Interview with David Murray (by Paul Devlin)

MRY.026(David Murray performing at a celebration of Albert Murray’s work, Harvard University, March 2017. Mingus Murray on guitar and Rashaan Carter on bass. Photograph by Marcus Halevi used with permission.)

David Murray is one of the most successful musicians of his generation. He is a master of the tenor saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet, as well as a prolific composer, and has recorded dozens of albums as a leader, as well as with groups such as the World Saxophone Quartet and Clarinet Summit. Raised in Berkeley, California, he studied music at Pomona College before moving to New York in 1975. He won a Grammy in 1988, a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1989, and was voted Musician of the Decade by the Village Voice for the 1980s. In 1991 he became the second recipient of Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize. He has been based in Paris since 1998. David Murray and Class Struggle will be playing at the Village Vanguard from May 2-7, 2017. This interview was conducted in person and over the phone in April 2017. -Paul Devlin

Paul Devlin:  You’ve lived in Europe for most of the past twenty years, but you’ve mentioned to me that you’re now re-focusing your attention on the United States.

David Murray: I’m now back in the United States – I’m still going to be playing in Europe as well – but I’m trying to re-enter the scene here. It’s a big deal for me.

PD:  You had a well-received album last year, Perfection, with Terri Lyne Carrington and Geri Allen: The Murray Allen & Carrington Power Trio. Did the reception of the album and the turnout for your gig at Birdland last spring influence your decision?

DM:  They weren’t really related. I came up with the idea in Paris a few years ago. I came up with three new concepts: one was to revive the Clarinet Summit. I used to be in the Clarinet Summit with John Carter, from Texas, a legendary clarinet player, Alvin Batiste, legendary player in New Orleans, and Jimmy Hamilton, a legendary player from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. I was an original member of the Clarinet Summit. They all passed away, so I took it upon myself to recreate the Clarinet Summit. I had the name, as I was the only one alive. I brought Hamiet Bluiett, who had played with me in the World Saxophone Quartet, David Krakauer, from Chicago, and Don Byron. Then, we did a project of my own quartet, with Saul Williams. We did all this at the Winter Jazz Festival three years ago. Then I also put together this group with Terri Lyne Carrington and Gerri Allen. I put the three things out there, and two out of the three worked.

PD:  Clarinet Summit didn’t work?

DM:  No. But I’ll try it again.

PD:  How did the trio come about?

DM:  I realized that the World Saxophone Quartet was on the decline. People were getting older or were moving apart. Now that’s passed and the World Sax Quartet is better to not be together. I wanted another group that was a collective, so I started this thing with Terri and Gerri. I can’t just be David Murray all the time. Sometimes I can wear my own name out. At one point I might have been overexposed, in the 80s. As I get older, I don’t think I can be overexposed.

PD:  What’s it like working with the trio?

DM:  It took us a year to get through the album. Everything is slow with this band, because women discuss things all the way through. Women think all the time, whereas we don’t! The details are very fine in their minds. Working with two great divas – and they’re both divas in their own way – and they demand to be treated as such, which I understand, I dig it! They’re very strong women. I’m not kissin their ass or nothing. Sometimes I annoy them because I always tell my little stupid jokes. But they’ve come to like my jokes. When I thought of this group I wanted to call it the Geri-David-and-Terri Show, like a play on the Tom-and-Jerry thing. They didn’t like that name. Then I say, on stage, I say, “this is called a ‘jazz sandwich’ – but they got laws against that kind of stuff.” I get a little chuckle. Eddie Harris could go for half an hour with jokes. I’m trying to get up to five minutes.

PD:  Clark Terry was so good at that.

DM:  He was very good at it. “You make your liver quiver when you eat a lot of liver!”

PD:  Ha! What has it been like working in Europe over the past twenty years or so?

DM:  I’ve done many projects with 3D Family. 3D Family is a booking agency, started by my wife, Valerie Malot, and me. The first thing we did was Fo Deuk Revue. That was done in Senegal. “Fo Deuk” means “Who are your people? Where do you come from?” We did many projects relating to Africa, relating to the Antilles. We worked with the Gwo-Ka Masters. We did creole projects in Martinique and Guadeloupe. We went to Mauritius. We started a newsletter where I used to do interviews. I did one with Stanley Crouch. I interviewed Ishmael Reed. I interviewed several writers I liked. We were doing projects at Banlieue Bleues, where Valerie ran the social programs.

