A Blues for Albert Murray

A Blues for Albert Murray

His name was never household familiar. Yet his complex, mind-opening analysis of art and life remains as timely as ever—probably more so.

I. Extension

The name Albert Murray was never household familiar. Yet he was one of the truly original minds of 20th-century American letters. Murray, who died in 2013 at the age of 97, was an accomplished novelist, a kind of modern-day oral philosopher, a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the writer of a sprawling, idiosyncratic, and consistently astonishing body of literary criticism, first-rate music exposition, and cunning autobiography. In our current moment of identity politics and multicultural balkanization, the publication of any new Murray text would serve as a powerful reminder that his complex analysis of art and life remain as timely as ever—probably more so.

A new volume of previously uncollected interviews, Murray Talks Music, painstakingly transcribed and compiled by the literary scholar and Murray disciple Paul Devlin, is worth the price of admission for its exhaustive introduction alone. Devlin’s book is both a public service and a testament to how Murray could impress and inspire those who came in contact with him. The interviews would not only interest jazz fans: Whatever the pretext, as Devlin correctly points out, “Murray always brings in the topics he was also most concerned with and also wrote about extensively: literature, visual art, social issues.” The forthcoming publication, in October, of the Library of America edition of Murray’s collected essays and memoirs, coedited by Devlin and Henry Louis Gates Jr., will prove an even greater treat, but Murray Talks Music is as good a place as any to encounter Murray’s prodigious polymath’s mind.

When thinking of Albert Murray, I am often reminded of a passage midway through Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (one of Murray’s favorite novels, which he playfully dubbed Jake’s Empty Bed Blues), in which Jake Barnes and the Spanish innkeeper Montoya discuss the arrival of the bulls: “Montoya put his hand on my shoulder. ‘I’ll see you there.’ He smiled again. He always smiled as though bull-fighting were a very special secret between the two of us; a rather shocking but really deep secret that we knew about.” Jake and Montoya are aficionados. To appreciate the world of bullfighting the way they do requires afición. Reading and caring about Murray can be a lot like this. To appreciate the thrilling, heretical world of Albert Murray requires something similar in his readers.

Such afición is not required to nearly the same degree in readers of Murray’s two closest peers in talent and subject, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. It was Murray’s odd (mis)fortune to have had his name forever linked to that of Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, who was a friend of Murray’s in college and adulthood, an aesthetic confrere, and only two years his senior. Murray was fated to spend the duration of his decades-long career toiling gamely in the shadow of Ellison’s magisterial opus, which shot his star into the firmament when he was 39. Murray didn’t even begin to freelance in earnest until he was in his mid-40s, comfortably retired from the Air Force with a pension; and his first book, the landmark 1970 collection The Omni-Americans, didn’t appear until he was in his mid-50s.

Before that, Murray had been living the kind of life that can be of great service to a serious thinker: traveling widely, serving his country, raising a family—all the while making up his mind about a great many questions of fundamental importance. “It is jolting to realize that he was pushing sixty when we met, and that his literary career was really just getting underway,” notes jazz critic Gary Giddins in his foreword to Murray Talks Music. But unlike Ellison, who suffered one of the saddest, longest, and profoundest cases of writer’s block in modern literary history, Murray, once he started writing, enjoyed a sustained, flourishing creativity. This latecomer quality lends his oeuvre consistency and maturity, and even a certain gratifying circularity. Like Borges, all of his books are but facets of one unending book.

Albert Murray’s name was never household familiar, but we already knew that. In 1996, months after Gates profiled Murray in The New Yorker (likening his work to “samizdat under Stalinism”), Sanford Pinsker published an essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review suggesting that “denial is probably the best (probably the only) way to account for Murray’s virtual anonymity as a mainstream black intellectual.” And, following his death, lamentations that we’d ignored or forgotten Murray resurfaced. At the time, Devlin himself wrote an essay for Slate called “Some Things You Didn’t Know About Albert Murray,” which points out the extent to which the man who was “as comfortable at the American Academy of Arts and Letters as he was at his Harlem barbershop” commanded the respect of all manner of distinguished figures and institutions, from Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton to Saul Bellow and Tom Wolfe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which acquired two of his amateur photographs for its permanent collection in 2005, is also up on game. And yet, Murray’s name still functions as a sort of password, announcing to like-minded souls a particular willingness to look further and stay longer, to dig a little deeper through the crates in pursuit of hidden treasures. That the broader culture hasn’t held on to Murray reveals far more about it than him.

