The Literary Lion in his Den
Life as a Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement
Albert Murray was not only one of the most original thinkers in American letters during the 20th century, he was also a tutor to a couple of generations of American intellectuals trying to understand their country and its culture. For many intellectuals and artist making the trek up to Mr. Murray’s apartment in Lennox Terrace, the experience was like a religious devotee making a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine to sit at the feet of a holy man, or like the seekers of wisdom and truth who sat at the feet of Plato in ancient Greece.
Some of the most illustrious names in Literature, Art, Music and cultural criticism have found their way to this book laden temple of learning. Professor Murray was Harlem’s senior sage. He was 97 years old when he danced to his last blues chorus, and his status was unassailable. In fact, Mr. Murray’s shoes are so hard to fill we will probably have to dip them in gold, hang them in an honored spot on a wall of heroes, and leave the position of Senior Sage open for the foreseeable future.
While I am not certain that I could define a philosopher in language that would satisfy the academic guardians of the canon, like Supreme Court Justice when asked to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Since the subject of this panegyric, Professor Murray, was a master of language who was also devoted to improvisation and therefore no slave to convention, I shall feel free to take liberties in defining what I mean by philosopher in reference to him.
For me a philosopher is one who contemplates the deeper meaning of things and finds hidden connections between phenomena that escape the rest of us, with the ultimate aim of defining reality. While the common lot of us look upon the world and our obvious predicament and ask why? Philosophers dream of things yet unseen and ask why not? Albert Murray was always opening our eyes to hidden truths that revealed new possibilities.
I was first introduced to his ideas by Larry Neale – the distinguished poet, essayist, editor, and teacher of literature at Yale. And it changed the way I saw the world in important ways. I remember well the first time he mentioned Mr. Murray to me. I was living in an apartment in midtown Manhattan, thirty two stories above Broadway. I was a Professor on leave from the University of Massachusetts, and was managing the Great singer Jean Carn.
A friend of mine, Tanya, a tall fine blond lady who could bust some moves like a Soul Train hoofer, was grooving to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” when Larry told her that she was not white. He said her whiteness was a great American fiction, a superficial matter of pigment. I was shocked at his announcement because the alabaster beauty was as white as any white person that I ever saw. But Larry went on to explain that she was a cultural mulatto, and Omni-American! And he held up a copy of Mr. Murray’s book.
Tanya: I thought she was white
Larry was such a serious intellectual and devoted teacher he died of a heart attack while presenting a lecture. He was the sort of person who would slaughter his own sacred cows in deference to a greater truth. This is what happened when he encountered the writing of Professor Murray. A founding father and avatar of the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s, who along with Amiri Baracka, aka Leroi Jones, co-edited Black Fire, the seminal anthology of the early writings produced by the Black Arts movement, it was no easy task for Larry to accommodate the ideas in Mr. Murray’s book.
An unsentimental and uncompromising literary critic, Professor Murray cavalierly dismissed most of the writing produced by the Black Arts movement as aesthetic mediocrities….and some as literary atrocities. And he irreverently referred to the lot of us black cultural revolutionaries as, “the Bam Bam Boom Boom Brillo Head Crowd.” In a startling commentary on a reading of works by some of the Black Arts luminaries he attended in Greenwich Village, Mr. Murray denounced their works as little more than public temper tantrums devoted to ostentatious racial exhibitionism of questionable literary merit. But he reserved his most caustic criticism for the largely white, affluent, artsy fartsy audience who applauded wildly and treated the performers as cultural heroes.
He concluded that with “friends” like this the black artists was doomed to mediocrity, and he placed them even lower on the scale of reliable friends than white boxing managers. For even if one assumed that the rumors of financial exploitation of boxers under their management was true, Mr. Murray argued: “at least they were trying to produce world champions!” The profound truth of this revelation hit me like a ton of bricks and I carefully devoured the rest of the essays in his remarkable wide ranging eclectic collection of essays, the “The Omni-Americans,” his first book.
I was hooked on Mr. Murray’s learned, unique, and insightful commentaries on life, literature, the essence of artistic creation and its implications for society, as well as his penetrating iconoclastic views on politics: cultural and otherwise. But what I loved most about Mr. Murray was his quiet assumption that Afro-Americans were the hippest and most stylish people on earth.
