Study up on Albert Murray (by Paul Devlin)

Paul Devlin is a writer and PhD candidate. He’s written for Slate, The Daily Beast, The Root, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. He is the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones as told to Albert Murray (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the JJA book award in 2012.

Rifftide is an important document about one of the music’s greatest drummers. Paul Motian was thrilled when I gave him a copy the last time I drove him home from the hospital:  Motian loved to read jazz biographies, and Jo Jones was one of his biggest inspirations.

I had been in contact with Devlin a little bit recently around the time of Albert Murray’s passing. Devlin notified me of the memorial and I re-tweeted some of his Murray links. Unfortunately, working too quickly in my write up of the Murray memorial, I omitted Devlin’s important participation: alongside Jackie Modeste, these two Murray scholars offered a fascinating list of things that most people did not know about Murray. (I had meant to link to Devlin’s related Slate article in my write-up.)

I asked Devlin to contribute to DTM. First, Devlin thought it would be a good idea to anthologize recent major pieces on Murray. Here they are, collected and with commentary by Devlin. (Significant omissions are unintentional.)

Recent pieces written before Murray died:

Walton Muyumba in The Oxford American
(published in May 2013)  (This is the best essay on Murray in quite some time, which is not to say that several of the essays written after he died are not excellent, but this is a different sort of piece; a thorough consideration of his work and legacy while he was still alive.)

James Marcus in Columbia Journalism Review
(May 2013)  (a reconsideration of Murray’s second book, South to a Very Old Place)

Pieces published after Murray died (in no particular order)

Joel Dinerstein in Virginia Quarterly Review

Eugene Holly in A Blog Supreme
(NPR Music)

Lauren Walsh in LA Review of Books

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Root

Greg Thomas in All About Jazz 

Daniel Matlin in Harvard University Press Blog

Jackie Modeste in her website

Paul Devlin in Slate
(listing myself here so all the links are together)

Greg Carr in his blog

Playthell Benjamin on his blog

Tony Scherman in The Paris Review
 (I take issue with one particular aspect of this piece: the representation of Murray’s living conditions in later years. I addressed this in three tweets on 9/14 in which I note that while perhaps Murray was wearing a hospital gown in bed for some reason on the day Scherman saw him in 2010, he had wonderful nurses who usually dressed him in a nice golf shirt, and often lifted him out of bed to sit in a wheelchair. I tweeted a photo of Murray, me and the writer Sidney Offit, in which Murray was wearing a smart golf shirt.)


There were many notable and interesting tweets about Murray after he died, but I happen to like these, by Imani Perry:

Murray’s last major interview, and a good one
(2004, published 2010) (access required)

freewheeling and candid 1997 interview that Murray included in a book in 2001

For much more, see: Conversations with Albert Murray, edited by Roberta S. Maguire (University Press of Mississippi, 1997)

And Devlin was also intrigued by my strongly-worded suggestions that young white jazz musicians should learn about Albert Murray and know how “Carolina Shout” goes. The following, “…Celebrates Murray and backs up your Murrayesque admonishments by sharing some inspiring published quotes from Murray on the nature of education and continuing education.”

Notes on Albert Murray and Discernment in the Arts: Shopping at Tower Records, Murray and Saul Bellow, and more.

