Sunny Murray, Influential Free-Jazz Drummer, Is Dead at 81
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLODEC. 14, 2017
Sunny Murray performing in the Netherlands in 1991. He moved to Paris in 1968 and spent most of the rest of his life in Europe. Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Sunny Murray, an influential drummer who was among the first to define a personal style in the free-jazz idiom, died on Dec. 7 in Paris. He was 81.
His half brother, Conny Murray, said the cause was multiple organ failure.
Mr. Murray was still finding his footing on New York’s jazz scene in 1960 when he met the pianist Cecil Taylor, a rising star of the avant-garde. The two played together at a jam session, and they clicked.
“I don’t know what I did, but he looked over his shoulder and said, ‘Do that again. You’ve got the will, so the spirits will do it.’ I’ll never forget that,” Mr. Murray told the writer A. B. Spellman for his 1966 book “Four Lives in the Bebop Business.”
Mr. Murray and Mr. Taylor soon forged a partnership that, though short-lived, was a watershed in jazz history. They made only a few recordings together, but “Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come” — a double LP captured during a trio performance in Copenhagen in 1962 — would become a seminal document.
Mr. Murray was establishing himself as the first drummer willing to match Mr. Taylor’s free-flowing method — namely by abandoning a time-keeping role, and treating the drum set as a palette of textures more than a percussion instrument. By creating friction between the tones of his drums and cymbals, he sought to create new dimensions and hues, rather than pulse.
“I was able to interpret the difference between the sharp, quick sound and the slow, deep sound of percussion and manipulate it, get a third sound out of things,” he told the journalist Dan Warburton in 2000. “I wanted to get more from the beat than just the beat.”
Touring with Mr. Taylor in 1962, Mr. Murray met Albert Ayler, a young American tenor saxophonist living in Europe. Impressed by his broad, ululating sound and his ambivalence toward linear melodies, Mr. Murray quickly befriended Mr. Ayler, offering to split his room and wages with him for the rest of the tour if Mr. Taylor would let him join the band.
Mr. Murray’s partnership with Mr. Ayler was better documented than the one with Mr. Taylor. On “Spiritual Unity,” a classic album recorded in 1964, Mr. Ayler’s sound bursts forth, erupting in notes and smears and abrasions. Mr. Murray lathers him in cymbals and pattering snare drum, giving the music an elevated, almost celestial air. The task of keeping a pulse, even an irregular one, falls almost entirely to the bassist, Gary Peacock.
The next year, Mr. Murray recorded his first album as a bandleader, “Sonny’s Time Now,” the first of only three recordings to be released on Jihad, a label run by Amiri Baraka (who was then known as LeRoi Jones).
In 1966, Mr. Murray received DownBeat magazine’s “New Star” award in the drum category. Irritated that the award lacked a cash prize, he did something that manifested the frustration felt by many on the free-jazz scene: He took the award to the DownBeat offices and burned it on the floor.
“I decided to revolt,” he told Mr. Warburton.
James Marcellus Arthur Murray Jr. was born in Idabel, Okla., on Sept. 21, 1936, the son of James Murray, a preacher and gardener, and the former Myrtle Lee Rice, a domestic worker. He grew up in Philadelphia.
As a teenager, Mr. Murray became involved in gangs and spent a brief term in prison. When he got out, he survived a nearly fatal stabbing and an accident at a steel factory that sliced off parts of three fingers. He decided to leave Philadelphia soon after, moving to New York in 1956.
Mr. Murray worked for a few years in the band of the hard-bop tenor saxophonist Rocky Boyd, and sometimes sat in with Jackie McLean and James Moody, both prominent saxophonists. Even in those relatively mainstream scenarios, he insisted on playing with an untethered approach that drew disdain from most of the musicians around him. It was not until he met Mr. Taylor that he found an ally.
After establishing a reputation alongside Mr. Taylor and Mr. Ayler, he recorded a string of albums as a leader, including “Sunny Murray,” a 1966 release on ESP-Disk, and, following a move to Paris in 1968, “Sunshine” and “Homage to Africa,” both recorded in 1969 for the European BYG label.
Mr. Murray returned to New York in the 1970s but soon moved back to Europe, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was seldom seen onstage in the United States after that, though he continued to perform and record regularly.
In an addition to his half brother, his survivors include his partner, Isabelle Soumilliard; three sons, James Jr., Haniff and Oforie; a daughter, Pia; and two grandchildren.
Years after their partnership ended, Mr. Taylor retained a special fondness for Mr. Murray. “He can play those drums,” he told the journalist Howard Mandel for his 2007 book, “Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz,” comparing Mr. Murray favorably to three of his more famous forebears on the instrument: Tony Williams, Max Roach and Art Blakey.
“Tony, yes. Max, yes. And Blakey. But Sunny!”
Correction: December 14, 2017
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the date of Mr. Murray’s death. He died on Dec. 7, not Dec. 8.