Albert Murray, American Metaphysician

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In early 1996, Albert Murray agreed to talk to me for a half hour about my dissertation research in his Harlem apartment after a short phone conversation and it quickly turned into an epic four-hour mentor–disciple discussion about music, dance, and vernacular American culture. I was then building a theory of jazz and industrialization on two of his critical terms from Stomping the Blues: first, the idea of African-American music and dance as “survival technology” (or “survival technique,” one of his favorite expressions); second, his concept of “locomotive onomatopoeia” as an American musical grammar, in that by stylizing train rhythms and sounds, musicians created a foundation for vernacular popular music. Duke Ellington told Murray once: “Jazz is [often] a matter of onomatopoeia,” and so the question is, as he said to me, “What are you imitating?” My hypothesis was that during the “Machine Age” of art, jazz musicians were imitating and stylizing factory and urban rhythms, transmuting them into the primal human pleasures of music and dance. Murray saw merit in my theory “because it [jazz] has the onomatopoetic quality built in … and because it’s flexible enough to adapt to it.”

That was all the encouragement I needed and a good thing, too, since within ten minutes this initial exchange dissolved into the controlled whirlwind of Albert Murray’s intellectual universe. “Hector Boletho,” he suddenly cried out happily and waved me over to the stepladder near his bookshelves and up, up, up, “second shelf from the top, thin volume named Leviathan,” and there was an essay, “The Sound of the Zeitgeist,” about the symbolic revolution of the saxophone in the 1920s. Then we spoke of ritual and he roared, “Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 1942, third shelf,” then onto American existentialism, “Hemingway, Winner Take Nothing, nineteen and thirty-three, bottom shelf.” Murray told me his five-stage theory of art, from a new form’s near-sacred aesthetic power to its declension into simple recreation. Art is about transcending something, he suggested, while deep play is abouttransmuting something. At the time, I thought it was an interesting synthesis of Nietzsche and the Tao Te Ching.

Two hours later, after an exchange about our mutual admiration for jazz legend Lester Young, Murray stood up on his four-pronged silver cane and said, “It’s time we had some Armagnac.” I didn’t know what Armagnac was at the time. We walked over to a rolling bar and he opened up three or four small jewel boxes. Each had a small, engraved silver chalice representing each of his books. He pointed: Which one did I want to drink from? I was too honored to speak but managed to point at Good Morning Blues, the autobiography he wrote with Count Basie. Murray drank from The Seven-League Boots, his most recent novel in the Scooter saga.

Albert Murray’s subject was affirmation vs. existential angst: His field of study was art and aesthetics. He was at heart a metaphysician, something that would have been more clear if he called The Blue Devils of Nada something like Blues and Nothingness to contrast it with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Their subject matter was the same. As early as 1953, Murray and his friend Ralph Ellison mocked existentialism as highbrow “survival technique” for an intellectual elite. In an exchange of letters, they discussed blues as itself an existential art form, but one with universal appeal as it came from the daunting challenge of overcoming slavery and racism.

For Murray, the blues and jazz, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and Joan Didion, Ellington and Bessie Smith are all on a continuum of survival technique: They are existential innovators creating affirmative culture for everyday people to interpret their lives. And that’s just his American cast. Murray was the hippest intellectual of the twentieth century: The narrative structure of his novels came from combining Thomas Mann’s epic novels with Ellington’s compositional method; his prose voice jazzed up James Joyce by way of Count Basie’s rhythm section; his theory of affirmation in Afro-US music came from Kenneth Burke via Andre Malraux. This cast all appears by name in Stomping the Blues and yet the color line in scholarship frames Murray as a Black intellectual writing on one side of the color line. This Jim-Crowing of American cultural analysis hurts all concerned.

For something as misunderstood as African-American expressive culture, Stomping the Blues (1976) exploded into an analytical vacuum. Murray looks at the blues as if it is a jewel: a chapter on the genre name itself, then on the blues as sung, the blues as played in jazz, the blues as danced, the blues as ritual, and finally, the blues as liturgical music for the Saturday Night Function (in contrast to the gospel used for the Sunday Morning Service). Murray narrates the work in prose as exuberant as Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and punctuated with jubilant photos that send each point home. If Kenneth Burke defined “the symbolic act as the dancing of an attitude,” this was Murray’s book-length study of the blues as such. The book draws on Burke right off the bat, transmuting Burke’s idea of literature as “equipment for living” to music.