This is the Black America Mr. Murray Referenced
“Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll”
This is most apparent in his discussion of the “fakelore of black pathology,” and “the folklore of white supremacy,” a bogus intellectual construction that compelled white editors to privilege any story of black pathology over a tale of black heroism. A rule that is still all too true, as is evidenced by the muted attention being given to Antoinette Tuff, a black female bookkeeper who talked down a white male armed with an AK 47 and 500 rounds of ammunition that had begun to shoot up an elementary school in Georgia. Ms. Tuff talked the gunman into laying down his weapon and lie on the floor until the police came to arrest him. An although not one person lost their life, Ms. Tuff has yet to receive the kind of media adulation a white woman who had talked down a black gunman would have received.
Mr. Murray was an indefatigable defender of Afro-Americans against those who would attempt to play us cheap by portraying us as something less than what we are. He constantly pointed out that humanity is no less complex and fascinating in a black skin than in a white skin. Disproving that myth was a major impetus for his novels: Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree and Seven League Boots.
One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Murray’s critique of the study of Afro-Americans is his dismissal of the way sociologist have approached the subject. Referencing them as mere “statistical survey technicians” he has called their method “an elaborate fraud.” In order to demonstrate his point he critiques two studies that were considered the state of the art, one by a white social scientist and one by a black. An American Dilemma, a massive study conducted by the distinguished Swedish social economist, Dr. Gunnar Myrdal, and Dark Ghetto, written by Social Psychologist Kenneth B. Clarke.
Both of these scholars were prominent in their field. Kenneth Clarke, the first tenured Afro-American scholar in the City University of New York, was world famous as the result of his “Dolls” study. This study was appended to the NAACP brief in the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” and it was credited by many with swaying the Judges’ decision. Dr. Myrdal, who headed what was the most massive research project on Afro-Americans in history, was chosen not only because he was a distinguished social scientist – since there was no paucity of able social scientists here – but also because he came from Sweden, a country with no black/white racial problem.
They funders of the study reasoned that Myrdal would be more objective writing about the volatile race problem in the US than an American scholar by virtue of his background. The result was a text of nearly a thousand pages that was roundly hailed as the final word on black life in America. Professor Murray was unimpressed with the results of both studies and emphatically dismissed them. He said the most obvious thing about Dark Ghetto was that it was “written by a Negro who hates himself.”
Murray observed that things in Harlem could not be as grim as Clarke described them “even if half the residents robbed the other half every night.” He took a similar position on Claude Brown’s bestselling novel “Manchild in the Promised Land,” which was being widely acclaimed as the real story of what life was like in Harlem. Mr. Murray said it was no such thing! He said it was merely the story of what it was like for one Negro who grew up in Harlem “and evidently had a hard time doing so.” The book told you nothing about “what it was like to be the Society Editor of the Amsterdam News,” or “one of the people who ran the most complex mass transportation system in the world.”
As for Mr. Myrdal’s “landmark study,” Murray thought it had been a great waste of money if the objective was to help us understand black life in America. His indictment of the study was spurred by the fact that nowhere in those hundreds of pages filled with numbers and sociological jargon, no one thought to ask what was the meaning of the blues among black Americans, who invented the art form and based the great American art of Jazz on its deeply moving changes?
This question reflected Mr. Murray’s conception of art and its function in human society. His view was summed up in his contention that “an art style is the refinement and elaboration of a lifestyle.” If this assumption was true, then the question of the meaning of the blues in Afro-American culture was no picayune consideration. Mr. Murray thought it was critical to understanding the amazing grace that Afro-Americans had shown during the long night of racial oppression. He would go on to answer this question in the text that I consider his magnum opus: Stomping the Blues; and many critics believe is the best book ever written on Afro-American music –this writer included.
