberto Calasso’s book Tiepolo Pink (2011). Or, it would be like saying “Michelangelo was a really good sculptor — for the first half of the sixteenth century, at least.” It doesn’t sound right. Don’t get me wrong: critics and scholars should use their knowledge and judgment to make fine distinctions and qualifications, but a few artists are just beyond all that. Armstrong and Ellington are among the few artists to whom “of all time” can fairly be appended. Murray liked to say that Armstrong’s and Ellington’s contributions to the language of jazz were analogous, respectively, to the contributions of Chaucer and Shakespeare to English literature. Incidentally, I don’t think that Chaucer, with his court sinecures and whatnot, was much like Armstrong in real life, but Ellington’s real similarities with Shakespeare are myriad and uncanny. Yet Ellington’s music in a sense comprises a vaster universe than Shakespeare’s plays (which inspired Ellington and Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder). Jo Jones was right when he said (in Rifftide) that it could take 200 years to fully appreciate Ellington’s music and that we haven’t even gotten to the surface yet! When he said that, in the 1970s, most of Ellington’s scores — the sheet music for hundreds or probably thousands of pieces — were unavailable. Todd Stoll, of Jazz at Lincoln Center, recently told me how Jazz at Lincoln Center led the effort to make these scores available, and has donated 200,000 copies to high school music programs. Incidentally, the opinion of someone like Jo Jones on Ellington should be taken as seriously as Mozart’s opinion of Handel.
When we consider the significance of these musicians, whose music composes the very soul of this nation, we really need to re-train our ears to hear just how revolutionary their sound was. I mean, the synthesis, the originality, the swing; it’s unprecedented in human history.
Maybe some people need to re-train their ears and some people don’t, depending on the breadth of their musical exposure and education (formal or informal). Sometimes listening to jazz, for someone raised entirely on later music, requires an adjustment, or listening from another angle maybe. The rise of the backbeat in popular music kind of parallels the rise of the automobile, especially after World War II. Rock and rap sound really good in moving cars. In the 1991 comedy King Ralph, in which John Goodman plays an American slob who inherits the British throne, his character notes that in the doo wop song “Duke of Earl,” the “Duke, Duke, Duke” plays in tandem with a car passing lane dividers on the highway at 55 miles per hour. Incidentally, the tune was sampled by Cypress Hill around that time. There should be a book on the doo wop roots of hip hop, in which the preceding example would only be a footnote. An example can be made with that tune’s lyrics, but it’s really about the backbeat, which is aurally addictive and attractive, seeming to fit with contemporary motion and affect. In the 1960s and 70s Ellington experimented with the backbeat as well. I like both beats. So does Christian McBride — one of the great musicians of our time.
Big bands got to swinging the blues idiom statement in the 1920s and kept it up for a few decades afterwards. What was the inspiration for the fully orchestrated blues idiom statement? How did the sound that originated in the South become the soundtrack to life in northern urban centers?
I don’t know if the geographical divide means too much here. These things are mysterious. Nobody played the blues better than or had more natural feeling for it than Johnny Hodges, who was from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve heard a certain jazz paradox pointed out many times over the years, (and I’m forgetting where I picked it up from), but many would agree that Hodges had an easier knack for playing the blues than say, Coleman Hawkins, who was from Missouri, where perhaps you’d expect a musician to have a closer relationship to the blues. It’s a good old American paradox. The fully orchestrated blues idiom statement — say, a big band jazz arrangement done right, as Ellington and Strayhorn and many others did hundreds if not thousands of times, is often an onomatopoeic impression of a train: the rhythm section approximates the wheels and the train’s whistles are heard in the brass and wind instruments. A lot of people don’t realize that. Murray spells all this out in Stomping the Blues as nobody had come close to before, but there is plenty of evidence going back at least to the 1930s that this is how artists such as Ellington and Basie were conceptualizing their music. Take a look at this early 1930s clip of Ellington at 1:16:31 in the outstanding documentary Bluesland (which features Murray and blues scholar Robert Palmer as commentators). Before reading Murray I already had an idea about locomotive onomatopoeia through “The JB’s Monaurail,” which I learned about through EPMD’s “Let the Funk Flow.” As good as “The JB’s Monaurail” is, it is kind of simple compared to Ellington’s explorations (which are diverse, reflecting many different types of trains, yet are only one aspect of his enormous oeuvre). There were several levels of train imagery in African American culture during Murray’s youth in the 1920s and beyond: the metaphorical freedom train (the Underground Railroad), the metaphysical gospel train (to Heaven), the train as communication network, as the porters transmitted news between black communities, and the actual train as a method of transportation out of the south and/or within the south and elsewhere, and not always for a fee, if you could “catch an armful” of it (as Ellison did to get from Oklahoma City to Tuskegee for the first time). For some good books with different perspectives on this, take a look at Kevin Young’s essay collection The Grey Album and Joel Dinerstein’s study Swinging the Machine.
This is the second book about jazz that you’ve edited. What is your background within the genre?
Studying on my own is part of what led me to Murray, but my education in jazz mostly comes through Murray and Michael James (1942-2007), who was Ruth Ellington’s son and Duke Ellington’s nephew, and was a jazz historian and a thoroughly informed “underground” intellectual of the sort who once populated Manhattan. Through Duke, he was also like a nephew to Murray, and Murray put me in touch with him in early 2002. Mike was famous for his late-night phone calls. If you wanted to learn about say, the genealogy of the trumpet from Roy Eldridge through Freddie Hubbard from 1am-2am on a Tuesday morning, Mike could oblige. Or, he would call you at that time to tell you about it, even if that topic was not of pressing concern to you at that moment. Haha. He could also tell you what it was like to hang out with Cootie Williams on tour in the late 50s, or what it was like watching Teo Macero in the studio. Unfortunately, he never wrote anything down. He could have been anything he wanted — a writer, a professor, anything — but he was a man of leisure. Perhaps he was like a learned English country squire — but the native New Yorker version. He was kind of a melancholy guy in that he had a longing for the lost jazz world he grew up in. But he also had a good, idiosyncratic sense of humor and a wry perspective on current events. He’d say “we’re living in Balzac’s Paris, Paul!” That was say, 2005. Imagine what he’d think now! I learned so much from him about Ellington, and also about Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Paul Gonsalves, Jo Jones, and so many others. But he had comprehensive knowledge about other topics too, especially American history and literature. Mike introduced me to Clark Terry, a mentor (his childhood trumpet teacher, until health precluded Mike from continuing) and lifelong friend, and almost got me a job driving for him. Mr. Terry ended up hiring one of his own former students, so that made more sense. Still, I’m grateful for having chatted with him a few times, in our interview and elsewhere. Anyway, I tried to make my jazz collection mirror Mike’s and Murray’s. And I read the jazz books they pointed me to. But I’ve studied a lot on my own. I did an enormous amount of background research for Rifftide. I learned a lot from talking with master drummer Michael Carvin. I’ve had extensive and fascinating conversations over the years with all sorts of musicians and critics. My academic specialization is in twentieth century American literature, particularly African American literature (and I also have expertise in nineteenth century American literature), but I admire the old eclectic New York intellectual tradition of knowing a lot about a lot: film, painting, sports, politics, history, business. You never know who knows what, and no credential can really tell you once and for all, and so you have to listen, and not assume.
You came up in the rap era, so did you have to retrain your ears to get into jazz?
