Discussed in this section: the effects that the publishing industry’s politicized taste had on Murray’s early writing lotiareer, the ideologies of taste and markets for African American literature, how the stalled beginning of Murray’s writing career coincided with the nadir of Zora Neale Hurston’s, how renewed interest in Murray and Hurston’s work was sparked by John Henrik Clarke’s American Negro Short Stories, a discussion of Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, Murray’s innovative literary style, publishing grandees’ resistance to Murray’s work, how Murray stomped the blues and turned the literary world on its head, the collection of interviews included in Murray Talks Music, John Hammond’s Omni-Americanness, dispelling notions of “elitism,” Murray’s egalitarian nature, the importance of Thomas Mann on Murray’s intellectual development, Ellison and Murray’s exchanges with younger artists, the necessary steps to further cement Murray’s legacy.
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 (2000) (which he co-edited), Rifftide (2011) 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 writer 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: 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?
Paul Devlin: 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. He missed opportunities on occasion. But so have I, and so has almost everyone, I think. 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 gophers — 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, then another 40,000. It also featured work by Gore Vidal and Borges, among many other prominent writers. There is evidence that it was seen far and wide. Sterling Brown discussed it approvingly in a lecture in Atlanta the next year, yet Brown was not on Murray’s advance copy list. It was read and it circulated. Yet Murray couldn’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 more polite 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 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.
Murray seems to have relied on art, always, to stomp the blues. Even his briefest remarks about art are inspiring. He makes you want to be a writer. Art, he says, is created by stylizing your life experiences. This line of conversation is best evidenced, I think, in his discussion with Wynton Marsalis. Was this interview previously available prior to your book’s publication? As readers, we’re grateful that Marsalis took it upon himself to take a bit of a lesser role in the conversation so as to coax some wonderful answers out of Murray.
No, it was not previously available. The tapes were at Murray’s apartment. I don’t know what they’d initially planned to use it for. Wynton did a wonderful thing with that interview. I’m grateful that he allowed it to be included in the book. It’s one of Murray’s best.
You’ve collected a vast array of recorded conversations. While researching the book, was there any material you found that really surprised you in the sense that you weren’t previously aware of it? I can’t even imagine the amount of man hours that you expended on this project.
I knew about most of the pieces for a while. I knew about the Gillespie interview in 2001. Murray was thinking about publishing it in full back then. I’d known about the Ellington discussion with Crouch and Schoenberg since around that time. I was the typist of “Notes on a Jazz Tradition,” so I had a copy of that since 2004. The interview with Dan Minor was among the Jo Jones tapes, so I knew about it since circa 2006. I discovered the Alvin Ailey liner notes in 2013. The interview with Susan Page turned up in 2014. Greg Thomas made me aware of his excellent interview around 2014. The Billy Eckstine and John Hammond interviews were 2015 discoveries and additions. I discovered other interviews that proved unusable: in some instances cassettes were too damaged to hear much (I looked into repair), and sometimes an interview was simply a fact-checking exercise. Murray: “Basie says this happened like this.” Legendary musician: “Yup, that’s how it went.” I spent a lot of hours transcribing, but I’m very fast at this point. I transcribed all the Jo Jones tapes for Rifftide and it was slow going at first. Transcription is something that gets much easier as you do more of it, like a snowball effect. I should hire out as a transcriber. Haha.
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 proscription givers 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.
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 the 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 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 appears on screen (like with the BBC’s recent adaptation of Bleak House) — and now, of course, it’s gone past the action in the books (which I haven’t read). I’d never have picked up one of the books — the genre is not my thing — so I’m glad for the TV adaptation, because I would not have known about the story. Its overarching structure is fascinating to me and possibly unprecedented (almost sublime in its ambition and execution — wrong decisions being made at every turn lead to the centrifugal collapse of a polity, followed by correct decisions leading to centripetal reassembly), but it also makes a lot of concessions so as to find the widest audience, which may be necessary to justify its budget. Occasional missteps and continuity weirdness aside, it is remarkable (and often wilfully misunderstood). The sleeper masterpiece of our time could be Adventure Time, a rich and profound show, which deserves academic attention. But it makes concessions too, and like Rabelais, Joyce, Melville, and Stevens did to themselves, it holds itself back and/or stumbles occasionally on its own hang-ups. But Adventure Time is something special that can be appreciated from many perspectives and I expect it will age well.
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 juxtapositions of 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 other writers, particularly younger ones like yourself and Greg Thomas and so many others. 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 B.S. was in Education and before he got a master’s in English in 1948, he took a bunch of graduate course in Education, and that was 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. Expanding on that idea, which can be confirmed in various sources, I wrote somewhere that it seems as if the accolades accrued by dignitary status were like the snakes on Medusa’s head — he was on more boards than he could shake a stick at, and perhaps being so ensconced took its toll and had the effect of turning to him to stone. I never met Ellison, 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 TV shows too. As I wrote somewhere else, he loved to watch golf on tv.
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 proteges, 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 his and 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. Most of the works appeared in periodicals prior to being collected in books (whether in The Omni-Americans, The Blue Devils of Nada, and so on). Periodical and bibliographical studies can be deeply revelatory. In fact, 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 (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, Cordier & Ekstrom. Some of the other pieces are very short or very particular to another context (a vignette to accompany a drawing by Al Hirschfeld, for instance). Each of the pieces included in the “Other Writings” section of the Library of America edition are 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 Harvard (where he sent a portion of his archive in 1998) — 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 or series of articles 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
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—. 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.
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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.
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Mann, Thomas. Joseph and his Brothers. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2005.
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Marcus, James. “Home Truths.” Columbia Journalism Review. 52.1 (May/June 2013): 44-49.
Mathis, Ayana. “Which Literary Figure is Overdue for a Biography?” The New York Times Book Review. 25 Jan. 2015: 27.
McBride, Christian. (@mcbridesworld) “That’s what’s sadly missing from jazz these days — cholesterol. Grease. Fatback. Stank. Lard. Real butter. Too much non-fat jazz these days.” 13 October 2011, 5:09pm. Tweet.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ed. Nancy Milford. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
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Murray, Albert. The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement. New York: Pantheon, 1996.
—. Conjugations and Reiterations. New York: Pantheon, 2001.
—. Conversations with Albert Murray. Ed. Roberta S. Maguire. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 1997.
—. From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity. New York: Pantheon, 2001.
—. “The Luzana Cholly Kick.” New World Writing: 4th Mentor Selection. New York: New American Library, 1953. 228-243
—. The Magic Keys. New York: Pantheon, 2005.
—. Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues. Ed. Paul Devlin. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2016.
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—. The Seven League Boots. New York: Pantheon, 1995.
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Valéry, Paul. “Homo Europaeus.” Trans. Malcolm Cowley. in Heart of Europe: An Anthology of Creative Writing in Europe 1920-1940. Eds. Klaus Mann and Hermann Kesten. New York: L.B. Fischer, 1943. 5-16.
Von Eschen, Penny M. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.
Warren, Kenneth. What Was African American Literature? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011.
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Williams, Thomas Chatterton. “A Blues for Albert Murray.” The Nation. 302.23-24 (June 6/13, 2016), 12-17.
Young, Kevin. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2012.