Photo: Nancy Miller Elliott, 1982, detail. Courtesy Institute for Jazz Studies, Rutgers University.
I WAS A FEW MONTHS INTO graduate school at Columbia University when I first met Albert Murray. He was 85 years old.
At the time, I had just completed a Ralph Ellison seminar with Professor Robert O’Meally, who suggested I seek out Murray to learn details about Ellison that I couldn’t find in any published accounts. I’d of course heard of Murray — I’d read Trading Twelves (2000), the wonderful collection of letters between Murray and Ellison — but I knew much more about Ellison. So I tracked down Murray’s address and wrote him a letter, a politely worded request to speak with him about my ongoing research. I was sure I would not get a response. But a few days later my phone rang, and the raspy yet mellifluous voice of Albert Murray was on the other end, telling me which subway to take (“Make sure you’re on a 2 or a 3!”) to head to his apartment. I was delighted if astounded that a celebrated writer was inviting me into his home. We scheduled a date and I rode the train uptown and made my way to the Lenox Terrace apartment building, where I found Murray in a living room lined with books and decorated with art by Romare Bearden.
One might find it strange that a young woman working on a master’s thesis would become friends with an octogenarian in the process of her research, but Albert Murray was no ordinary interviewee — as I learned that first time I visited him in Harlem to interview him.
Albert Murray passed away a little less than a month ago. To the public, Murray was a prolific writer and esteemed intellectual, the author of 13 books, among them works of fiction, social criticism, and cultural history, as well as the autobiography of Count Basie, which he co-authored. He lived a long life — 97 years — and one that was extremely accomplished, and inevitably with such an extensive oeuvre, he has received both praise and critique. Yet it says a lot that so much of the time his work is feted. He received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle (1996) and the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal from the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University (2007), to name just two of the many honors he has won. In his social life, Murray was a close friend not only of Ellison, but of other luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Romare Bearden. (One of Bearden’s most celebrated pieces, “The Block,” was inspired by the view from Murray’s terrace.)
Murray is particularly remembered for his forward-thinking, unflinching perspectives on race. His first book, the seminal The Omni-Americans (1970), established him as a writer and thinker unafraid to speak out against prevailing assumptions. American culture is black culture, he boldly, even scandalously (for the time) claimed: “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite.” It was a blunt response to various contemporaneous factors, like the Black Power movement and then-current sociological approaches to identity and race. During an interview a few years later, Murray said of the book: “[A]ll these guys are blowing these solos and they’ve forgotten what the basic chords are. [...] People from all quarters were saying things which violated not only my sense of the idiom in which I lived, but my sense of what human nature is.” The music metaphors in that interview, moreover, were characteristic Murray, who championed cultural creativity, synthesizing the literary, the musical, and the imagistic in his own works. As a creative writer, Murray produced novels that read like music. The blues ethos shapes his narratives; his sentences swing like jazz. Likewise, his essays on music are highly respected, incisive works of cultural criticism, and he helped found Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) with Wynton Marsalis in 1987.
It was there, at JALC's Columbus Circle home, six days ago, that Murray’s family, friends, colleagues, and admirers gathered for the first official, public coming together, to remember a man whose prescient and penetrating cultural insights influenced many. Among the guests in the audience were Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Stanley Crouch (another cofounder of JALC), while presenters included Marsalis, Douglas Brinkley, and Joe Temperley, whose performance of Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” on bass clarinet was breathtaking. It was a fitting tribute, and while the program was designed to cover an array of Murray’s accomplishments, each speaker nevertheless went beyond Murray’s work and erudition. In their speeches, they strove to make Murray three-dimensional, his character, sense of humor, and humanity evident. They approached their remarks in this way because they know — as I do, too — that the bare listing of Murray’s publications, accomplishments, and awards, hardly does him justice.
I was lucky enough to know Murray for over a decade, and have been thinking a great deal, these past few weeks, about all the time spent in his company, getting to know an incredibly intelligent, warm, funny, and down-to-earth person. While the reminiscences and anecdotes at the memorial service rang true with the Murray I knew, I had my own experiences with him, and so my memories continue the work of shaping the three-dimensional image of this singular man: Albert Murray, Omni-American.
That day of our first meeting, Murray was happy to tell me about Ellison, and even pointed me to an article by Ellison that I had not yet come across. (I wound up locating a copy of it on microfiche in Butler Library at Columbia.) And the more I listened to Murray speak about Ellison, about literature, about culture, the more I realized I was talking with an amazing person, an intellectual who thought deeply about some of the most penetrating issues of his lifetime. My friendship with Murray began that afternoon in early 2002. He was infinitely generous with his time and became someone I considered a mentor, introducing me to books and authors I hadn’t read and engaging me in debates on art and literature as well as topics as vast as “the human condition.”