In general, I suppose I first got into jazz and other earlier music through rap samples. Yet I was always somehow vaguely attracted to the big band sound — through old movies, or newer movies about World War II, I guess. I was too young to know anything about the big band revival in the 80s. But I was conscious of Tony Bennett’s comeback in the early 90s and I somehow appreciated it on some level. When I really started listening to jazz, it was not Ellington and Armstrong, but late Coltrane. I liked Pat Metheny too, and Bob James. I’m talking about when I was in high school, circa 1997. Simultaneously, I was really into James Brown and the JBs. I’d go to see Maceo Parker. I tried to check out works sampled by the producers I liked: Pete Rock, RZA, DJ Premier, KRS. Pete Rock gave an interview in the early 90s and admonished young people to check out old music. I kind of took that to heart, as I was going in that direction anyway. This was what they called the crate-digging era — producers were hunting for samples in old music. Anyway, I got into Ellington and Armstrong and Basie around the time I started reading Ellison and Murray, and it all clicked with me instantly. It was what I had been looking for. To your point, I don’t think Ellington, Armstrong, and Basie (and Benny Carter and Jimmy Lunceford and Mary Lou Williams) do not or should require a “retraining” of late Gen X or Millennial ears. But I suppose, as I said above, it depends on the background of the individual. And knowing where to start is important. I’d advise a kid today, if starting from scratch, to start with stuff made in modern studios (such as Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy or Satch Plays Fats or Ellington from the late 30s on), so they’d have an idea of what it perhaps sounded like in the 20s and early 30s, when the recording technology was not as good, when the bass could not be heard as well, and so on. Then, approach the earlier stuff. Up-tempo blues and swing is my thing. I’d suggest starting with something that swings hard, so that you understand what it is right way — the 1950s “Kinda Dukish/Rockin in Rhythm” medley with Quentin “Butter” Jackson’s trombone solo (at 3:48). I’ll give a few examples for someone who has had no exposure to this cosmos of music. The following is not even a cursory list, never mind comprehensive or definitive. Listen to Basie’s entire 1936-46 catalog. Basie’s “Every Tub” (1938) seems to contain the compressed future of the next fifty years of American music (from r&b to heavy metal), especially in the last minute. Check out Basie’s “The King,” or “Doggin’ Around,” or his signature numbers such as “One O’Clock Jump,” or his version of “Five O’Clock Whistle” (especially after the two-minute mark). Check out Ellington’s “Ko-Ko” from the 1950s Historically Ellington album (n.b., some knowledgeable people think it’s not as good as the original, but I just prefer to listen to it), “Body and Soul” from the album Duke Ellington’s Spacemen, and of course, the miraculous “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” from Newport in 1956. Knowing where to look is crucial. On the other hand, take McKinney’s “Cotton Pickers,” a top dance band of the late 20s and early 30s. I know it’s good and influential, but I can’t get into it. When I listen to it I continually reimagine what it could have sounded like a few years later, after Basie’s swing revolution. Now, that’s not the case with an immortal Armstrong piece from the 1920s, such as “King of the Zulus” or “Weatherbird” — either of which I could listen to over and over. I don’t think I’d tell a kid to start with “Potato Head Blues” or “West End Blues,” sublimity and canonicity notwithstanding. “King of the Zulus” seems underappreciated and underdiscussed to me. (I typed this before I knew that my acquaintance Ricky Riccardi, a top Armstrong scholar, led a band that did this tremendous cover). On the other hand, I love James Reese Europe’s music, which predates that by a decade. “Down Home Rag,” a hit of the 1910s, which jazz musicians stopped covering for some reason around 1940, is something I can listen to all day, and I’m always on the lookout for covers of it. (It was recorded widely from the 1910s through the 1930s.) I listen to “Down Home Rag” in the car. I also listen to Ellington from the 20s to 70s, along with Basie, Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams, Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, Mingus, and contemporary artists such as Ethan Iverson, Jaimeo Brown, David Murray, Aaron Diehl, Wycliffe Gordon, Vijay Iyer, Brandee Younger, and so on. But I also listen to Laura Nyro, 19th century Irish street songs, 17th century English songs like “Hey Ho to the Greenwood,” and Gilbert and Sullivan songs — among a zillion other things. I never had any formal or self-conscious “retraining.” Perhaps it’s a long process. Let’s compare this with old movies. I love to show students movies from the 30s through the 50s. Most have never seen anything from that period, but they’re fascinated and sometimes enthralled when they do (even though some express skepticism at first), because in general, it was a better era of movie making. It takes no retraining of the eyes. It only takes knowing what’s out there and where to look, along with some contextualization. All it takes is a conceptual leap beyond what’s forced on the consumer.
I want to address Richard Brody’s criticism of Murray that appeared on The New Yorker’s website under the headline “Albert Murray and the Limits of Critics with Theories,” which was tweeted to millions with the headline “Beware Critics with Theories.” The title is misleading, I think, because Brody goes on to say that Murray was not a critic. Did Murray wish to be perceived as a jazz critic? Was he opposed to avant-garde jazz of the late 60s and early 70s?
This is a long and complicated story, with a backstory. There is an idea out there, trotted out more than one might think, that Murray and Ellison didn’t like bebop. In a sense, it’s kind of a testimony to the power of their ideas that people get mad that they (think they) didn’t like something. Murray did in fact like bop — exponentially more than Ellison did — and Murray Talks Music makes that abundantly clear, in the Gillespie interview, in Appendix A (Murray’s canon of jazz arrangements), and elsewhere. Murray Talks Music highlights his appreciation of bop, but it was never a mystery and never possible for a truly attentive reader to think otherwise.
Richard Brody is a smart and idiosyncratic critic, but paradoxically, for such a independent thinker, his critique of Murray kind of comes off like the mad-libs version — fill in the template. Yet he also compared him to Barthes and Bazin, which is cool. I follow Richard’s work and often enjoy it. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s thoughtful. He wrote an excellent review of the 2014 exhibition of Ralph Ellison’s record collection, for which I was a curator and literary consultant, at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Brody was the only critic of his stature who paid any attention to the exhibition. I’m grateful for his interest and review. A week later he reviewed a documentary featuring Ellison called “Jazz: The Experimenters,” which Ellison pushed to get produced by National Educational Television and which aired in New York City and environs in 1965. Brody was once again one of the only critics to pay it any mind, but I think his review missed the big picture. I’ll explain. I unearthed this documentary, which as far as I could tell was last screened in 1995 at the Library of Congress. I hosted a screening of it (and other films featuring Ellison) at Maysles Cinema in Harlem in March 2014 as part of the Jazz Museum’s celebration of Ellison’s centennial. It was tied in with the exhibition. Brody did not attend the event at Maysles. He went to the Jazz Museum and watched it privately, so he didn’t hear my contextualizing introduction. Ellison was on the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which advocated the creation of public television system in the United States, and issued a book-length report on its findings (published as a mass-market paperback!). Ellison was one of the most high-profile/high-prestige advocates for public television and probably (along with James B. Conant) the most famous person on the Commission, which included several university presidents, leaders of industry, a concert pianist, a diplomat, and a labor leader. So, in the spirit of jump-starting public television, Ellison becomes the driving force behind one of the earliest public television documentaries, “Jazz: The Experimenters,” featuring the Cecil Taylor Quartet, and the Charles Mingus Ensemble, performing at the Village Gate. Ellison and the jazz scholar Martin Williams provided commentary. Ellison showcases the music of Taylor and Mingus, then explains in the most diplomatic and careful way (while quickly surveying the history of jazz) that while this is the new thing, he is not that into it, and he could especially do without the critics who fawn over it — because he fears it might end up obscuring a deeper, richer tradition. In a sense, he’s not criticizing the musicians, so much as the critics. Here is one of the key things Ellison had to say. Right or wrong or somewhere in between, it deserves to be taken seriously because of his experience and expertise:
Any critic from outside this tradition must of necessity fall back upon his own values and thus he may be unprepared to interpret what he has heard, even though he might himself be a trained musician, for he is likely to confuse the motives of jazz with those of classical European music. It has been such outsiders, well-meaning to a man, who sponsored the false-consciousness of the new experimentalism in jazz. They were also promoters for the cult of intellectuals who imposed their romanticism on the new jazz much as the early pioneers had imposed their own romanticism upon the figure of the American Indian. Now, beneath this romanticism, and beneath all experiments lies a reality of life and experience which nourishes the beginning of jazz and will continue to nourish its future life. It is this reality, notwithstanding European serious or respectable touchstones, which will provide the true standards of its validity.