PD:  What is Banlieues Bleues?

DM:  It’s a big jazz festival that does social programs in twenty-eight cities in the suburbs of Paris. They take care of disenfranchised children. She was the second person in the hierarchy of the festival. We would workshop the projects inside of the social programs. The banlieues, the suburbs, is where they put the ethnic people – middle eastern and black people. They push them out of the city. The government has to have these social programs to cover up its mistakes. Banlieues Bleues is basically a Communist organization in that it’s under the umbrella of the Communist party. The Communist party always loses, and when you lose, you have to be compensated for losing, at least over there. They give you these social programs where you have to help people.

PD:  Is it an educational program for the most part?

DM:  We do workshops. I did a gospel project with Fontella Bass. She had a chance to do workshops and expose French people to African American gospel.

PD:  Is it mostly about teaching children about music or are there other components?

DM:  We were involved in the Stop Ebola project. Valerie and 3D Family won an award from USAID. They came up with a concept to start a talent show in which people sang songs to explain what to do when coming into contact with Ebola – don’t touch the body, get away, don’t bathe the body – do all these things to prevent Ebola. It was timely. The songs were sung in different dialects. The talent show gave out cash prizes. It brought an awareness of the dangers of Ebola, to try to stop it from spreading. She’s a brilliant woman.

PD:  What other sorts of things have you been involved with since leaving New York in the late 90s?

DM:  We went to Cuba seven times. Valerie was booking Manolito Simonet.

PD:  When did you go to Cuba for the first time?

DM:  Seventeen or eighteen years ago. I’ve done three albums there. One was my Pushkin Suite. Then I had a Latin big band. We toured it in Europe. We did Nat King Cole en Español.

PD:  With all this going on, why return?

DM: She sent me back here really – ‘go back and take what’s yours; claim what’s yours.’ I left the U.S. at the top of my career. My son Ruben was born. I was on a high note. And my producer, Bob Thiele, had just died when I decided it was time for a change. He died the day I was supposed to do my sixth album with him. He’s the one who took me to Columbia in the first place.

PD:  It must seem so different today, after having worked with a giant like Thiele.

DM:  I’m the missing link between cats getting paid and cats not getting paid. Bob would pay me $40,000 for a record date. There are young people who want to come in and play for hardly anything. That messes up the business. We used to actually get paid for doing records. We charge professional money to play concerts, whereas a lot of these kids don’t get paid as professionals. When I got back here the first thing I understood was that the pay had gone far too low. People come out of college and want to be in somebody’s band, or have a band that sounds like a college homework assignment. When I came to New York, I hired the coolest guys I could think of – I hired Eddie Blackwell, Ray Drummond, Andrew Cyrille, and John Hicks. When you have a bad night as a young man, you don’t have the experience to make up for it. But when you look around and have 200 years of experience on the bandstand, that helps you. When you have other guys from your classroom on the bandstand, that doesn’t help you. When I came here in 1975, for an independent study program through Pomona College, my job was to listen and to write articles. My professors were Stanley Crouch, Bobby Bradford, and Dr. William Russell. I did that for a semester. Dewey Redman told me to put the pencil down and pick up my saxophone. I got sucked into the New York jazz scene. I was playing in the lofts, and in some jazz sessions. But I was mostly listening. I interviewed Cecil Taylor. I interviewed McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, John Cage. Everybody needs to listen.

PD:  When did the loft scene start to fade?

DM:  I was the first guy out of the loft scene to start playing in the clubs. We played in the Tin Palace days, but I started getting gigs at Sweet Basil in the early 80s. Once I started moving out, other guys started moving out. One of the strongest guys was Arthur Blythe, who just passed away.

PD:  Did you know him well?

DM:  Oh yeah. I met him in Pomona. He was part of Stanley Crouch’s band. Stanley was the drummer and the leader of Black Music Infinity. He had great organizational skills. He was a professor in the black studies program and we used to play in different black studies programs at colleges and universities around Los Angeles. Stanley is very conceptual – he has a conceptual mind for music – let’s forget about him as a writer for a moment: as a musician, he’s a great thinker. He helped me to absorb the concepts of people like Albert Ayler, like Coltrane. The history of jazz is something that he knew very early. Bobby Bradford was there to teach him in the first place. So I had these brilliant minds around me. Then there was John Carter and Arthur Blythe around too, and the very studious James Newton. And Butch Morris. They were all my seniors. I was like a sponge, trying to take it all in. Arthur Blythe taught me circular breathing with a candle.