I’d intended for my article on Mr. Murray for Slate combined with what I co-read at his memorial to be my last statements on him for a while, but Ethan’s kind invitation to write something allowed me to see the possibility of connecting certain threads regarding Ethan’s considerations of Murray’s legacy combined with the study of the arts in general. Certainly Murray is far from the only source of admonishments to learn and study, but his humor, his perfect balance of reverence and irreverence, and enthusiasm make him an excellent guide. In many ways Murray’s thinking parallels the ideas set forth in Italo Calvino’s 1981 essay “Why Read the Classics?,” a delightful, highly teachable, and more or less successful attempt to pin down a tricky subject. “Why Read the Classics?” has applicability to all the arts (not just literature). Calvino, like Murray, understands “the classics” to be a semi-permament-yet-somewhat-fluid group of works. Calvino’s essay relates the classics to fourteen definitions. Ultimately, for Calvino, “your” classics – your personal, obscure, or idiosyncratic choices become added to a foundation of more widely agreed upon works. Murray’s “classics” included writers not often discussed today (and whom he did not discuss much until you got to know him), such as Sigrid Undset, Frederic Prokosch, and Lucius Beebe, in addition to those he often mentioned: Hemingway and Faulkner, Melville and Frederick Douglass, Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch, Auden and Millay, Twain and Henry James. And, certainly, he was on the lookout for new writers. (He counted Joan Didion, August Wilson, and Reynolds Price among his more recent favorites.)

Murray liked to tell the following story: one night as Henry James was leaving a dinner party, someone filled his bowler hat with water, unbeknownst to him. When he put it on, water poured over his head. W.H. Auden is said to have said, upon hearing the story, that it could not have happened, because he [Auden], could not imagine James’s reaction. Well, I was trying to imagine, and could imagine Murray’s reaction to hearing that 10 out of 10 pianists on a given occasion couldn’t name “Carolina Shout.” Certainly he’d make points to the effect that 1) it’s a great piece of music enjoyable independent from the context of being 2) an influential part of a major tradition that 3) your competition just might know all about. So, if you want to be hip, you know, go and listen. (Quote from Murray’s second novel, The Spyglass Tree, 1991: “Boy, this woman’s got judgment about people like old James P’s striding left hand. She don’t hardly ever miss.”)

In an outstanding 1997 profile (included in this 2010 book, the first book on Murray), journalist Roy Hoffman accompanies Murray to the Strand Bookstore:

A book clerk cats over a stack of tomes held aside for Murray: Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson, Hemingway. ‘These are like a reprimand,’ Murray says, shaking his head at so many books, so little time. ‘Like you should read Bury’s History of Greece.’


Murray turns his head in wonderment: two million books. …’I can’t figure out,’ Murray says, meditating on the endless worlds waiting to be explored, ‘why anybody would want to remain stupid with all this stuff around.’”

I imagine him laughing his exuberant laugh as he said that – because he usually laughed when he said things like that. Now, those had to be new editions of Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson, and Hemingway because they were writers he’d been reading since the 1930s. I don’t know if he ever got to that history of Greece written in 1900 but he did own books by Werner Jaeger.

In a 1997 lecture given at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Murray said “The characterization of ‘heiress of all the ages’ that Henry James applied to the heroine of Daisy Miller, Milly Theale of The Wings of the Dove, and Maggie Verver of The Golden Bowl not only applied to his friend Isabella Stewart Gardner as well but to all contemporary Americans.” This is not American exceptionalism, but another way of advocating for the “museum without walls,” an idea expressed in Malraux’s monumental history of art, The Voices of Silence, which advocated not for seeing art out of context, but in the deepest possible context afforded by new mass media (fifty years before the internet). With the “museum without walls” in mind, Murray never stopped learning and studying. Murray called his intellectual world the “Cosmos Murray” – just as you can call your world the “Cosmos [you]” – which is another way of saying he lived in his own “museum without walls.”

On many an afternoon I accompanied him to the long-gone Tower Records near Lincoln Center. A long browse through the jazz and big band section on the second floor was invariably followed by the slow walk (he was still using a walker at this time) across the checkout area, (sometimes including a glance at the music books – they almost never stocked his books), past the checkout area, and over to the classical section behind the huge glass doors and giant glass wall. He liked and investigated much more music than he ever wrote about (in books such as Stomping the Blues). He was deeply interested in late Nineteenth and Twentieth century European and Euro-American art music (from Janacek and Dvorak, Debussy and Satie, to Antheil, Ives, Barber, and so on). I shouldn’t fixate on the early twentieth century: Bach and Buxtehude were also important to him. He’d make a large purchase of music, then go home and listen to it. He was in his 80s! He’d do it again next week or two weeks later. He’d say, if you have the dough, you should buy this. If I didn’t have the dough, or didn’t feel like buying a particular item, it didn’t matter one bit to him – that is, he didn’t take offense. I bought what I wanted and could afford, and I almost always followed his recommendations within reason. He would never recommend listening to say, James Brown or Curtis Mayfield, but when I asked him about both, at different times, he didn’t hesitate to express his (qualified) admiration for them.