(That’s my transcription. It was never published). Then, fifty years later, Brody overlooks these comments, yet asks why Ellison “despised” modern jazz and suggests Ellison couldn’t finish his second novel because he was tormented by modernity (an odd thing to say about the author of Invisible Man). (I published a theory of why Ellison did not finish it. I also respect the compelling theories of Michael Szalay and Barbara Foley. I think the truth was probably a combination of causes outlined by me, Szalay, and Foley — and the differences between our theories and previous ones is that ours are based on painstaking engagements with texts, not psychobabble speculation.) But the bigger point here, I think, is that Ellison was the prime mover of the program itself, thus capturing Taylor, Sunny Murray, Mingus, et al., on film in that moment. Ellison put Cecil Taylor on TV in 1965 playing the piano as a string instrument. The piece he performs is titled “Octagonal Skirt and Fancy Pants.” Taylor explains his perspective. I think it’s an extraordinary artifact and I think Brody’s skewed representation of it probably stopped people from going to the Jazz Museum to see it. (It was available to be viewed every day for several months.) I have anecdotal evidence that it made an impact when aired. This was pre-cable. It went to millions of households. Albert Murray, by the way, is in the credits as a consultant for the three documentaries Ellison made or pushed to get made that year. (Of the other two, one was on Dizzy Gillespie and one was on Ellison himself.) Murray and Ellison were present at the creation of public television. Such artifacts should be understood in their own contexts instead of being put on trial fifty years later. The interesting point, the reason I tracked the film down (a long story and huge effort, for which Brody gives me no credit), and the reason the National Jazz Museum in Harlem paid for a license to show it as part of its celebration of Ellison’s centennial, is not to say “look upon Ellison’s sacrosanct opinions, ye mighty, and despair,” but to highlight it as a prismatic artifact of a moment, through which Ellison, Taylor, Sunny Murray, Mingus, and Williams — along with jazz criticism, jazz’s reception, public television, mass culture, and so on — can all be studied and appreciated in context. Incidentally, as Brody notes (and as Arnold Rampersad documents in his biography of Ellison), Ellison and Williams had a falling out shortly after this production, because Williams felt Ellison was just too stodgy and standoffish toward new music, but Williams and Albert Murray went on to work very closely together on jazz projects at the Smithsonian throughout the 1970s — I think that says something about the difference between Ellison and Murray on later jazz.
That’s the backstory behind his criticism of Murray?
Yup, well, that’s where he was coming from in his essay on Ellison, with whom he conflates Murray far too much. I’ve written a handful of negative or mixed book reviews and I’ve received a few mixed reviews. People have replied to me, and I know it’s tempting to reply. Normally I never would, but since you asked, there is something especially odd about his review and there is a larger point to be made about the angle it’s coming from. Brody said Murray was not really a jazz critic. Fair enough. I mentioned to him on Twitter that indeed, he’s right, Murray did not want to be considered a jazz critic: he never reviewed a performance or an album. Murray discussed this very point with me. He wasn’t a work-a-day critic. He did see himself as a critic in the sense of being a mediator between a work of art and the uninitiated — but that’s not what Brody meant, and I get it. What I was most annoyed with, more so than the piece itself, was the social media headline, which was “Beware Critics with Theories,” (but then, of course, he says Murray was not a critic). The headline “Beware Critics with Theories,” with a big photo of Murray, then goes out to millions on social media and can be read, subtly, if quickly scrolling, as “Beware: Murray.” The piece was strange in a variety of ways, from its version as originally published being constructed around a misattributed quote (said by Ellison, not Murray, which I pointed out to Brody) to its stumbling over its own logic, to feeling somewhat more hostile in its second published version, despite Richard’s generous comments on Twitter, where he offered extensive, kind praise for Murray and the book. I think the piece is fascinating because it is reflective of a lot of ambivalence out there about Murray from the age group for which the avant-garde was new and exciting. I told Brody thanks for paying attention, and for his nice comments, and I mean that. The day his piece came out was the day of a panel at the Jazz Museum for the book’s release, and I invited him to join us for a friendly debate. He had other plans, but he knew he would have been warmly welcomed to debate.
What was Murray’s problem with the avant-garde?
In general, Murray thought the avant-garde in jazz sounded too European — in other words, he thought it didn’t swing the blues. But there are major exceptions. Murray owned a bunch of truly avant-garde 1970s jazz records (for research, I think, more than for enjoyment) and followed European art music. He was friends with René Liebowitz, a mentor to Pierre Boulez, and followed Boulez’s career closely. His critics seem to never stop and think “maybe he was wary of the avant-garde because he was listening for something that I’m missing, or maybe I’m listening to the wrong thing because of ideology.” I guess that did happen to some bright young critics in the 1970s. But the position of some critics (not Brody) of his writings on music, who, incidentally, rarely if ever address his writings on topics other than music, is often stale, boring, utterly predictable, tied up with dislike of the Wynton Marsalis of 1990 (whose diverse and prolific work of the last twenty years they tend to ignore) and is also tied up with the idea that music that is aurally unpleasant is somehow politically and morally correct because of the way it sounds. That’s another iteration of the puritan morality that has been diffusing and replicating itself in this country for hundreds of years. They’ll apply lower case c “conservative” to a thinker like Ellison or Murray in order to try to associate such a thinker with American political conservatism. Such guilt-by-association word gaming is not an intellectual activity. But it could be a conscious strategy. People read Murray for the first time and then tell me, “wow, I’d thought he was a conservative! I had it all wrong.” (Murray explains his relationship to the word “conservative” in Murray Talks Music, by the way.) Somebody will write that “Murray’s taste in jazz was conservative” and then it becomes “Murray . . . was conservative.” It’s like a gag you’d see on The Simpsons – with the Twilight Zone spoof with the aliens and the cookbook? – but somehow it happens in real life. Their definitions of conservative are all out of whack, and to me, suggest hostile intention. So he was a conservative because he didn’t want to see blues idiom music — and all the black history contained therein — disappear? Because he wanted it conserved along the lines of European art music? The disingenuous language games are exasperating. I should note that even if he had been a political conservative, he’d still be worth reading, just as Edmund Burke is worth reading. But I worry that the label scares people off. Some people take shortcuts and others don’t. Searching for some kind of arbitrary purity in taste is an anti-intellectual activity. But getting back to Murray’s critics from a free-jazz perspective: a lot of his critics are boomers who got something out of the avant-garde when it was new in the 60s and 70s and have an emotional attachment to it, and that’s understandable. And they were also engaged with their own struggle with their parents’ generation. But part of the idea behind jazz repertory — I think — was to separate classic jazz from nostalgia — “boy, the way Glenn Miller played . . .” — and so on. Nobody has nostalgia for the court of the Esterhazys or London under Queen Anne. “All jazz is modern” is the motto of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The motto is not “gee whiz, the 40s were fine.” And yet every tune is placed in historical context prior to being played on stage, in concerts broadcast live on the internet, for free. And certainly, the history of jazz does not end with Lincoln Center. But perhaps a lot of historical jazz did not end because of Lincoln Center. I think that’s a crucial distinction.
We can still read and admire our greatest writers without condemning them just because their opinions don’t align with our own sentiments.
One would hope. It’s even worse when a writer or philosopher didn’t even share the sentiments of those misreading him or her, yet gets lumped with his or her misinterpreters anyway. That’s happened to Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze at various times. Let me illustrate another example, going back to my early point. A.J. Liebling, one of history’s first media critics (and perhaps the most incisive one yet) and one of the finest war correspondents, is also recognized as one of the giants of food writing. But he didn’t like pizza — he was appalled by its burgeoning popularity in the 1950s. I can find that amusingly quaint, which I do, while also understanding why he felt that way. I disagree with him. I like pizza, but it doesn’t stop me from reading him and learning from him on many non-pizza related topics. You might find the ways or peculiar opinions of an older professor or older relative amusingly quaint (even admire them as such), but still recognize his or her special perspective and knowledge. To do otherwise would be intellectually irresponsible. Incidentally, all some people know about Liebling is that he turned a few boxing trainers into one composite character, and think of that as something to get self-righteous about. Same with Joseph Mitchell. That’s the standard alibi for not reading both of them. I think it reflects an uninteresting and, to be frank, somewhat crazed ex post facto moralism. Obviously, giving these guys — writers of unsurpassed talent — some leeway was The New Yorker’s m.o. at the time, in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. This is not to suggest that I don’t appreciate Jill Lepore’s fascinating and important recent research on Mitchell — a scholarly triumph.