Murray has few peers with respect to the social function of the artist’s role in a democracy. His work belongs in any conversation that runs from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Alexis de Tocqueville through to John Dewey and William Carlos Williams, and his writings on American identity will endure and (I believe) be found prescient. He was a pluralist. When he famously claimed our culture is “incontestably mulatto,” he meant two things: first, that there is no American culture without African-American music and dance, humor and language, aesthetics and kinesthetic; second, that every American is multicultural based on the foundational intermixture of the nation and on ongoing cultural exchange. All of Murray’s nonfiction books braid three things: American vernacular art and aesthetics; the philosophy of the blues (broadly conceived); and the African-American struggle for social equality. In terms of the latter, as Eric Foner has shown, this struggle has defined and re-defined the very word and concept of “freedom” since the Civil War.

Albert Murray confidently theorized the two formative aesthetic elements of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the gifts” of the slaves to American culture. First and foremost, the affirmative impulse in the groove that pulsates and rejuvenates the spirit, from ragtime to hip-hop. “Everybody profits by the affirmative outlook the slaves had on life [to survive],” he said. Second, the quality of improvisation—the room for individuality—in each musical form, often called “the break” in jazz. This was the main thrust of artistic analysis in The Hero and the Blues: When the band drops out, the musician faces the void just as a writer faces a blank piece of paper, except in public and in real time. Right then the musician has to spontaneously compose something worthy of getting himself, the band, and the audience over to the other side. He looked up to see if I understood and then jumped through time and space back into Harlem in the 1930s to drive home his point: “every day is like either … cut your throat or be down at the Savoy [Ballroom] by 9:30.” In other words, the importance of music and dance to African Americans, and by extension to everyone willing to participate, is that musicians and dancers collaborate in this rejuvenatory ritual. Together, everyone stomps their blues away.

At one point, Murray criticized his disciple Wynton Marsalis’s epic composition Blood on the Fields for the overly somber movements that represent slavery. “You gotta have some affirmation in there. You a colored boy,” he looked up as if Marsalis was sitting there with us, “[and] black folks gotta cut loose sometime.” I would add: Everyone has to cut loose sometime. And everyone mostly cuts loose to music indebted to African-American methods of musical practice. This is not a black-white cultural thing in terms of critical engagement, and yet we have made it so.

Just before I left I asked Murray for his thoughts on the concept of cool; I was just beginning my inquiry into its origins in jazz culture. “Cool is just the stylization of everyday life,” he said simply. Did he mean something along the lines of what Willie “The Lion” Smith once said about James P. Johnson’s elegant physical gestures, “that every movement was like a picture”? Like that? He nodded, exactly. Then he repeated the leitmotif of the entire afternoon: “Remember: The first object of aesthetic statement is to affect the mind.” I understood: none of this is simply about style or fun, vanity or virtuosity. It is embodied philosophy enacted as a form of cultural leadership.

Albert Murray was (and is) a hero of the blues.It is up to scholars, intellectuals, and Americans of every ethnicity to catch up to his pluralist vision of the embodied philosophies of Afro-US music and dance. It is a global legacy by which the human race continues to stomp its blues away, individually and socially, whether we call the music blues or funk, techno or soul, Afrobeat or hip-hop.

RIP Albert Murray, may you dance in peace.

Lester Young and the Birth of Cool

The origins of cool are in 1940s jazz culture and the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young coined it first to refer to a state of mind. When Young said, “I’m cool" or "that's cool," he meant “I'm calm," "I'm keeping it together," or "I'm relaxed in this environment, and in my own style." African-American cool can be seen as an ideal state of balance, a calm-but-engaged state of mind between the emotional poles of "hot" (excited, aggressive, intense, hostile) and "cold" (unfeeling, efficient, mechanistic). Jazz musicians often use the concise phrase, "relaxed intensity," as a synonym for cool. In effect, cool meant then what "chill" means now.


Young's strategies of style were as influential as his artistic innovations. His renowned use of hip slang influenced jazz culture, Beat generation writers, and the counter-culture of the 1960s. He wore shades on-stage at night and indoors as a marker of cool defiance and self-insulation. His renowned sense of humor and trademark pork-pie hat, and silent, expressive sadness generated so much jazzlore he remains a model of the hip jazz musician. He expressed his inner pain artistically and wore blank facial expression to resist the white gaze such that he embodied two aspects of cool that seem contradictory:  artistic expressiveness and emotional self-control.


