Albert Lee Murray, the essayist, cultural theorist, novelist and biographer, who died on August 18th at the age of ninety seven, spent the last five decades shadowboxing and counter-punching many racial and sociological clichés. Murray’s real weapons were his ebullient books, which included an expansive and impressive array of fiction, nonfiction and musicological analysis. He published 14 books over the course of his career, all of which are still in print.
According to his publisher and the literary executor of the Murray estate, there are no commemorative editions of Murray’s books scheduled for release at this time. However, the bulk of his manuscripts are at the W.E.B Du Bois Center at Harvard University, and his library—which contains rare editions of works by W.H. Auden, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway—are destined for the library of his alma mater, Tuskegee University, where they will reside in the Albert Murray Reading Room.
The Mobile, Alabama-bred, Tuskegee Institute-educated, New York-based Murray—like his Tuskegee classmate and aesthetic fellow traveler Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man—didn’t see African-Americans (or Negroes as he preferred) as a pathetic, downtrodden lumpenproletariat. He saw them as a resilient, black, brown and beige people; partially-descended from Africa, but fully American in outlook, character and aspiration. Where many saw the United States as a white nation, he saw it as a culturally mixed country, where blacks were part white, and whites that were part black; where in his words, “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite.”
He saw art, music and literature, not in Marxist terms, but aesthetically descending from fairy tales, myths, and the wisdom of the ages, passed down from time immemorial from every culture around the world. He also championed the Negro-born blues idiom—along with jazz—as a music that acknowledges the “essentially tenuous nature of all human existence … through the full, sharp, and inescapable awareness of them.”
Murray called his broad constellation of influences “Cosmos Murray;” and they ranged from the blues, honky-tonks, Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus tales, to pioneer historian/folklorist Constance Rourke, novelists Andre Malraux and Thomas Mann, poet W.H. Auden, and literary and cultural theorists Kenneth Burke and John A. Kouwenhoven.
“As an essayist, memoirist, novelist and poet, Albert Murray’s literary legacy is this,” Murray’s longtime editor Errol McDonald, a v-p and executive editor at Random House, said by phone, “he informed the written word with a triumphalist theory of the blues; which called for the imposition of form on chaos, through improvisation.” According to Lewis P. Jones III, the literary executor of Murray’s estate, “Murray’s understanding of the blues as a metaphor for a variety of artistic expressions,’ he said during a phone interview, “is both profound and contemporary at the same time.”
The Omni-Americans (1970) his first book, written when he was fifty four (he moved to Lenox Terrace in Harlem in 1962, after retiring from the Air Force), is a compendium of essays and reviews that attack “the folklore of white supremacy, and the fakelore of black inferiority.” Murray dismantles the infamous Moynihan Report, and black separatism. He takes issue with what he sees as the one-dimensional visions of black life in the works of psychologist Kenneth Clarke and writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright and Gordon Parks.
South to a Very Place (1971) is Murray’s imaginative memoir/travelogue of his travels through the deep south, to Greenville, North Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans, his alma mater, Tuskegee and his hometown, Mobile. The Hero and the Blues (1973) are essays culled from the Paul Brick Lectures on Ethics he gave at the University of Missouri, where he posits how the bluesman heroically confronts the dragons of entropy and despair, not to destroy them, but to keep them at bay.
Murray elaborated and refined that concept of heroic confrontation in Stomping the Blues (1976), his magnificently illustrated book on blues and jazz, which won of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. In STB, Murray highlights the work of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Count Basie, as dance music, designed to stomp the blues away. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (As Told to Albert Murray) recounts the life of the legendary bandleader, who exemplified the driving, 4/4 swinging rhythms of Kansas City in the thirties. The Blue Devils of Nada (1996), further develops Murray’s blues-based aesthetic ideas, and also features portraits of collage artist (and friend/collaborator) Romare Bearden, Ernest Hemingway, Ellington and Armstrong.
Unlike his friend, Ralph Ellison, who published one novel in his lifetime, Murray published four: Train Whistle Guitar (1974)—which won the Lillian Smith Award for Southern Fiction—The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots and The Magic Keys, all center on Murray’s alter ego Scooter, a black boy who grew up in Magazine Point, Alabama, went to college and became a bass player in a city resembling New York. Most critics cite Train Whistle Guitar, as his best novel.
Murray’s last book of essays, From the Briarpatch File (2001), featured reminisces of his grade and high school life in Alabama, his literary and musicological musings on William Faulkner, Duke Ellington and the purpose of college. Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation (2010), is the first anthology dedicated to his works. Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Joe Jones, As Told To Albert Murray (2011), is based on fourteen interview tapes by legendary Count Basie drummer Papa Jo Jones to Murray, transcribed, and edited by Paul Devlin. Conjugations and Reiterations: Poems (2001), is his only book of poetry.
Though Murray was inducted into The American Academy of Arts and Letters, his work is not well known as such contemporaries as Ellison and Toni Morrison. “The Murray legacy is one that both should and must be taken forward. His loss is also potentially an opportunity … to take advantage of what appears to be a renewed level of interest in his works,”says Lewis P. Jones III, “and we hope to be able to seize upon that potential opportunity, as a way to engage the broader public with the thinking, the writing and the legacy of Albert Murray.”
Eugene Holley Jr. contributes to Down Beat, Wax Poetics, NPR’s jazz blog, A Blog Supreme, and Philadelphia Weekly and most recently wrote about Stanley Crouch and his book, Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker for Publishers Weekly.