As I note above, I like plenty of music Murray didn’t or wouldn’t like. I love Dave Brubeck’s music. Murray didn’t care for his music at all. He had valid aesthetic reasons — I don’t think his dislike of Brubeck is quaint in any way. He thought Brubeck sounded a little too sleek. Yet despite enjoying most of the music Murray also enjoyed, Brubeck’s music sounds good to me. Jazz at Lincoln Center did a big tribute to Brubeck a few years ago. (Carlos Henriquez’s arrangement of Take Five for a big band was magnificent.) Murray’s personal taste never was the end of the story there — sometimes it wasn’t part of the story at all. But my takeaway from knowing this is that if I were to design a history of jazz syllabus or curriculum, even informally, I wouldn’t make Brubeck central. I wouldn’t put Brubeck above or before Ellington — but neither would Brubeck, who, like Monk and Mingus, adored Ellington! Incidentally, Wittgenstein’s lectures and notes on aesthetics are essential here. They can clear a lot of things up. Wittgenstein felt ethics and aesthetics were inexpressible through metaphor. My master’s thesis, in 2004, was a reading of Hemingway’s late work through Wittgenstein’s late work (which also took into account parallels in their early work). For Wittgenstein, long and careful study of a cultural form makes one an appreciator — the internal logic of a form reveals itself, and true appreciators assess creative works through commentary on specific, formal aspects: not with political or sociological caveats, or resort to metaphor. You can see this happen in real time with someone like, say, Tim Gunn — he’ll make a snap decision, based on a vast reservoir of knowledge about fashion and say, this hem is too long here, or this sleeve isn’t right. Wittgenstein makes a similar point. He says, in effect, if I want a cloak like a certain African tribe wears, and I know the idiom, the only way I can explain it to the cloak maker is through measurements or specific physical details — details observed over a long period or over a short period of time with exceptional attentiveness. Saying “I want a cloak that symbolizes the glory of tribe x” would not mean anything to the cloak maker. Yinka Shonibare has done marvelously playful things and presented multilayered critiques through playing with fashion’s idioms, but that can only be accomplished through the deep study he put in. I can decide in a few seconds if a rapper is worth listening to — an inspiring life story or political opinions don’t enter the equation. Jazz experts do this all the time. They can instantly hear if something is off. Italo Calvino says, in his essay “Why Read the Classics?,” that someone who has read the classics will instantly recognize the place of a new classic in the family tree.
We know there is a significant strain of anti-intellectualism in this country. I wonder how this affected Murray when he first tried to get his material out into the world. You mentioned earlier, with regard to his lectures on jazz in Morocco in the 1950s, that the military should have sent Murray around the world to discuss jazz. Yet he didn’t publish a book until 1970. Was there a particular low point in his career, or did he just get out of the military and begin writing and never looked back? If there was a low point, how did he use his philosophy of the blues to his advantage? When did Murray fail, Paul?
Maybe by not becoming president? Haha. Not that he ever had political ambition. I don’t think he ever failed as a writer. I don’t think there’s a single piece of writing by him that can be classified as a failed piece. That’s not to say I share all of his concerns at all times or think he necessarily made the best decision at every turn — though he usually did. As a writer, he missed opportunities on occasion and perhaps there are moments in which he did not phrase things as well as he could have. But I don’t believe in keeping such scorecards for writers. Yet there’s so much he knew about that he never wrote about. I asked him why. He said he had said just about everything he wanted to say in print. In conversation he’d offer impromptu seminars on a wide variety of topics. But to your point, I don’t think he ever stumbled in a published work. He had a heck of a hard time getting his fiction published prior to his career in nonfiction. This had nothing to do with questions of quality. His style was nearly fully-formed by 1953. A short story he published in 1953 — his first and only between then and 1969 — was later very widely anthologized in several high-quality anthologies. It had everything to do with politicized taste and the market.
What do you mean by that?
It’s easy to sell negative images of black people and difficult, apparently, to do the opposite. Enormous resources support the promotion of negative images. I’ll give you an example of what Murray was up against in the 1950s. An anonymous reader’s report commissioned by either a publisher or an agent said, in effect, we’re not interested in Murray’s assertive, educated, and/or positive black characters, but we do just love that scene when the white guy beats up the black guy. That moment is in his second novel (1991) and is the set up for an extended, subtle, and layered consideration of black power as exercised in the south prior to World War II — the anonymous reader couldn’t have liked that part either. Murray could have easily written what they’d wanted, but there was no way he was going to do that. Ellison satirized the propensity of well-to-do whites to fawn over lurid behavior by poor African Americans. This is the Trueblood chapter of Invisible Man. Sapphire picked up on this, took the very plot Ellison was satirizing, and got a bestselling book and critically acclaimed movie out of it. Percival Everett’s satire of Sapphire and Push (his novel Erasure) is more complex than even Ellison’s original and sophisticated satire of that kind of shucking. What’s the difference between the white financier and philanthropist Mr. Norton giving the sharecropper Trueblood $100 for his lurid story and Barbara Bush hosting a private screening of Precious? Murray has a riff on that kind of thing as well. In Train Whistle Guitar he has a black character, a sort of town fool, who mistakes a passing blimp for the Biblical “Ship of Zion,” and ends up well-compensated by the local whites for repeating the story and thus cementing an old minstrel stereotype.
So how did Murray start and then stop?
There was no market for Murray’s fiction. Though he got an excerpt from his novel-in-progress published in 1953, the next excerpt had to wait until 1969 and then the novel had to wait until 1974. He got a lucky break, through Ellison, in finding a sympathetic editor in Arabel Porter at New World Writing, which published the excerpt. But New World Writing didn’t take a subsequent excerpt.
I explore the ideologies of taste and markets for African American literature in my doctoral dissertation in detail. The stalled beginning of Murray’s career coincides with the nadir of Zora Neale Hurston’s career and the upswing in their reputations were almost exactly parallel (of course, Hurston was deceased and Murray was a larger than life personality, working hard, but the parallel movement is not difficult to discern). The important point is that a wide market for their idiomatically rendered black characters didn’t emerge until after 1965. After years of neglect, stories by both of them appeared in John Henrik Clarke’s groundbreaking anthology American Negro Short Stories in 1966 (this is before Alice Walker’s enormous efforts led to the permanent reestablishment of Hurston’s reputation). From say, 1960-65, it would have been exceptionally difficult to locate copies of their works in print. And I should emphasize that Murray only had one story in print. I’m not saying it’s exactly comparable. In the 50s, Hurston had trouble finding copies of her books from the 30s and 40s. Incidentally, Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Me” and “Art and Such” are clear precursors of Murray’s thought. Murray told me he’d read her fiction, but I don’t think he read her essays. “Art and Such,” written in 1938, was published much later. But Murray knew Hurston in the 1920s, when he was ten or eleven. She was hanging out in his neighborhood collecting folklore and interviewing neighborhood elder Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors from the slave ship Clotilde, then in his 80s. She filmed him and I think she may have filmed Murray as well. Anyway, around this time the Cochrane Bridge was being built just outside Mobile. Hurston was also collecting folklore from the workmen and Murray and a few buddies were working as gofers — for a little summer job or something, getting water and such for the crew. So, he knew her from the neighborhood and from the job site. I wish he’d written about it!
Hurston struggled against societal and economic pressures while pursuing her art. And yet she left us a colossal treasure of work behind describing black life. She’s about as idiomatic as a writer can get.
Indeed. She is the true pioneer of the idiomatic in African American literature, along with Rudolph Fisher. But there were political pressures as well. For instance, Hurston remained a Republican at a time when many African Americans were finding the Democrats more responsive, especially after Truman integrated the military. Truman was Murray’s favorite president for that reason, followed by LBJ and FDR. But Hurston opposed integration. She opposed the Brown decision. And the big book she was working on, after the tepid reception of her white-life novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, was on King Herod. One is reminded, upon reading her letters from this period, of John Barrymore’s character in Twentieth Century, and his grand scheme to save his career by producing the Passion Play, with sand imported from the Holy Land. Perhaps with financial support her book could have been another masterpiece. Hurston had flaws, like any writer, but her biggest problem, career-wise, was that in the 1930s she was forty years ahead of her time. She died penniless because of a combination of race prejudice, class prejudice, gender prejudice and bad taste in literature by many critics of the day. Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is one of the greatest achievements in American literature. In 1960 there were few if any copies to be had. By 1980, it had sold a bazillion copies. By 1990, who knows. It’s still a juggernaut. Like Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, it’s never going to go away.