I once told him, in a moment of youthful ignorance and stupidity that I didn’t really care for Ellington’s “Satin Doll.” He knew I’d been listening to Ellington intently. It was around the time we’d been discussing, on and off, the three-disc “Blanton-Webster Band” (c. 1940) album. (Murray loved the under-appreciated “Chocolate Shake.”). So, I told him that I didn’t dig “Satin Doll.” I think I was trying to figure out what was good about it and figured he’d tell me. He laughed out loud, like I’d just told a really funny joke, and said “I guess you’ve never danced to ‘Satin Doll’ with a beautiful woman!” …Good point! (I was 21 years old and was getting into the blues, jazz, big bands. After a long immersion in hip-hop from elementary through high school, I’d grew interested jazz partially through following the samples used in hip-hop beats.) I love “Satin Doll” now. I figured out how to listen to it; I learned to enjoy slower music. But, the point is, I think he was glad that I’d listened, knew the tune, formed an opinion (albeit an idiotic one) and had the audacity to share it with him (and create the set-up for a classic Murray riposte).

With all this in mind I’d like to turn in a literary direction and discuss up Murray’s complex relationship with Saul Bellow and his work. Murray knew Bellow. He didn’t know him nearly as well as his friend Ralph Ellison did, but Murray and Bellow had known one another since 1950. In early 1995 Bellow wrote a letter to Murray praising Murray’s first book The Omni-Americans (1970). Bellow tells Murray that The Omni-Americans gets to the “heart of the matter” of race and fiction in the United States in “a flash of diagnostic genius.” From the opening of the letter it is clear that this is the first time that Bellow had written to Murray, and he begins by thanking Murray for sending him some books. (The exchange seems like a follow-up to having seen each other after Ellison’s death in 1994.) I’d heard of this letter’s existence from Michael James (1942-2007), Duke Ellington’s nephew and confidant of Ellington, Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, and Murray. Mike had read it at some point, or perhaps Murray read it to him.

Shortly after the novelist Benjamin Taylor put in an ad in The New York Review of Books asking if anyone had letters from Bellow for possible inclusion in a book of Bellow’s letters, I explained this to Murray. He recalled the letter’s existence and he gave me permission to search for it, figuring it would be tucked into one of Bellow’s books. Murray’s books were often texts in the orbit of a given book: related clippings, reviews, post-cards, and notes from various authors, something related to the particular book.  So, Murray owned almost all of Bellow’s books, but the letter was not there. Murray was ill, but still lucid at the time, though he did not remember what he did with the letter, nor did he seem particularly interested in my search for it. He wanted the letter to be found for the book, but when I couldn’t find it, he didn’t really seem concerned or disappointed. Anyway, a copy of the letter turned up later on – after the book was published. (I reviewed Bellow’s letters here.) Murray was indifferent to its non-inclusion. He respected Bellow’s work but didn’t love it, didn’t re-read it, didn’t ever tell me to read it,( though he knew I read and enjoyed Bellow’s work). In an essay on Hemingway in his 1996 collection The Blue Devils of Nada Murray includes a tough critique of Bellow’s first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim. And yet, in a 1997 interview, the interviewer laments that a prominent new dictionary of culture included essays on many writers and yet left out Bellow (a Nobel Prize winner, after all). Murray replies, after a long riff about how what people need to know is the result of “pragmatism” rather than “multi-cultural pieties” he continues: “As a student of contemporary literature I don’t need to know very much about Alice Walker, for example, but I think I would get caught with my pants down if I didn’t know anything at all about Bellow. I don’t think you can get through the forties or fifties and sixties in American literature and not know anything about Bellow.”