II. Elaboration

Murray had his core obsessions: the blues and jazz music; the high-low genius of Ellington and Armstrong; the pragmatic American wisdom of Hemingway and Faulkner; the eternal narrative strength of myth and symbol; the European polish and tradition of André Malraux and Thomas Mann; the absolute primacy of form and elegance in art and life; the articulation of local custom and vernacular into a universally recognizable aesthetic statement; the yin and yang of dragons and dragon slayers, a precondition for greatness by means of “antagonistic cooperation.” As such, he had his highly particular bêtes noires, too: sociologists and other academics, whom he frequently and derisively referred to as “propaganda technicians” and “social science survey technicians”; the contorted prose and “flat-assed” whiteness of Thomas Wolfe; the intellectual callowness of black nationalists and radicals like the early Malcolm X; 
and racists of any stripe. For Murray, these thorns were all obvious manifestations of a fundamental unwillingness to confront and deal with American and human complexity and contradiction: They were attempts to confine men and women to abstract categories that erase individuality and, much more unforgivably, that forfeit the individual and collective capacity for heroism in the face of adversity. They gave him a reason to work.

“Celebrated chroniclers of black America were shown by Murray to be tainted by the ethnographic fallacy, the pretense that one writer’s peculiar experiences can represent a social genus,” Gates observed. Or, as Murray himself quipped in The Omni-Americans: “This whole thing about somebody revealing what it is really like to be black has long since gotten out of hand anyway.” About Baldwin in particular, Murray insisted (in a vigorous essay dismantling the author of “Everybody’s Protest Novel”) that “he himself has found it expedient in his work to degrade U.S. Negro life to the level of the sub-human in the very process of pleading the Negro’s humanity.”

But Murray was no intellectual ostrich with his head planted in the sand, pretending that, if only he refused to acknowledge the presence of American racism closing in all around him, he could somehow make it disappear. Such malevolent forces would have been screamingly obvious to any black boy born in 1916 outside of Mobile, Alabama—this May marks his centennial—and educated at 
Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, even if he knew he couldn’t change them. Rather, what Murray preferred to emphasize was that black people’s problems, while certainly conditioned by local historical circumstance, were also timelessly and irrevocably universal, capable of being described and transcended to the same extent that humans have dealt with tragedy and chased away the blues since a man calling himself Homer went about recording the exploits of his spiteful, blood-lusting neighbors. In Murray’s scheme, more often than one might suspect, “the have-nots really have, while the haves have not,” as he wrote in The Blue Devils of Nada, his 1996 masterpiece of aesthetic theory. This is far from a frivolous or flippant denial of the specificity of black pain, though it’s one reason that Murray, like his more famous protégé Stanley Crouch, is often misidentified as a conservative, a dismissive label that comes preloaded with value judgments meant to undermine the authenticity of his perspective and the depth and breadth of his learning and insight, to say nothing of his commitment to the people who produced him. In truth, for Murray, loyalty to those people is of such a basic givenness as to frequently go unstated.

