Notes on Albert Murray Memorial

1. The opening slow drag “Flee as a Bird To the Mountain,” where Wynton walked in his NOLA-styled crew, was utterly marvelous. Actually I think this is some of Wynton’s most utterly compelling music these days: when he takes it all the way back.

2. Loren Schoenberg, director of The Jazz Museum in Harlem and my mentor in Lester Young studies, was in the parade and blew a couple of tenor solos with the full band as well. Hi Loren!

3.  In response to LaTasha N. Nevada’s reading of Elizabeth Alexander’s “Omni-Albert Murray,” Aaron Diehl added some boogie to a personalized, delicate, una corda rendition of the Lion’s “Echoes of Spring.”

4. The unquestioned highlights were personal essays about and recollections of Murray by Leon Wieseltier, Douglas Brinkley, Rob Gibson, Michelle Murray, Sidney Offit, and Erroll McDonald. Uniformly first-class, these diverse speakers gave us an astonishingly broad portrait of Murray the man, the mentor, the martinet, the magician.

5. The US armed forces provided comic relief: Colonel Robert S. Spaulding III read a 50’s-era letter from Murray to Ralph Ellison where Murray complained about both the Air Force (“I like the Air Force less and less”) and the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations (“no match for Such Sweet Thunder“).

6: Jimmy Heath read a terrific Murray bit about going to Columbus Circle to Harlem from South to a Very Old Place while the audience looked out at Columbus through the huge windows in the Allen Room.

7. Dan Nimmer played even softer than Aaron when accompanying Joe Temperley on bass clarinet in “Single Petal of a Rose.”  Even though I don’t think Duke or Lion used it much, apparently JALC is where jazz pianists love una corda. At any rate, the audience adored the Temperley/Nimmer duo, and with good reason.

8. All the music was excellent, with the possible exception of Coltrane’s “Alabama,” done by Victor Goines and rhythm section, which was way too professional and uncommitted for my liking. (“This is some serious stuff, man!” as Albert Murray would say.) My favorite tune overall was a thrilling “Goin’ To Chicago” with Brianna Thomas and full band. Damn, that was really swinging. I need to hear more of her! Ben Wolfe held it down wonderfully. So did Christian McBride in a trio “Epistrophy” with Diehl and tasteful Ali Jackson. However, their rather standardized small band ramble through Monk showed how hip it was to hear the JALC band’s tight covers of “Happy Go Lucky Local,” “C-Jam Blues” (great Marcus Printup trumpet chorus), “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” and the concluding NOLA-sized traditional parade trilogy “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” and “Over in the Gloryland.”

9. Wynton and Judith Jamison read moving excerpts from Murray’s semi-autobiographical novels. They were hardly the only two present: Unsurprisingly, the audience held the greatest number of prominent/significant Black intellectuals I ever expect to be in the same room with.

10. I scanned the room carefully. Apologies if I missed someone, but as far as I tell, there were absolutely no “younger white experimental jazzers” present for this free event. Too bad for them! Their music would only get better if they cared about this side of things, too.

UPDATE: That last tart sentence is related to my criticizing 10 young pianists at the Banff workshop for not recognizing “Carolina Shout.” As I wrote before:

It’s really no big deal if any given young jazz pianist isn’t interested in James P. Johnson. One’s muses needn’t include early jazz if one wants to make good improvised music. But ten out of ten pianists not recognizing “Carolina Shout” really bothered me.

Those so critical of Wynton should remember that this is the battle he’s fighting: to get respect for people like James P. Johnson. Not just respect as a fine pianist of the Jazz Era, but respect for James P. Johnson as an intellectual property vital to the American identity.

Today, it wouldn’t have been a big deal if any given young cool white jazz player couldn’t make the Albert Murray memorial. But in a city that must house at least 2,000 of them, I noticed their absence.

A penny dropped for me a few hours later. The lack of young white faces reminded me of Murray’s obituary by Ratzo Harris in NewMusicBox. Harris is a brillant bassist and absolutely my senior: indeed, I suspect every note of Kenny Werner’s Introducing the Trio can be found engraved in my brain somewhere.  But I just can’t understand why Harris initally sounds so suspicious:

While Murray wasn’t a musician, his influence on music today—for better or for worse—is huge.

After this dark initial salvo, the rest of the obit is pretty positive. But what an introductory qualifier! And my god, Murray isn’t the only one his page that might deserve some qualifiers. Marian McPartland might have been introduced as, “A talented pianist most comfortable in ballads, whose mettle was never tested in the crucible of serious modernist black jazz.”

Hey, I dig Marian. I was on her show, it was a good experience. Also I am not uncritical of Murray. But I’d hate it if Ratzo Harris thought that Piano Jazz was really hipper than JALC.

Another belated penny drop was a memory of attending David Tudor’s memorial in 1996. While I didn’t really know anything substantial about Tudor, John Cage, or Merce Cunningham at that point, I knew enough to walk into Judson Church on a rainy day. After enjoying Tudor’s wild experimental “Rainforest,” Cunningham delivered a long, powerful, and charismatic history of his most important musical collaborator.

I’ve traded on the story of Tudor’s memorial for years: making friends with choreographers, flirting with dancers, listening to historians. After today, I’ll have the same kind of ammunition if I ever meet Henry Louis Gates. (Meaning: at least I can talk about the Albert Murray memorial with him.)

Always go and check it out. It’s what we are here to do.