PD:  How did that work?

DM:  Well, you know, you’d blow a candle, without the saxophone. You keep it going at an angle.

PD:  You make sure the flame is at a certain angle?

DM:  Yeah, you keep it there, don’t let it come up, don’t let it come back too far. You’re constantly blowing air.

PD:  That sounds like something from The Karate Kid.

DM: [laughter] It was, in fact.

PD:  How long would you do it for?

DM:  Until I got it down. At the same time, you’re learning how to use your diaphragm, and then how to use your muscles in the back of your mouth to push the air forward.

PD:  But you’d been playing for years by this time.

DM:  I’d been playing for years.

PD:  But this was a new level?

DM:  Yeah, but I asked him, because I really wanted to know what Rahsaan Roland Kirk was doing, because he’s the greatest that ever did it. The power part of it was what fascinated me. When you circular-breath and use your body in a muscular way, you overpower the notes and make the notes change tones at the same time. It’s like a balance of air, power, force, notes, and timbre at the same time.

PD:  You’d been playing in church, in funk bands, and in hippie bands around the San Francisco Bay area. At that early stage, did you think you knew everything, and did these guys in Pomona then open up another world?

DM:  Well, I learned the term avant-garde. I wanted to be a new musician. I wanted to sound different from when I was playing with Junius Courtney and the Cavaliers, which was a band I played with when I was in high school. Courtney wasn’t on the level of Louis Armstrong, but he was from New Orleans. Then there was Papa Colonico, who taught me how to play the flute and the clarinet. These are old school guys from Ellington’s and Basie’s generation. They’d hang out at the musicians’ union, like a social club. The black musicians’ union had terminated about fifteen years before that. We’re talking about ’71. It had terminated, but there was still a left over social club aspect to it.

PD:  This was in Berkeley?

DM:  This was in San Francisco and Oakland. When the black musicians joined with the white musicians’ union, it was a bad deal for the black musicians. The same thing happened in L.A. There’s a book about that.

PD:  So the black union was defunct, but it became like a social club, and you go could go down there and talk to the guys?

DM:  You could get cats to give you lessons. You could be around real musicians. Mostly, they were drinking, and playing and practicing. If Ellington or Basie came to town and needed spare musicians, they’d get these guys. You might look up and see Papa Colonico playing with Ellington or Basie. In every chocolate city there were unions like that and musicians like that.

PD:  And today, you’re leading a band of younger guys.

DM:  I don’t want the old guys to fall down. [laughter] I have two great piano players. I’ve got Lafayette Gilchrist and D. D. Jackson. They’re about fifty. But there are guys under them, whom they tutor. They’re about the same age I was when I was hanging out with the guys in the World Sax Quartet.

PD:  The group you’ll be bringing in to the Village Vanguard from May 2-7, David Murray and Class Struggle, has a young rhythm section.

DM:  My son, Mingus, is the youngest. They’re all around the same age. It takes you about ten years out of college to really be somebody.

PD:  What’s it like playing with that younger rhythm section today, with Rashaan Carter on bass, Russell Carter on drums, and your son Mingus on guitar?

PD:  The Carters’ father is a tenor player. He plays locally around the DC area. Their mother is an educator. They went to Duke Ellington High School. I’ve done workshops there. They’re both very fine musicians. Being brothers, they have a bond. They know where one another is going. For me, the rhythm section has always been bass and drums.

PD:  Not piano?

DM:  The piano player has his feet in both tanks.

PD:  And guitar?

DM:  Guitar is a rhythm instrument, so he’s with them. But to have a piano and a guitar is unusual. The way Mingus plays, the way I’ve brought him up to play – he’s bringing a lot of rhythm to the gig. He’s bringing contemporary music. He knows R&B. He knows contemporary sounds. Plus, he studies the blues very hard. He plays steel guitar. He’s studied Taj Mahal. He’s studied the Alan Lomax field holler recordings. He’s also studying with Ed Cherry. But my son is somebody who can connect me with the sound of now.

PD:  How did you come up with the name David Murray and Class Struggle?

DM:  It comes from a poem called “Class Struggle in Music” by Amiri Baraka. I accompanied him on a recording of it.

PD:  How long has the group been working together?