* * *

Because Murray’s The Omni-Americans is so obviously suffused with affinity for American blackness, it was difficult at first for me to understand, when I came to it in my 20s, the degree of discomfort it once inspired—and probably still does. There’s a political dimension to the book, as Devlin explains in Murray Talks Music: “A certain type of unthinking bourgeois white liberal recoils from Murray’s work because reading it can feel like reading forbidden thoughts—thoughts that reject the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology.” On the other hand, “Conservatives have never been too fond of Murray’s work either,” Devlin writes, “not when they actually read it, at least.” This heterodoxy is also precisely why Murray’s writing can trouble black people—after all, it destabilizes the understandable, if Pyrrhic, comfort many feel in raging against the seemingly limitless capacity of white people to oppress—and why its prescriptions and concerns remain pertinent. About the black writers of his day, such as Baldwin as well as Richard Wright, Murray refused to pull punches, arguing that “one can only hope…there are also U.S. Negro writers whose literary insights will enable them to do much more than turn out shrill, defensive and predictable counter-propaganda against the doctrine of white supremacy, as important as propaganda is.” Rather, he suggests, these writers must realize that “they have as much responsibility for representing the mainstream of U.S. life as anybody else.” One does not have to stretch very hard to sense what Murray would have made of a fashionable 21st-century memoirist’s despairing claim to his son that black Americans are and will always be those “faces at the bottom of the well.”

On the other hand, champion for genuine black equality that he was, it would not be inaccurate at all to classify Murray—like Ellison, but without any of the latter’s personal frigidity or mean-spiritedness—as a genuine elitist. He really did believe that some things were better, more significant, than others, and that learning not only to make distinctions but also to be distinctive was of the utmost existential importance. He wanted black people to transcend our oppression, to become heroic. This is the highest possible standard—a daunting order for any group, to be sure, and far beyond the “twice as good” dictum that Murray likely heard from his elders and that has come in for such a drubbing on social media today. But Murray’s thinking had nothing to do with the performance of any watered-down, middle-class “respectability politics” for the pleasure of some all-seeing “white gaze.” On the contrary, he wanted to open the minds of black Americans, with his writing and his advocacy, to their own ever-present greatness—a greatness “they might otherwise ignore,” but that he saw as evident all around them, first in the sheer and improbable feat of their survival, and second in the accompanying and eventually culturally dominant artistic expression their ancestors had discovered. He called it “the blues idiom statement,” which is to say, 
“the specific texture of existence in a given place, time, and circumstance…processed into artistic statement, stylized into significance.”

In one interview, Murray says that “Homo Americanus is part Yankee ingenuity, part backwoodsman/Indian or gamecock of the wilderness, and part Negro.” Here he is mostly concerned with the American character insofar as it provides the basis for an artistic lineage that might expand our capacity for right living. Contemporary usage of descriptors like “black” and “white,” drenched as they are in nonscience, mostly just get in the way. For Murray, African Americans (those people whose culture is “truly indigenous” to the United States) incorporate all the essential identities and experiences within themselves and exemplify the fundamentally mongrel nature of the land. Viewed in such a light, “the blues tradition itself is, among other things, an extension of the old American frontier tradition,” he writes in The Hero and the Blues. There is the same “seemingly inherent emphasis on rugged individual endurance. There is also the candid acknowledgment and sober acceptance of adversity as an inescapable condition of human existence—­and, perhaps in consequence, an affirmative disposition toward all obstacles, whether urban or rural, whether political or metaphysical.” This is how the blues takes on an extramusical dimension and attains the status of “equipment for living.” The blues, for Murray, is homeopathic: “When you get to the playful reenactment [of blue feelings], you’re on your way to fine art, and that’s the most effective way of dealing with the basic existential problems of human consciousness, and good feeling.”

“What must be remembered is that people live in terms of images which represent the fundamental conceptions embodied in their rituals and myths,” he continues in The Hero and the Blues. “In the absence of adequate images (and hence rituals and myths), they live in terms of such compelling images as are abroad at the time. Where there is no adequate vision the people perish.” Murray thought that images of blacks as wretched victims, only ever smoldering in righteous rage or wailing in ceaseless agony under the clenched fist of white supremacy, images popular in his day and again popular in ours, are irredeemably inadequate and consequently worthy of sustained and serious interrogation. It was a sore point about which he could be both humorous and acidly scathing, one that his books return to obsessively, like a tongue to a fresh scrape in the cheek.