Four core African-American concepts merge into the concept of cool and all still influence contemporary usage. First, to be cool meant to maintain a relaxed attitude in performance of any kind, whether on-stage or walking in public. Second, to be cool was to project emotional self-control as if wearing a "cool mask" in the face of hostile, provocative outside forces. Third, to be cool was to create a unique, individual style -- or sound -- that communicated something of your inner spirit. Fourth, cool was an artistic ideal of emotional communication within an artistic field of rules and restraint (such as jazz or art or basketball).  Then and now, cool is also just the word used to express aesthetic approval of any impressive performance ("cool!"). 


Lester Young created the "cool" saxophone style and he is the father of the "cool school" of jazz. His ground-breaking swing-era records were made with Billie Holiday or the Count Basie Orchestra. Young was Holiday's musical soulmate and they bestowed the nicknames on each other that stuck for life: she dubbed him "Pres" because he was "the president of all saxophone players," and Young dubbed her "Lady Day." He burst into recorded jazz history in 1936 with a revolutionary and modern tenor sound:  fast, floating, airy, clean, light.  His combination of lightning speed, blues feeling, rhythmic balance, precise articulation and inexhaustible melodic ideas made him something like the Michael Jordan of jazz.  Dizzy Gillespie called it a "cool, flowing style" to emphasize the long, fluid phrases, strategic use of silence and space, and rhythmic mastery.


 Young's whole life was self-consciously dedicated to being original on the Romantic model -- in his music, in his mannerisms, in his style of detachment –as if being original was the vital force of life itself.  He was 'cool' – calm and imperturbable. Jack Kerouac worshiped Lester Young and his heirs Miles Davis and Charlie Parker disseminated the term and concept of cool itself. Bandleader Johnny Otis wrote that simply that Young "is the one figure who stands above the entire field of music as the guiding spirit of African American artistry." Young was a musical genius with a legendary sense of humor who influenced hundreds of musicians during the most dynamic years of the Great Migration from South to North, a dynamic time when American race relations were undergoing a radical shift.


Here I explore the West African, African-American, and Anglo-American roots of cool, and Young's synthesis of these cultural materials in its creation.



Link to full PDF of article. (XX pages, opens in new window)


The Soul Roots of Bruce Springsteen's American Dream

Bruce Springsteen's reputation stands as the voice of white working-class America, the heroic poet-everyman of the rustbelt's white ethnic working class and its intelligentsia. Most scholars place him in the social realist musical tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan that harkens back to the fetishization of male workers that informs the Whitmanesque. Yet for nearly a decade (1973-1982), Springsteen was best known as a dynamic live performer, a rock and roll showman who appropriated many of James Brown's performative gestures for marathon four-hour shows that were, in effect, his translation of Brown's stagecraft, the energy and dramatic gestures of the self-proclaimed "hardest-working man in show business." In 1974, Springsteen's E Street band owed far more to the model of an integrated soul-funk band like War or Sly and the Family Stone than to the Rolling Stones: it had two African-American members -- jazz pianist David Sancious along with saxophonist Clarence Clemons -- and the half-Hispanic drummer, Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez (who was initially replaced by Ernest "Boom" Carter, a Black jazz drummer.) The title cut of Springsteen's second album, "The E Street Shuffle" (1974), was a soul-funk tune he riffed off of a Curtis Mayfield-penned r&b hit for Major Lance called "Monkey Time" (1963), while in his spare time Springsteen wrote and produced soul-tinged songs for the other successful white Asbury Park rhythm-and-blues band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

Here I want to provide a theory of soul music as performance ritual rather than vocal style and to analyze Springsteen's adaptation of this ritual for communicating his core thematic messages. In contrast to Joe Cocker, Eric Burdon, Dusty Springfield, or even Van Morrison, Springsteen never appropriated soul's vocal style, nor did he imitate African-American dance moves on stage (as Mick Jagger did). Rather, he appropriated soul's gospel-derived theatricality and its musical philosophy of community. If at first he mined this tradition to produce high-energy concert communion, in the past decade he now self-consciously preaches the implied messages of soul's secularized communion. Springsteen's current concert rhetoric represents a shift away from his youthful reproduction of the individualistic American dream of material wealth (e.g., in "Rosalita" or "Thunder Road") to envisioning a collective American dream of self-actualization within a supportive community. This American dream of a rejuvenated democracy reclaimed by fighting for social justice was one Springsteen channeled from soul music, the soul ritual, and the soul tradition.

