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Review: Albert Murray’s Symphonic Elegance Sings in a New Anthology – The New York Times

Review: Albert Murray’s Symphonic Elegance Sings in a New Anthology – The New York Times

Review: Albert Murray’s Symphonic Elegance Sings in a New Anthology

The novelist and critic Albert Murray at his Harlem home in 1998. Suzanne Mapes/Associated Press
“It is always open season on the truth,” the great cultural critic Albert Murray wrote in his first and probably best book, “The Omni-Americans” (1970), “and there never was a time when one had to be white to take a shot at it.”
Murray (1916-2013) took his share of shots in “The Omni-Americans.” He skewered social scientists for pathologizing black life in what he called “this great hit-and-miss republic.” He poured scorn upon black protest writers and certain novelists, including Richard Wright, for insisting on narratives of victimhood and marginalization. Not for him were novels that “read like interim research reports.”
Part of Murray’s genius was for sounding so cheerful in the midst of battle. He’d pause during an extended and elegant argument to toss off a riff like this one (the dated word “meriny” refers to a light skin and hair tone): “If U.S. Negroes don’t already have self-pride and didn’t know black, brown, beige and freckles, and sometimes even m’riny is beautiful, why do they always sound so good, so warm, and even cuss better than everyone else?” Murray, it should be said, was an imaginative swearer himself. Henry Louis Gates Jr. said of his conversation, “Imagine Redd Foxx with a graduate degree in literature.”
Murray’s other great subject in “The Omni-Americans,” and in almost everything else he wrote, was the primacy of jazz and the blues in American cultural life. He built complex arguments about how these forms were vastly more than untutored improvisation, and about how music allowed black people to tell their story in ways that literature too often could not. Yet he also captured, as well as any writer who’s ever lived, the sweetness, intelligence and grace in both idioms.
Murray’s best nonfiction has been gathered in a plump and welcome volume, “Collected Essays & Memoirs,” edited by Mr. Gates and Paul Devlin, from the Library of America. It contains six of Murray’s books in their entirety, including the resonant travelogue “South to a Very Old Place” (1971), which began as an assignment from the Harper’s Magazine editor Willie Morris.
You can open that book to nearly any page and find a passage like this one, about how stray sounds can take a Southern black man home: “It can be any number of ensemble riffs and solo licks that also go with barbershops and shoeshine parlors; with cigar smoke and the smell and taste of seal-fresh whiskey; with baseball scores and barbecue pits and beer-seasoned chicken-shack tables; with skillets of sizzling mullets or bream or golden crisp oysters plus grits and butter.”
“Collected Essays & Memoirs” also includes his critical opuses “The Hero and the Blues” (1973) and “Stomping the Blues” (1976), as well as several unpublished pieces of writing. It’s a big book — more than 1,000 pages — that feels intimate.

Albert Murray, left, with his friend Ralph Ellison in New York in 1967. Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Murray grew up near Mobile, Ala., and graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in 1939. The novelist Ralph Ellison was a few years ahead of Murray at Tuskegee. Their tastes were in sync; Murray would often find Ellison’s name written on the cards of the library books he checked out.
The men would go on to become friends, though they sometimes tangled. Their friendship is celebrated in a piercing collection of letters, “Trading Twelves” (2000). After college, Murray joined the Army Air Corps and earned a master’s degree from New York University. His writing career began to take off in 1962.
Murray was an omnivorous reader, with a special feeling for the novels of Thomas Mann and William Faulkner. He sometimes referred to Faulkner as Uncle Billy because the novelist delivered so much honest information. Faulkner’s books were there to “pull you aside and provide you with inside insights not readily available to you as an everyday matter of course, because you were neither white nor a personal servant.”
He later likened Faulkner’s prose to Coleman Hawkins’s saxophone playing, and the cadence of Ernest Hemingway’s sentences to classic Kansas City jazz. He was brutal about F. Scott Fitzgerald, ostensibly a Jazz Age writer. Fitzgerald, he wrote, “obviously confused the blues and jazz with razzmatazz, hotcha, and hot diggity dog.”
The soundtrack in Murray’s head was always switched on. Music fed him when he was despondent as well as ecstatic. He argued that W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” was a more plausible national anthem than the one we have. He pointed out how Duke Ellington turned black history into style, and how Ellington made white American composers, by contrast, sound like effete Europeans.
Murray heard music in topics like class and politics. The pride he took in black achievement emanates from his work. Readers, as if they were disc jockeys, could drop the needle almost anywhere in his work. He compared Thurgood Marshall’s opening his briefcase in the Supreme Court, for example, to “Lawrence Brown and Harry Carney” — two of Ellington’s musicians — “unpacking their horns backstage at Carnegie Hall.”
This book gives us Murray in full. His intellectual interests ran alongside a life intensely lived. His writing about racism can prickle your skin. Visiting Atlanta in the 1960s, after spending many years in New York City, he begins to “feel some old familiar twinges of red alertness in that part of you that will never get used to not being welcome.”
But when he gets to Mobile, he notes that he can now sit at the soda-fountain counter and relish the experience. He can be served by “the palest of all pale-face girls” who smiles at him and says “Come agayhan, now, you hear?” — thus, he writes, “democratizing you and howard-johnsoning you at one and the same time.”
“Collected Essays & Memoirs” democratized and howard-johnsoned me. It sent me to Spotify with Murray’s patter in my head. (He cites album after delicious album.) To paraphrase Murray’s praise of Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” reading this book is like watching someone take a 12-bar blues song and score it for full orchestra.


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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