The early arc of Murray’s career from 1953-1966 is like a (very) miniature version of Hurston’s. He had a finished typescript of his first novel in 1951. He published an excerpt in a prominent anthology, New World Writing 4 in the fall of 1953. It had two print runs: 100,000 copies to start, then another 40,000 a few weeks later. It also featured work by Gore Vidal and Borges, among many other prominent writers. It was read and it circulated. Sterling Brown discussed it approvingly in a lecture in Atlanta the following year, yet Brown was not on Murray’s advance copy list and there is no correspondence between Murray and Brown (though Murray did sign a book for Brown years later). A professor at the college where Brown gave the talk wrote Murray a note to inform him of it. (She was an alumna of Tuskegee who addressed Murray as “Dear Murray” – military style.) My point is that it circulated to a figure like Brown, who discussed it on his lecture circuit. It was becoming part of the discourse (as the kids say) – not bad for a short story. Yet Murray get traction. He wouldn’t get another excerpt published until 1969 and he couldn’t get a version of the book published until 1974 — when he already had two critically acclaimed books to his name — one of which, South to a Very Old Place, had been a finalist for the National Book Award in the Arts and Letters category. The critical success of South to a Very Old Place led directly to the contract for his novel. That’s a fact. I’d had a hunch about it for a long time and recently confirmed it. The Omni-Americans paved the way for South, which paved the way for Train Whistle Guitar. The first excerpt from what became Train Whistle Guitar appeared in many anthologies in the late 60s and early 70s, including one edited by Toni Cade Bambara in 1971, Tales and Stories for Black Folks. Toni Morrison reviewed it in the New York Times and focused on Murray’s story. Even a positive assessment by Toni Morrison in the New York Times couldn’t generate publisher or agent interest!
I know you’ve been deeply studying this for a while, but I don’t think it can be overstated just how much the market at that time shaped what is decided as “canonical” and representative of the American experience. What led you to looking into these problems?
But what creates the market? Politics, racism, the desire to perpetuate particular ideologies, and so on. In my dissertation I explore all this through the intricate and subtle questions raised by Kenneth Warren in his widely-debated book What Was African American Literature? (2011). This is all too complicated for this or any interview, but Warren argues that imaginative literature by African Americans in the 1890s-late 1960s is either “instrumental” or self-consciously “indexical” vis-a-vis segregation and the black political struggle: in other words, works of literature were instruments of protest or indexes of achievement, i.e. arguments for equality — or both. A lot of it is quite starched and/or quite grim, and often dealt with present day — the 1920s or 30s or whenever. It tended to elide slavery and Reconstruction. The grandfather in chapter one of Invisible Man signals (in my reading) a distinct break from what Gates and Gene Andrew Jarrett have called “the dehistoricized New Negro.” After the civil rights movement, a new literature embracing African American history and identity started to emerge and soon became the new trend. I argue that the earliest instances of this new literature, showing black life from the “inside” (as Hurston put it in “Art and Such”), came earlier, with Rudolph Fisher, Hurston, Ellison, and Murray.
Warren argues that of course imaginative literature would have been written if there had been no segregation. I argue that the writers listed two sentences back were writing the kind of fiction that might have been written had Reconstruction not been betrayed in 1877 (and that this writing has to do with a concern with aurality that literary modernism opened a path for). I’m arguing that theirs could resemble something like the hypothetical fiction Warren admits would have existed had Reconstruction been successful: a literature that deals with black life, culture, and history without being primarily concerned with segregation. Anti-Communism propelled Ellison to the bestseller list, but Invisible Man contains the new grammar, which is blues-idiom inflected. Warren calls Invisible Man the apotheosis of the “Negro novel” (designed to combat segregation) and in a sense he’s right, but like many apotheoses, it’s also a forerunner of the next movement at the same time. Like the works of Fisher, Hurston, and Murray, it looks to Reconstruction and slavery and beyond segregation at the same time. Anyway, it’s complicated and most of the critiques of Warren out there get it all wrong. My critique of Warren takes 20,000 words, but it’s a productive dialogue with his formidable book. There are other critiques to be made of the book. But many of the published ones aren’t serious or try to argue with the book without having read it attentively enough. I argue for an adjustment to his compelling periodization framework.
How did Murray deal with being a skilled and original writer, barred by cultural gatekeepers who were blinded by negative images of African Americans, even with the active help of Ralph Ellison (in the 1950s at least), who was a superstar of national stature?
Undoubtedly, Murray’s philosophy of the blues did help him persevere. He had a wonderful sense of humor, irony, and the absurd — all of which are among the ingredients of the blues perspective. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been, but surely it aided his groundbreaking reconceptualization of farce in The Hero and the Blues. The outrageous condescension of that reader’s report is a thing to behold. Ellison’s editor, the legendary Albert Erskine, read Murray’s fiction in the 1950s and called it too Faulknerian for his taste. That was not really a good or even adequate ballpark assessment, in my opinion, but it was politer than the reader’s report. Ashbel Green, another eminent editor, solicited the manuscript in 1964 after seeing Murray’s first nonfiction piece, in Life magazine. He didn’t sign it up. Erskine and Green were among the most sophisticated readers ever and were of friendly disposition toward Murray’s perspective on black life and history. Yet they didn’t sign up the book — it’s an extraordinary story of how publishing’s grandees were behind the curve. There were more rejections as well, from other prominent editors. They just didn’t know what to make of it. Murray was so far ahead of the market. Robert O’Meally wrote in his introduction to a 1989 edition of Train Whistle Guitar that while the book takes place in the 1920s, it is very much a novel of the 1970s — and yet, and I don’t think this was known in 1989 — it was more or less complete as of 1951! Yet it seemed like a novel of the 1970s, and the best editors of the 1950s and 60s, such as Erskine and Green, couldn’t see that far ahead. Imagine having a book that good and no takers? But Murray was a blue-steel philosopher — he made much of Hemingway’s “winner take nothing.” And at the time I’m generally talking about, the mid-to-late 1950s, early 1960s, he was a captain in the Air Force, in a happy marriage (1941 until his death in 2013). They had a talented daughter. There are worse things in life than not getting a novel published! He knew that. Also: he was on to a number of white liberals, especially cultural gatekeepers in New York, who also barred Hurston after a point. Maybe these setbacks helped him to perceive what was up and helped enable and propel the creation of The Omni-Americans: if so, then that’s antagonistic cooperation at work. When his first novel was published at last, in 1974, a number of white critics really disliked it (some were downright enraged by it) for its positive portrayals of black life and for characters unbroken by racism. Their reviews make for disconcerting reading today. There is some kind of poetic symmetry in that they thoroughly illustrated the racist blind spots that Murray said some white liberals had. They said absurd, insulting things in print, even as the novel garnered rave reviews from young black critics! For younger black writers, the book really hit home. Astounding letters and testimonials survive. I should add that better white writers — really, Omni-American writers, of course, loved it — Walker Percy and James T. Maher among them. It was McGraw-Hill’s Pulitzer Prize nomination in fiction for that year.
I think some of us see Ellison’s success, and what Hurston was able to do despite opponents coming out from the woodwork, and we might not even consider what could have been, who else could have written classic American texts and contributed to the dialogue. We’ve got to be made more aware of the industry-wide prejudice you’re talking about. You know as well as I do that a writer could be tempted to change his or her style to have a chance at making a living.