If we frame Springsteen not through the content of his songs but through his philosophy of live performance -- his investment in moving audiences towards existential affirmation and social justice -- then he is a Euro-American avatar of the African-American soul tradition.

Link to full PDF of article. (from American Music, 2007 -- opens in new window)

Jazz: To Tell Your Story

Liner Notes to Jazz (Putamayo Records, 2009)

Jazz is an art form of ensemble individuality. A jazz artist has to first develop a unique, identifiable voice, a combination of tone, style, and phrasing that marks an instantly recognizable sound. Just as no one would mistake Billie Holiday's voice for Anita O'Day, Oscar Peterson's piano style is easily distinguished from Hampton Hawes's, Chet Baker's trumpet from Louis Armstrong's, Ray Brown's bass from Percy Heath's. Creating a signature sound is the objective of the jazz apprenticeship.

Jazz is a performer's rather than a composer's music: its musical practices transformed the popular song into a vehicle for musical conversation. Every musician must "tell a story," a phrase of jazz lore often credited to tenor saxophonist Lester Young. A jazz vocalist inhabits a song: she lives in it like a short story unfolding in musical time. The best jazz vocals are short one-act plays told by a first-person narrator as the musical scenery constantly, subtly shifts to mirror the twists and turns of the singer's emotional dynamics. A singer can often move the listener without words — through scatting, melisma, or just a sighed vocable, that expressive moan or sigh like Armstrong's "bleah-yeah-heah" or Holiday's "hmmmm-mmm." Every jazz vocalist must be able "to get tremendous effects out of the most subtle beat manipulations," Will Friedwald writes in Jazz Singing, since "keeping in time, in jazz, is even more important than keeping in tune." The musicians are not up there to support the vocalist but to interact: jazz requires real-time collective artistic creation.

The 1950s was a golden age for jazz vocals and three-quarters of this collection was recorded during the five-year period between 1956-1961. Jazz's popularity peaked in postwar America for many reasons besides the sheer range of talent in every subgenre, from swing to hard bop to modal and soul jazz. There was the shared common musical ground of jazz standards that gave audiences the ability to understand the ground from which solos were launched; there was a social imperative — the relationship of jazz to civil rights activism during the Jim Crow era; and there was jazz's niche as the music of intellectuals and hipsters on the East and West coasts. Finally, to have one's own sound meant being able to project an individuality often denied to African-Americans. As Duke Ellington once said, "The music had to say what we couldn't."

 Many of the songs in this collection are gems from the Great American Songbook. This body of work is often considered the achievement of songwriters, but this is only half-true. These songs became "standards" as we know them through a process by which jazz musicians standardized the grooves, textures, melodies, and sonorities into an instrumental balladry to which our ears are now attuned. When these songs were first sung — often crooned — in Broadway musicals or off-Broadway revues, they owed more to the operetta tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan than the African-American traditions of blues, jazz, and gospel. Jazz musicians needed shared musical ground for jam sessions — their training ground, since no schools then taught jazz — and songs became "standards" as particular pieces acquired the grooves, nuance and phrasing infused by a generation of jazz musicians. This also put pressure on singers to create an equally adept instrument out of their voices. "Her voice was like having another horn in the band," the musicians of the Count Basie Orchestra often complimented Billie Holiday. This was how musicians distinguished a vocalist — or "song stylist," as Anita O'Day insisted on calling herself — from "a canary" or a "chick singer," common terms for women who looked rather than sounded good.

Jazz is the only indigenous American art form. It is a creolization of the musical cultures of Africa, Latin America, and Europe and its keynotes are groove and interplay, self-expression and improvisation, flow and flexibility. What jazz has always offered any and all individuals is a method for creating a singular artistic voice and then merging it with others who share common musical ground. As guitarist Jim Hall reflects: "I've played in many countries, and in this music, I can communicate fully with musicians whose native language I can't speak." What's American about jazz? Duke Ellington deserves the last word: "Jazz is a good barometer of freedom. The music is so free that many people ... around the world say that it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country."