Consider this passage from The Blue Devils of Nada (the italics are Murray’s): “Critics? Man, most critics feel that unless brownskin U.S. writers are pissing and moaning about injustice they have nothing to say. In any case it seems they find it much easier to praise such writers for being angry (which requires no talent, not to mention genius) than for being innovative or insightful.” It’s not that Murray couldn’t believe that blacks had been victimized in the United States and elsewhere; rather, he was deeply suspicious of any oversimplified depiction that would present them as only, or even just mainly, passive recipients of cosmic injustice. Whether its authors were white or black, he was especially skeptical of the kind of images and narratives of generic black pain—and, by inference, inferiority—that always seem to whip up mountains of “guilt-ridden” white liberal attention and praise. He was deeply repulsed by the 1965 Moynihan Report (“The Negro Family: A Case for National Action”), which he deemed “a notorious example of the use of the social science survey as a propaganda vehicle to promote a negative image of Negro life in the United States.” As he wrote in The Omni-Americans, such caricatures—no matter their intent—represent “a point of view toward black experience which is essentially white.” This is one strain of Murray’s sustained interrogation that remains most urgent now. And there you can hear Murray playing the blues himself: What do we really mean by “white” and “black”?

“There is no scientific method by which one can establish that a measurable percentage of any given trait or given number of traits, racial or otherwise, makes some people only part-white and others all-white,” Murray writes in The Omni-Americans. He saw this truth early and more emphatically than most, growing up as he did in the household of a loving adoptive black father who could, but refused to, pass for white. What Murray discovered and could never forget was the fundamental insight that there’s nowhere good America can hope to get to when the starting point remains the illusion of race. It is not, or not simply, narratives of black pain and suffering that Murray cannot abide. It’s something far more shattering and basic: “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” Murray’s emperor-has-no-clothes candor can evoke fear in all Americans, because it implies that, should the truth ever be accepted, we are going to have to sacrifice something of ourselves and work at solidarity; we are going to have to find other, more challenging—­but also more gratifying!—foundations for belonging to each other. For Murray, in life as in art, conflicts and ambiguities must be accepted and faced without the illusions that divide us in order to be resolved and transcended. What it takes to achieve the fully accomplished artistic statement is also what it takes to encounter life most finely, bending chaos into form, swinging in equilibrium, improvising meaning out of sheer nada.

One prime image of heroism in Murray’s thought is the jazzman, a refined bluesman; in truth, the figure is genderless, as much Ma Rainey as Count Basie. With an instrument pressed to the lips, this lone and dignified figure throws fugues into the void, holding life together with grace and style under extreme amounts of pressure, and improvising—never in a random way, but rather always within a framework of deep understanding and tradition. (In the same way, Hemingway’s matador faced down rampaging death with nothing but his cape and his composure.) The challenge is necessary. There can be no dragon slayer in the absence of dragons.

We live in a time—and this is true in so many areas of identity outside of what we call race—in which people “find it natural enough to think in terms of frustration and compensation,” to think within an identity politics of grievance. Now more than in Murray’s day, to accentuate one’s vulnerability is a way to win admiration. “Some writers leave out almost everything that does not serve their immediate political purpose,” Murray cautioned. “Many consider complexity of circumstances and motives to be precious indulgences that can wait until a better world has been achieved.” And yet, “the sensibility of the writer must be prepared to withstand the shocks and distortions inherent in human existence.” No serious writer (or artist, or person) can afford to indulge in “easy and superficial cynicism either.”

Indeed, the very notion of omni-
Americanness is Murray’s greatest challenge to us all: to acknowledge and accept the character of American identity as it exists in all its fullness. Jazz at Lincoln Center was his living answer to that challenge: “How appropriate then that what amounts to a national shrine to exploration and improvisation is now being inaugurated as a world class jazz performance venue at Columbus Circle by an institution bearing the name of Abraham Lincoln.”