Well, it was a terrible time to be a writer concerned, to paraphrase Hurston again, with presenting black life on its own terms. Murray wasn’t going to alter his vision and sell out for any amount of money — and he had another opportunity to adjust his vision for money and success in the late 60s, before The Omni-Americans was published. He didn’t take it. The following statement pertains strictly to the publishing business and not to wider societal racism or other forms of oppression: it wasn’t a bad time to be Richard Wright or James Baldwin or Frank Yerby. They sold a lot of copies while Hurston’s and Fisher’s books were out of print and Murray’s draft languished in obscurity. Incidentally, as I mentioned above, it’s well known that the C.I.A., through a network of cultural organizations, supported a lot of different kinds of American writing, starting in the 1940s. But Murray did not benefit from that largesse at all. He had to fight his way into the literary world with hard-charging essays and reviews in The New Leader and such. He faced stern resistance. Ellison got him a magazine assignment or two early on, but had nothing to do with his book deals.
Yeah, I remember in the intro to Rifftide you were talking about how long it took to transcribe all that. That interview with John Hammond’s a hit. And it might be their only conversation recorded on tape. Is John Hammond the most important man in American music to never appear on stage? He seems to have embodied Murray’s thoughts on our Omni-Americanness.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the only recorded conversation between Murray and Hammond. They knew each other well by the time of the interview. Hammond appeared on stage as a host and whatnot, but to your point, yes, he’s probably the most important non-performer in the history of American music. Yes, he embodied the Omni-American concept perfectly — he recognized the centrality of African American culture to American culture and lived in terms of it. Another who recognized it was Lee Atwater (a blues musician, yet Hammond’s political antithesis). But Hammond lived in terms of it by using used his power and influence to advance equality and help break down barriers. Incidentally, his grandfather, John Henry Hammond, was one of Sherman’s subordinate officers during the Civil War. According to Murray, the painter Charles Alston (who was Romare Bearden’s cousin), was Hammond’s guide to Harlem in the late 1920s. They may have been students at Columbia together or something. It’s widely known that Hammond’s mother was a Vanderbilt, and heir to a fortune, but as Murray once told me, before Hammond was super well-known he still had entree into musical circles because people assumed he had something to do with the Hammond organ company.
Hammond’s musical taste seems broader than Murray’s, and despite his ancestry, perhaps less elitist. In addition to catapulting Basie and Billie Holiday into the big time, he is credited with playing crucial roles in the careers of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Aretha Franklin. Hammond branched out from jazz, yet Murray doesn’t seem to have . . .
Hammond branched out, but never gave up on jazz. Through at least the late 1970s he continued to produce and host television specials featuring jazz legends, many of whom were his close friends of several decades. But Murray had records by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown. He liked Curtis Mayfield’s music. Did you mean to imply Murray was an elitist?
Is it wrong to call Murray an elitist? I’ve seen other writers refer to him as such.
Yes, totally wrong. Murray was the most egalitarian person you could imagine. He was committed to a sort of Whitmanian, egalitarian dream of the early Republic. Credentialed status and dignitary status per se didn’t mean anything to him. He saw every person as an individual with particular merits. He also took lessons of myth and literature to heart: you never know who a stranger may be, the workings of society are more complex than you can grasp at any moment, you never know where something might lead — so don’t be a jerk, and always be ready to improvise. V.S. Naipaul notes, in his book A Turn in the South, that Murray lived in the same building as the doorman at his (Murray’s) club. He’d invite doormen to his book parties, where leading figures in American culture, business, and politics would also be. Murray liked to note that he and Ellison came out of Tuskegee Institute — an unlikely development, considering its reputation and curriculum at the time — and not Fisk University, the top black liberal arts school. Before Tuskegee Institute became Tuskegee University, it was more or less a trade school, especially when Ellison and Murray were there, in the 1930s. Everyone had to learn a trade. That was part of Booker T. Washington’s vision. Murray majored in Education, but the trade he studied was printing. Learning the trade meant a lot of courses in the trade and Murray did so. He was a thoroughly trained printer. Ellison majored in music, but that was considered a trade. Fisk, along with Morehouse, Howard, and others were far more prestigious than Tuskegee. Of course, Murray was being modest, as he and Ellison are not second to any writer who went to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and so on. How about that?! That’s a hell of an American story. Of course, Hemingway and Faulkner, didn’t go to college, but Ellison and Murray were also critics and theorists of the first order. With few exceptions, critics and theorists usually go to college, even if they drop out, like Kenneth Burke, and Ellison for that matter. R.P. Blackmur was self-taught. But these are big exceptions. Yet talent emerging from unexpected places reflects the possibilities of the United States at its best. Here’s another example: Murray was one of the best-dressed men in America for sixty years running. Vanity Fair missed the boat. How are you gonna name the best dressed man of the year and miss Murray every year? Ha! He was a man about town and not hard to locate, often appearing in the New York Times in the section of photos of high profile parties. He wasn’t prim or a dandy — he never over-dressed. The same sense of balance he enjoyed in art he also applied to his sartorial thinking. Yet despite his large and frequently updated wardrobe from Charlie Davidson’s Andover Shop and elsewhere, he’d be photographed in golf shirts, or sweaters worn over golf shirts. He was easy to be around. He was cool.
But was his taste elitist?
Since when is it elitist to like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald? They reached mass audiences! The litmus test givers and proscribers are the elitists. Authoritarians are the real elitists. It is also elitist to like the thing that nobody knows about yet and act like that’s somehow an achievement. You know the old cliché of late capitalist pseudo-bohemianism: I’m into this really obscure thing, you’ve probably never heard of it. Or: I was into whatever before it was cool. Murray never ever said anything like that. He’d tell people to go and read and listen to readily available works. Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, one of the most important texts in his life and thought, which he always recommended, was just as easily available as lesser works. Circa 2000 it had been out of print for decades, but Mann sold so well in his day that used copies abounded at The Strand and elsewhere. Incidentally, when I finished reading Joseph and his Brothers in 2002, Murray gave me a copy of Mann’s The Tables of the Law (1945 Knopf edition) — then a long out-of-print and more difficult to find coda of sorts to the Joseph tetralogy. But his attitude was never “oh, you have to track down the Tables of the Law first, because that’s the real deal.” At one point I was studying Joyce and wanted to see the edition of Ulysses with illustrations by Matisse, a copy of which was held by the Morgan Library. So, I went to see it. Beforehand, Murray said “tell me what it’s like and maybe I’ll go see it too.” He didn’t say oh yeah, I saw it before your parents were born. Or, no, don’t bother, you need to find the such and such edition — I saw it in Zurich in the 50s. If he had seen it he would have said so, but my point is he never felt a need to one-up anybody. But to your point about Dylan and Springsteen, and other poetic singer-songwriters — I don’t think he ever had anything against them per se. He wasn’t into that sort of music. But he dug it when Dylan played harmonica with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2004. Incidentally, Murray was a blues lyricist himself. Look at the “Aubades” section of Conjugations and Reiterations. Murray was born in the same decade as Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards (cf. Murray Talks Music), and Muddy Waters and grew up around Gulf Coast blues singers (whom he immortalized in his character Luzana Cholly) born around the time of Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt. He is a one hundred percent authentic bluesman from that era. If he hadn’t won scholarships to college in the dark days of the Great Depression, who knows, perhaps we’d be talking about him now as a blues singer, though perhaps he would have become an actor. Acting was his first vocation. By the way, he often said his favorite movie of all time was It Happened One Night. That’s perhaps the least elitist choice I can imagine!
Some might argue that radio had everything to do with why Ellington and Armstrong reached mass audiences as if the ubiquity of the technology–instead of the quality of the art–was responsible for their ascension.
Some might have no idea what they’re talking about. haha. Why Armstrong and Ellington then, and not a thousand of their competitors who are now forgotten? A glance into the history of the period reveals hundreds of artists and bands that never made it. The reason for the ascension of Ellington and Armstrong (and Basie) was in their music itself. Their sounds are distinctive and their innovations are specific. (Then, add in their admirable personalities and charisma.) When I say they reached mass audiences I guess what I also meant was that they had mass followings.
