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.