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.