At unpredictable moments in history, sometimes fine art also becomes popular art. This happened in the twentieth century with jazz: it was fine art, but it reached a mass audience, at least during the swing era, and a sizable if not mass audience later on. That was the case with Shakespeare and the Globe Theater (not a “mass” audience exactly, but a real cross-section of society) — a lucky confluence of genius, subject matter, and audience. It’s a cliché that we’re living in a golden age of television. I think what is meant by that sentiment is that the format of the novelistic, serialized drama, starting with The Sopranos, more or less, is a form in which fine art is possible to attain while reaching a mass audience. A mini-series made from a novel, such as the extraordinary Lonesome Dove, is not quite the same thing. The Americans and Better Call Saul deserve much better ratings, but they still reach an exponentially larger audience than almost all novels. Game of Thrones is well made, if uneven, but is different from Lonesome Dove in that its extended length enables more of the books to make it on to the screen, that is to say, more of the novelistic elements or discourse appears on screen (like with the BBC’s recent adaptation of Bleak House).
So, imagine our golden age of television disappears and something else takes over — perhaps a show with one person doing some skilled but repetitive act — juggling while riding a unicycle in front of a white background for thirty minutes — “an accomplishment of an extremist in an exercise” (to once again quote Stevens). And imagine someone who is 30 today, but is 90 in that dystopian future, then writes a paean to the grandeur of shows with ensemble casts and witty dialogue and solid acting and intricate plots and sets and costumes, and someone comes along and calls that “elitist” because those shows needed producers, writers, makeup artists, cinematography, a certain kind of attention span, and so on. But how silly would the future person calling those shows elitist look to someone looking into a crystal ball, knowing that these shows reached every segment of society and enabled dialogue across an ever-stratifying society?
I hear you. Someone like Mann, a challenging writer for most to read, reached wide audiences in spite of what one might term his “difficulty.” Mann appears everywhere in Murray’s writings and conversations. Along with Joyce and Auden, Mann appears as an epigraph in South to a Very Old Place. How did Mann shape Murray’s intellectual development? (What’s with the “life’s delicate child” line in the Marsalis interview?)
Those epigraphs are heavy: from Finnegans Wake, Joseph and his Brothers, and “Journal of an Airman.” Each one points to the flexibility and malleability of identity. Joyce and Auden are right up there, but Mann was perhaps Murray’s singular most important influence, along with Hemingway and Faulkner. Murray explains in several interviews how it is through Mann that he discovered how to structure a work of fiction along the lines of a work of music, which informed his entire stylistic and structural approach to fiction. Murray mentioned that his life and thought were forever altered by Mann’s essay “The Coming Humanism,” which he read in The Nation in December 1938, and quickly followed with The Coming Victory of Democracy, before turning to his fiction. Incidentally, I wonder if Murray didn’t see a parallel between his admiration for Ellington and Mann’s admiration for Goethe. That’s one thing I’d like to ask Murray today (among many other things). Murray’s section on Mann in The Hero and the Blues is a mini-masterpiece — a few pages, yet worth a shelf of books.
“Life’s delicate child” refers to Hans Castorp, the protagonist of The Magic Mountain, but it can also apply to Joseph. Castorp and Joseph have different personalities, but both are thoughtful outcasts who learn to improvise. It’s hard to describe the immense grandeur of those novels, with their fine-tuned irony and world-historical wisdom. Unfortunately, Mann seems to be fading a bit today. I hope I’m wrong about that. His work got a boost in the 90s and early 2000s from the new and outstanding translations by John E. Woods. Helen T. Lowe-Porter, who went by H.T. Lowe-Porter, was Mann’s main translator into English in the 1930s and 40s. Susan Sontag mentioned it was a revelation when she found out the H. stood for Helen. Anyway, Lowe-Porter’s translations, which I think are wonderful (as English), were widely considered to be too old-fashioned sounding, too King James-esque maybe. I prefer The Magic Mountain by Woods and Joseph by Lowe-Porter, but both sets of translations are enjoyable for different reasons. For a fine introduction to Joseph, see Ruth Franklin’s 2005 review of the Woods translation in The New Republic.
I wish I could have known Murray. I’m so glad you included in your introduction a bit more information that rounded out Murray for us. You write — which is so vital — that Murray didn’t need to talk. Some writers just talk and talk and never write. Murray talked because he felt it was his responsibility to talk with younger writers. He never had to do that. Shit, Ellison was notorious for not often talking to younger writers. And Murray had other stuff to do! He was a writer, of course, but he was a family man, too, and he even enjoyed watching golf and baseball on television. What else did Murray enjoy doing during his free time?
Well, Ellison had that reputation, and from what I’ve heard he could seem distant, austere, and unapproachable, but he did talk to younger writers — Michael Harper, Stanley Crouch, Alan Cheuse, plenty of others. I think the historical record suggests Ellison was more of a phone user whereas Murray was more of an in-person talker. Ellison was on Amritjit Singh’s doctoral dissertation committee and Singh has recalled receiving postcards from Ellison saying “give me a call on such and such day and such and such time.” Ellison was far from reclusive, but clichés about distance seem to cluster around him, suggesting there may have been something to the idea of him being distant — but who knows. He certainly didn’t owe anybody anything. On this point I recommend a new essay, “Mourning and Melancholy: Explaining the Ellison Animus” by my friend Ross Posnock, a professor at Columbia and one of the towering figures in the study of American literature in the last few decades. Murray’s exchanges with younger writers, artists, and musicians seem to have been much different from Ellison’s: Murray’s exchanges seem to have been more relaxed, dynamic, and ongoing/extended. In other words, Ellison would talk to a young writer for an afternoon, but Murray would do so for a period of months or years. He was three years younger than Ellison but seemed to many people to be significantly younger. Murray trained to be a teacher — his undergraduate degree was in Education and before he got a master’s in English in 1948, he took a bunch of graduate courses in Education prior to the courses in Education he took in the Army Air Corps and later, in the Air Force. In the Air Force he was an officer who trained other officers. He was also an extrovert, a people person, or whatever. Murray told me once (it could have been when we drove over to see Elizabeth Catlett’s Ellison monument on Riverside Drive, when it was new) that late in life Ellison had become “like a statue” — like a statue of Horace Greely or some eminent figure. He thought the monument was clever — it’s a riff on Invisible Man and that’s great, because after a certain point Ellison was like a statue of himself — something like that. Ellison was not always that way, but he got that way, calcified maybe. I did not get to meet Ellison (I was fourteen when he died), so take that derivative assessment for what it’s worth. I try to follow George Saintsbury’s admonition to not speculate too much about people one hasn’t met. But Murray’s implication, confirmed by other sources, was that Ellison had kind of become, by say, the 1970s, a figure who struck some as unapproachable. I should also note that Murray also talked of how he missed Ellison — how he’d often read something or see something on the news, and wished he could call him. He wasn’t like a statue with him, but with younger people.
Murray, on the other hand, was young at heart. He loved to laugh and he loved jokes. As I noted in my introduction to Murray Talks Music, he’d find a lot of hours in a day. His life was elegantly balanced. He wouldn’t say so, but there was some kind of lower-case z zen-like arrangement to his life. As Gary Giddins notes in his foreword to Murray Talks Music — Murray’s knack for neatness and organization was like second nature and could scarcely be believed.
In his free time, I guess what Murray enjoyed most was reading, listening to music, and looking at art. He read the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times every day, and the New York Review of Books, The New Republic (for Jed Perl’s art criticism especially), The Nation, and The New Yorker, every week. Also, he enjoyed Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Of course, I’m only talking about the early 2000s here. In the 30s and 40s he read Partisan Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Chimera, Saturday Review, and so on as they came out, in addition to the jazz press, black newspapers, and academic journals. He kept up with the latest intellectual discourse at all times from the 30s through 2008 or so. He’d re-read Mann, Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway all the time. I guess he didn’t need to re-read Auden and Millay, because he knew so much of their work by heart. He loved Millay’s “Recuerdo:” “we were very tired, we were very merry / we had gone back and forth all night on the ferry . . .” I was surprised to find a cassette of Wallace Stevens reading his poetry, with the page numbers to the Library of America edition of Stevens listed next to each track, in Murray’s handwriting. I knew he liked Stevens, and that he started reading him at Tuskegee in the 1930s, and that he bought books such as Transport to Summer as they came out, but I didn’t know he liked his work that much. Yet he had his shows and weekly golf on TV as well.
What was it like for you to edit a book of Murray’s interviews knowing full well that the time he spent talking to musicians, and talking with his protégés, even though he enjoyed it, took away from the time he could have been writing? It must be incredibly rewarding to collaborate with an old, dear friend of yours.