DM:  The first time we played in New York was at the Visions Festival a few years ago. It’s basically a group I started with Mingus. There is a class struggle in music. It started with loft jazz.

PD:  Circa ’75, who would’ve been the opposition to that?

DM:  Everybody who played bebop. And swing. We were coming out of Monk, but more removed than Monk. I’m re-reading this book on Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley. It’s really good, but people get tired of reading good stuff when reading about jazz. They don’t want to think too hard. A lot of people got frustrated with Albert Murray on that too – people just want a few sentences – they don’t know about the sustenance of the blues. But he broke it down.

PD:  When reading Albert Murray, particularly Stomping the Blues, sometimes people can get hung up making the jump from the folk blues to Basie or Ellington.

DM:  The fact that he even thought it was sophisticated turned some people off. Europeans love Africans when they don’t comb their hair. See, in Europe, they’ll see a light-skinned black, and they’ll say, ‘he’s black, but he’s not really black.’ Here, politically, we’ve defined who we are as African Americans. In Europe, they use their definition of us rather than our definition of us. We have to say these things to continue to define who we are as people. That’s what Albert Murray was saying when he described the afro hair style as “Afro-Brillo,” rather than describing “the natural.” He says that because he knows exactly what he means. He’s very specific. There are white people who resent those distinctions because it destroys their idea of the nigger serving coffee. Or those lawn jockeys. Sometimes I would go to a restaurant in Portugal that had one. I’d always throw some shit at it. The owner says, ‘man why you always messing with my jockey?’ I say it makes me not want to come in here!

PD:  You’d throw a gum wrapper or something at it?

DM:  Yeah. I said ‘you’re lucky I don’t spit on it.’ I tell him, ‘I like you, but that part of you, I don’t like.’

PD:  So, you were in the avant-garde, but then you gravitated toward blues and swing? Or were you never really separated from it?

DM:  When I came to New York, and put myself in the situation of the loft jazz musicians, I knew a little more music than a lot of those guys.

PD:  You told me once that older musicians liked you because you could play ballads.

DM: I could play ballads. I could read music. I could do a lot of things. There were a lot of charlatans there. I was playing with guys that really liked to blow hard, blow-slobber. I liked the blow-slobber thing, too. But when I started playing at the clubs, I got a lot of criticism for that too.

PD:  Just for playing in clubs?

DM: You asked me about the class struggle – this was part of that. When I was stepping out of the avant-garde, moving on up, and trying to make some money.

PD:  Were you playing the same music in the clubs or something else?

DM:  No. I think Stanley called it “gut bucket swing.” It was cool. I liked that.

PD:  How is what you’re playing today different from what you were playing then?

DM:  My tone has changed. It’s become rounder. I’m not as heavy as I used to be. At one point I got pretty large, in the 80s. As you become older your embouchure changes. What you lose in enthusiasm, you gain in dexterity. I strive to become more of a virtuoso. If you study most people who play tenor for a long time, they sound different in their 40s than in their 20s. In their 60s they sound different than in their 40s. As tenor players get older, we tend to play fewer notes, but with more authority. We play the truer tones. Even in the kind of music I play, I feel my notes are getting more selective. I don’t have to fool around with unnecessary notes. Some of my predecessors – Archie Shepp, Paul Gonsalves, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins – got a chance to mature in their sound. Part of the maturation process on the tenor is to become more frugal with your note selection. Some notes ring on the tenor saxophone more so than on other instruments. There are certain notes inside of a chord – if you hit the right tones in the measure, you don’t need to spell out every note inside of a chord. It takes experience to do that. You have to tell a story on the tenor saxophone. A young musician won’t tell the same stories as an older musician – a musician who has been through divorces, who has been through the travails and tribulations of life. Some of the truest stories in jazz have been told on the tenor saxophone. When you hear a story being told, you take note.

David Murray website.

Paul Devlin is co-editor (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) of the Library of America’s definitive edition of Albert Murray’s work. Volume one, non-fiction and memoirs, was published in October 2016. Volume two, fiction and poetry, will be published in 2018. Paul edited a collection of Murray’s previously uncollected and unpublished interviews and music writings, Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Blues and Jazz (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), and Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones as told to Albert Murray (Minnesota, 2011), a finalist for the Jazz Journalists Association’s book award. Paul’s writing has appeared in many publications, including newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. He holds a Ph.D. in English (2014). He is on Twitter @pauldevlin.