Yet for all the weight of the big questions Murray posed — “What is human nature?” “How does art allow people to transcend?” — conversations with him never bogged down. He mingled gravitas with humor and wit. You can’t persevere without some levity, he’d point out. Thomas Mann’s four-part novel, Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43), a tremendously important book to Murray’s thinking, enacts this mix of gravity and lightness, in this case even desolation and resilience. In the titular character, who was sold into slavery, Murray saw a rascally figure of the hero who endures despite the odds. One day, Murray and I read together the opening of Joseph in Egypt (the third book of the novel), where Joseph yammers on to one of his captors, waxing rather philosophical about the interwovenness of individual destinies. Murray laughed in response to the scene, delightedly calling the protagonist a “cocky, conceited S.O.B.” Indeed, even Joseph’s captor notes that he talks too much. But it’s a spirited moment and Murray admired the character’s spunk and intellect, as well as the author’s decision to craft a hero who is arrogant but at times also humbled. After his laughter broke, and in a tone both serious and full of exuberant zest, Murray went on to talk about how “Mann is singin’ it” in his exploration of the human condition and his allegorical confrontation of contemporary problems.
Joseph and His Brothers was foundational to Murray’s aesthetic philosophy and theories of culture. As Murray explains in The Hero and the Blues (1973), “to make the telling more effective is to make the tale more to the point.” In other words, literary craft — sophisticated, textured, allegorical style that elevates prose to fine art — serves socially committed writing that educates, while still “singing.” He also regarded Mann’s Joseph as a timeless and universal hero, a blues hero before there was the blues: one who rises above the obstacles in his path through improvisation and wit, a highly developed figure of unbroken human spirit. For Murray, there was no dissonance in linking this European retelling of a Bible story with the American blues idiom. Joseph, an “excellent epic prototype,” was of a piece with the American blues hero because he “goes beyond his failures in the very blues singing process of acknowledging them.”
Murray was whip-smart and exceedingly charming, and he had a real gift for storytelling. If his 80-plus-year-old self wasn’t nearly as mobile as it’d once been, his ability to take you places through narrative was nevertheless undiminished. I confess that the first time I journeyed with Murray-the-storyteller, I didn’t immediately appreciate the artistry. Murray started on a given topic, and I, in my naïveté, thought he’d lost the thread as he moved from the original focus, through literary history, scholarship on mythology, visual art, and anecdotes of his time in Paris. It was all interesting. I listened happily. But I thought he had forgotten where he’d begun and was telling me tales because he had a captivated listener. It was only 25 minutes later, as he alit back at his starting point, that I grasped what had happened. The riffing, as Murray might have called it, produced an exquisite song. By way of concluding the journey, he synthesized what I’d been incorrectly hearing as disparate strands, pulling everything together, and ending with an enthusiastic “ya see?” And I did see, because Murray was a storyteller and teacher by nature. My “lessons” included conversations on André Malraux, Constance Rourke, and Lord Raglan, yet while I’ve always thought of myself as one of his students, he never made me feel anything less than an equal.
I am not the only one, by any stretch, who considers herself a Murray student. I was incredibly touched to see the reader comments at the end of The New York Times obituary, which said things like the following: “One of the best days of my life was spent at Murray’s home, listening to him and bluesman Honeyboy Edwards talk about music and life.” “I called him on the phone, his number was listed and we spoke 3 times and a total of 2 and 1/2 hours. [...] He was incredibly insightful, generous and engaging.” “Wonderful teacher of fiction as well. I took a course with him at Barnard College in the early 80s. He was unlike any lit professor I had before or since, and I can still remember his lecture on Hemingway.” Unsurprisingly, multiple speakers at the memorial service at Jazz at Lincoln Center echoed these sentiments, one comparing Murray’s home to a salon, another likening his time spent with the late writer to enrollment in “continuing education.” There was also a strong emphasis on Murray’s insights on music. His writings weren’t just “music criticism,” explained yet another speaker; they were “wisdom,” in a very deep sense.
Some adjectives that come to mind when I think about Murray are “raw,” “generous,” and “funny.” In fact “raw” is a term he liked to invoke, as in “the raw materials” of life. He put it thus in a wonderful essay from 1989: “It is precisely by processing the raw materials of my Southern experience into universal esthetic statement that I am most likely to come to terms with my humanity.” And when I say that Murray was raw, I also mean that there was never any affectation. For all of his encyclopedic knowledge (his towering, overflowing bookshelves an outward symbol of this, and he knew the place of each and every book on those shelves), there was nothing rarefied or exclusionary in his demeanor. Murray welcomed conversation with uncommon gusto and radiated a vivaciousness, a joie de vivre, that was palpable at age 85 and beyond. I wish I’d also known him when he was a younger man. He was, by the way, an exceedingly stylish man. The photos in his family albums — many of them taken by Ralph Ellison — attest to this. They show a younger Murray, along with his stunning wife Mozelle and beautiful daughter Michele.
The last time I saw Murray was at the beginning of the summer. He was weak but spirited, and a powerful sunshine flooded the living room of his apartment. When I next returned to Lenox Terrace on August 20, the filled-to-the-brim bookshelves were warmed by sunlight again that afternoon, and although being in his home brought me close to him, the fact was, Murray had died two days prior. For those of us who knew him personally, his passing is painful, as loss always is. But as Jackie Modeste, one of his friends and another “student,” put it, “Albert Murray is Trading Twelves up high . . . He is resting in peace and the celestial choir is in full swing.”
Photo: Alex Ginsberg, 2005