It was an honor to edit the book. It wasn’t a collaboration, as he had passed away, but it was an honor to work with the material. I did have a feeling that it was making up or redeeming or validating the thousands of hours he spent trying to educate younger people in person. Also, he put far more time into the background research and background interviews for Count Basie’s Good Morning Blues than he strictly had to, and some of that material (the interviews with John Hammond, Billy Eckstine, and Dan Minor) ended up in the book as well. He freely gave his time in the interest of education, and I was able to bring portions of that time back together in the form of the book to add to his magnificent legacy. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity and I feel that I’ve done something to repay just a small portion of the time he spent with me. There will be a new edition of Good Morning Blues published next year by Minnesota, by the way.
Oh yeah? Will it have a new introduction or anything?
No, nothing new inside. It will include Dan Morgenstern’s introduction to the 2002 edition. Murray was enthusiastic about Morgenstern’s essay and thought it to be perfect. Lewis Jones and the press agreed that it couldn’t be improved upon.
Were you involved at all in the process of bringing it back into print?
In a minor, advisory capacity with regard to the textual history.
Is there a Murray biography in the works?
No — not one that’s reached any serious stage, at least. I hope to write one, someday. I’ve collected and scrutinized the most important biographical material — all the letters and unpublished writings, letters to him by others, receipts, financial records, education records — everything: every scrap of paper and marginal note a book. I’ve mastered the mountain of information required to write the definitive biography. Also, I’ve interviewed key people. I could get it done quickly with the proper funding. I’ve gotten a heck of a lot done with little to no funding! But I also have many other interests and projects in the works, in addition to a full teaching schedule. First there needs to be a complete bibliography and I am working on that. Aside from Murray Talks Music, I just put many hundreds of hours into the extensive scholarly apparatus (40,000 words — chronology, annotations, and bibliographical essay) for the Library of America edition of Murray’s work, which required intensive original research. Completing the extensive chronology and the bibliographical essay on a tight schedule, in the absence of a biography or bibliography, was an exceptionally difficult and highly unusual (if not unprecedented) task.
Isn’t a bibliography needed for a bibliographical essay?
Yes, and so we made a bibliography for all the works in the book. Many of the pieces in the essay collections appeared in periodicals prior to being collected in books (whether in The Omni-Americans, The Blue Devils of Nada, and From the Briarpatch File) and we tracked down their publication history. The books not comprised of previously published material each had interesting publication histories we needed to reconstruct. Periodical and bibliographical studies can be deeply revelatory. Proper context is difficult to reconstruct without such work. The bibliographical essay is called the Note on the Texts and it gives narrative form to the bibliography and the textual history of the works. Each Library of America volume has one. Taken together, the Notes are like a skeleton key to American publishing history. There would be a real scholarly vacuum in this regard had the Library of America never existed. For Murray, we had to first create a bibliography for all the works in the Library of American edition. We tracked down where each essay first appeared prior to being included in a book. But the Note does not include later serializations or interviews (in Conversations with Albert Murray or Murray Talks Music), fiction, or the handful of minor pieces that didn’t make the cut. The Note on the Texts is a bibliographical narrative explaining the history of each item in Library of America volume. It will become a focal point of Murray scholarship. But I hope to create the complete bibliography as well.
Can you give me an example of what didn’t make the cut?
Sure. For example: Murray wrote a catalog essay for a Bearden exhibition in 1976. He thought about including it in From the Briarpatch File, but decided not to because he felt he made all of the points, in a more expanded form, in his long essay on Bearden in The Blue Devils of Nada (first published as the catalog essay for a 1980 museum exhibition). He was right about the repetition — the 1976 essay was like a sketch for the much more elaborate 1980 essay —and his intentions were followed, as in all cases. But it will still be in the complete bibliography — it helps reveal the depth of his involvement with Bearden and Bearden’s gallery at that time. Some of the other pieces are very short (brief notes in response to queries) or especially particular to another context (a vignette to accompany a drawing by Al Hirschfeld, for instance). Each piece included in the “Other Writings” section of the Library of America edition is substantial enough to have been included in one of his books. One such essay, heretofore unpublished, could be thought of as belonging in the highest echelon of his essays.
And the chronology?
The chronology in the Library of America volume is about 10,000 words and will be, by far, the most comprehensive biographical document about Murray to date. I can say so definitively, because only Gates and I have had access to Murray’s complete archive, half of which was still in the Murrays’ apartment until early 2016. Lewis Jones, Murray’s executor, gave me the task of inventorying the apartment. Starting last fall I cataloged Murray’s library and music collection, and read and organized his papers for eventual transfer to a library — a task which continued through this spring. The Library of America volume, which reflects many findings made over the past year, will be the most important document for the study of his life and work for many years to come.
What’s next for you and for Murray’s legacy, Paul?
What’s next for me, I hope, is a book on sound and aurality in Ellison’s work. The project is growing out of the Ellison chapter in my dissertation, which interpreted his representations of aurality with regard to his engagement with developments in audio technology, all of which was parallel with political developments. I investigate the inverse relationship between representations of aurality and representations of the visual paradigm of segregation. What’s next for me and for Murray’s legacy is an article or two in the works, the complete Murray bibliography and, co-edited with Gates, volume two of the Library of America edition: Murray’s fiction and poetry (forthcoming in 2018).
A.M. Davenport is the Interviews Coeditor for Full Stop and an Editor at The Scofield.
Works Cited To The Complete Three-Part Interview
—. “Press Conference on Commemoration of Abolition of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Releases. Un.org. 26 March 2007.
—. Public Television: A Program for Action. New York: Bantam, 1967.
Alexander, Elizabeth. The Venus Hottentot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.
Basie, Count, as told to Albert Murray. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. New York: Random House, 1985.
Brody, Richard. “Albert Murray and the Limits of Critics with Theories.” TheNewYorker.com 25 May 2016.
—. “Ralph Ellison’s Record Collection.” TheNewYorker.com 12 March 2014.
—. “Why Did Ralph Ellison Despise Modern Jazz?” TheNewYorker.com 20 March 2014.
Burkert, Walter. Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.
Callahan, John, F. and Albert Murray, eds. Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature. Trans. Patrick Creagh. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1986.
Chinen, Nate. “The Blues? Overcoming Hard Times Through Swinging Elegance.” New York Times. 21 May 2016: C3.
Clarke, John Henrik, ed. American Negro Short Stories. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.
Coles, Robert. “Human Nature is Finer.” The New Yorker. 17 October 1970: 185-88.
Devlin, Paul. “Jazz Autobiography and the Cold War.” Popular Music and Society 38.2 (2015): 140-59.
—. “Some Things You Didn’t Know About Albert Murray.” Slate. 21 August 2013.
—. “Study up on Albert Murray.” Do the Math. (Ethan Iverson’s blog.) 7 October 2013.
—. “Why Did Ralph Ellison Never Publish His Second Novel? A New Theory.” Slate. 19 June 2013.
Dinerstein, Joel. Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture Between the World Wars. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2003.
Douglass, Frederick. “Our Composite Nationality.” 1869. in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Volume 4: 1864-80. Ed. John Blassingame and John R. McKivigan. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991. 240-59.
Ellison, Ralph. Collected Essays. Ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1994.
—. Comments in “Jazz: The Experimenters.” WNET. 1965. Held by the Library of Congress.
—. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
Everett, Percival. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001.
Foley, Barbara. “Becoming ‘More Human’: From the Drafts of Invisible Man to Three Days Before the Shooting . . .”African American Review 48.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2015): 67-82.
Franklin, Ruth. Review of Joseph and his Brothers. The New Republic. 233.24 (12 December 2005): 37-43.
Gennari, John. Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.
Gilbert, W.S. and Arthur Sullivan. The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Ed. Ian Bradley. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. 1990. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.
Jones, Jo. Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones. Ed. Paul Devlin. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2011.
Lee, Felicia R. “Arts Briefly; Albert Murray Wins Du Bois Medal.” New York Times. 20 April 2007: E5.
Leonard, John. “New Books.” Harper’s Magazine. 310.1860 (May 2005): 85-86.
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