Now, possibly that is unfair to Walker (Murray does say “not very much” and not “nothing”) but it is not at all untrue of Bellow, whose reputation, it seems to me, has risen among serious critics and many novelists in the intervening years. Murray is not going to tell you to read a black writer because she is black. (Nor was he going to recommend listening to a black jazz musician just because he or she is black.) He wasn’t crazy about Bellow’s work, but he yet recognized and understood its importance and influence, and thought it should be studied. (I wish I’d asked him what he thought about Bellow’s  short story “Looking For Mr. Green” (1951), a masterpiece in which a white worker attempts to deliver a relief check in a black neighborhood of Chicago in the 1930s. I read it after it was too late to really discuss it with him.)

In that interview Murray was responding in a particularly political way to a specific political question about a specific book, in a 90s late-culture war way about how to address the problems of a curriculum. (This is a bit more clear in the context of the entire interview.) He did not really read Bellow or Walker for fun, though he knew their work. Though you know what he means, his juxtaposition of pragmatism versus multi-cultural piety can be thoroughly argued with. Where does one necessarily begin and the other necessarily end? Also, what is being studied? The novelist’s art or literary and cultural history? And where does one necessarily begin and the other end? Murray most certainly did not believe in the study of art in a vacuum separate from the context of its creation, just the opposite. More importantly, for Murray, at the end of the day, does a work of art swing? In another 1997 interview – one of my favorite, and not online – he tells a curator from the Whitney Museum, after a long, wise, and abstract discussion of ritual and aesthetics, “even the most closely codified play activity permits personal options from which not only individual expression but also individual improvisation, stylization, and elegance emerge. When you turn…raw experience into a style, the style becomes the statement. And it is the extension, elaboration, and refinement of such option-taking that add up to the aesthetic statement that is a work of art. Which is to say, a product of elegant artifice. This is how you go from ritual to art. A playful re-enactment is specifically a game of extension, elaboration, and refinement.” And so, when it comes to enjoyment of a work of art, Murrays asks, are its difficult extensions, elaborations, and refinements executed elegantly and in turn, does it thus expand the dimensions of human consciousness? If it does for you, OK. If it does for others more so than you think it might for you, it might still be worth checking up on.

But, back to Alice Walker for a second, if Walker had not worked to rediscover and publicize Zora Neale Hurston in the 1970s, I might not have been able to ask Murray, decades later, what he thought of Hurston. He replied that he’d read her books as they were published, but could not really remember them. (Murray’s work has significant affinities with Hurston’s, to be sure.) His reply had none of the hostility that Ralph Ellison showed toward Hurston in public statements. But, then Murray added, to my surprise, that he’d met Hurston when he was around eleven years old. She was collecting folklore from men in work crews building the Cochrane Bridge outside Mobile, Alabama. Murray and other children were working a sort of casual job, fetching water for the workers taking breaks and so forth. Hurston then wrote an article about Cudjo Lewis, an elderly survivor of the Clotilde, one of the last slave ships to try to enter North America bringing slaves from Africa. (See Hurston, “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver” The Journal of Negro History 12.4, Oct. 1927). It has been claimed that Hurston plagiarized much of that article, but her biographer, Robert Hemenway, claims that about 25% of it – pertaining to Cudjo Lewis – is original. Murray grew up around Cudjo (or Kujjo). Cudjo Lewis lived in African Town, on the outskirts of Mobile, adjacent to where Murray grew up, in Magazine Point, near the wrecked hull of the Clotilde – which was still in the water in the 1920s. In Murray’s first novel Train Whistle Guitar (1974), Cudjo becomes Unka Jo Jo. To echo Rob Gibson’s refrain at Murray’s memorial, “this is serious stuff, man!”