III. Refinement

When I was in college, the Roots, the sui generis ensemble from Philadelphia encompassing all manner of black music, played a show on campus. That must have been 15 years ago now. Other than a general raptness throughout, what I can still recall is the moment toward the very end of the night, after the encore, when the band began to jam covers. They moved encyclopedically through rap and R&B staples, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, absolutely annihilated Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I was astonished. The two or three minutes they spent on that song achieved for me then what no verbal argument could. Though I’d always known in an intellectual way that rock and roll was a “black” form—the way I know that English breakfast tea is Indian—I had never felt this truth. I wouldn’t have been able to explain it this way back then, but in retrospect, the revelation that night was twofold: On the most basic level, the Roots gave the lie to the notion of fences between us, self- or otherwise-imposed; on a more fundamental level, they so thoroughly inhabited the song that they split it at the seams, unveiling to anyone paying even scant attention the deepest black beneath Nirvana’s blinding white.

Early in Invisible Man, Ellison sends his nameless protagonist through a hallucinatory day toiling in the bowels of the Liberty Paints factory, known for its patented, ultra-brilliant hue, Optic White. “Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through,” the young protagonist is told. Yet the secret ingredient, he comes to realize, is nothing other than a drop of pitch-black pigment swirled into the mix. It’s a strange and unforgettable scene, as American a metaphor as I know of, and an insight that imbues not only Invisible Man but also the entirety of the Ellison-Murray aesthetic: Try as we do to forget, they insist, we know there can be no such thing as white in the absence of black. The converse is also true. On that night, the Roots—playing with a whole tool shed’s worth of equipment for living—brought the sledgehammer out.

In 2014, a year after Murray died, the Roots’ protean instrumentalist and co–front man Questlove put down his drumsticks to compose an extraordinary six-part series of essays in New York magazine. He wondered whether hip-hop, the cultural ecosystem of which he is a part, and which, in all its commercial ubiquity and success, “has swallowed black culture in general,” had run its course as a useful idiomatic language for the blues people who created it. He wondered whether hip-hop is not, on balance, projecting images that degrade and delude rather than those that would clarify and propel; and in the standout third essay, which centers on the notion of “black cool,” he identified the mongrel social dialectic—antagonistic cooperation—­that accounts for the possibility of a heroic and inescapably American form of grace:

Black cool is part of society in general, part of white society. Black cool is the tip of African-American culture’s engagement with the broader white culture. Black cool only works the way it works because it’s part of a relationship…. Cool has an additional dimension, too, which is that it buys time. In an uncertain social situation, where the wrong decision can have disastrous consequences, cool lets you stay a beat behind while you settle on the path of least destruction. Taken to the extreme, cool can be sociopathic; taken to the right levels, it’s a supremely intelligent mix of defense mechanism and mirroring.

Whether we realize it yet or not, the omnifarious wisdom of Albert Murray is everywhere around us, and is easier to glimpse in black musicians than writers today. It’s in Kendrick Lamar’s song “The Blacker the Berry”: “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” is the refrain throughout subversive verses that spew anger at what America has done to him—and, no doubt, what he’s been complicit in doing to himself. (“I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan.”) It’s detectable in the young Jay Z, who, conjuring himself a solitary gambler in life’s casino, evinces a heroic bearing: “Faced with immeasurable odds, still I gave straight bets.”

Perhaps, then, it will demand an uncommonly expressive and engaged musician—a 21st-century itinerant bluesman with a pen next to his drum kit—to most vividly convey what the writers can’t, or simply won’t. “Let’s go back to the word: cool,” Questlove instructs. “Cool doesn’t mean a lack of temperature, exactly. It doesn’t mean low affect or indifference. It means cool heat, intensity held in check by reserves of self-possession.” What is his idea of cool if not the indigo stoicism of a people who are anything but feeble? It’s quintessential Murray; it’s the fifth essence beyond the material; it’s “that spirit which makes life meaningful.” Why else is Questlove’s name household familiar?

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