Bill “Count” Basie
Master of the Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement
In this text Mr. Murray waxes philosophical about the meaning of the blues and corrects some widely held misconceptions. The most pervasive of which is that the blues is sad music. He skillfully dispels this myth by exploring the origins of the concept of blues by dividing his quest into “The Blues as Such” and the “Blues as Music.” Mr. Murray shows that while the blues as such is a feeling of sadness and melancholy, and can be traced back to the idea of “blue devils” in Elizabethan England, the blues as music is the antidote to the blues as such. Hence when viewed in its proper cultural context, the “down home Saturday night function” i.e. a dance party held among Afro-Americans in the south, the blues becomes a music of celebration.
Black musicians played the blues to chase away the blues as such; they “stomped the blues.” This is the meaning of the title of Mr. Murray’s text: Stomping the Blues. He pointed out that there are several ways of dealing with the blues as such. One could commit suicide, turn to alcohol and drugs, or get sharp and go out dancing to a blues band. His central point throughout this amazing text is that contrary to conventional wisdom the blues is a music of affirmation not resignation – as both the Black Nationalist activist/intellectual Mualana Karenga and the revolutionary black psychiatrist Franz Fanon had concluded.
This was the basis of his criticism of both the portrayal of black life in Richard Wright’s Native Son and the nihilism that characterized so much of the rhetoric of black radicals in the 1960’s. Murray thought we relied far too much on the grim pessimism of the sociologists – who were mostly square white boys who knew little of real life and could be taken off for everything they had by any fourth rate Harlem hustler once they stepped outside their class rooms – rather than rely on the wisdom of the blues. He pointed out that the blues sensibility was the antithesis of the “sack cloth and ashes” view of life. While the blues admits “life is a low down dirty shame” we have to keep on swinging.
Through his eyes musicians became heroes and “blues idiom dancing,” his description of typical Afro-American popular dance, was a heroic exercise. For Mr. Murray, the ability to dance gracefully is a core value of Afro-American culture; it is so widely shared that it is disgraceful to be awkward on the dance floor. The importance he placed on this as a signature of ones integration into the Afro-American cultural idiom is clearly demonstrated in his essay on Gordon Parks, a brilliant multi-talented Afro-American contemporary.
In his description of Gordon Parks upon their first meeting as young men he describes Park’s talents and concludes with the comment “and he was graceful on the dance floor.” But when he describes Gordon Parks later in life, after he had become enormously successful and was lionized by white society, Murray notes his many successes then comments wryly: “But he was no longer graceful on the dance floor.”
Albert Murray’s writing was a revelation to me, and many other black intellectuals who took the time to carefully read him. He offered new perspectives on many levels and prompted us to rethink a lot of our ideas. For instance he considered the description of Harlem and other black communities as “ghettos” to be erroneous, the result of “too much pillow talk between black intellectuals and their Jewish lovers.”
He thought that Malcolm X’s preachment about the white man convincing Afro-Americans to hate our looks was nonsense, and said all one had to do was watch “American Negroes” on the dance floor to see that it wasn’t true. He said that Afro-Americans who were good looking knew that they looked good, and those who thought they were ugly probably were.
Blues Idiom Dancers
The Elegance Albert Murray Witnessed
He also thought Malcolm’s contention that house slaves were more impressed with the master than field slaves ignored the fact that it was the house slaves who saw the masters for the flawed creatures that they were, because they were all up in their business i.e. no man is a hero to his butler. And he pointed out that it is déclassé intellectuals that lead revolutions because ordinary working people don’t spend their time thinking about the things one has to think about in order to organize a revolution. That is the province of the intellectual.
Although I would come to have my disagreements with Mr. Murray, sometimes about culture but mostly about politics, and even argued with him personally on the value of sociology, accusing him of throwing the baby out with the bathwater….I regard his presence among us as a blessing, and his literary legacy a benefaction.
His collaboration with Count Basie on his autobiography “Good Morning Blues” provides us a look into the world of the Jazz musician and the evolution of the big band that is unprecedented, and his intellectual repartee with the great visual artist Romare Beardon, even naming some of his master works, along with his critical role in the founding of Jazz At Lincoln Center – a seminal event in the history of American culture, is further evidence of Mr. Murray’s widespread influence on American civilization. Mr. Murray has been justly showered with many accolades in recognition of his singular contribution. I believe we are not likely to see his kind again. For the elements so blended in him that such a man may come along once in a century.
A career Air-Force officer and a refined gentleman, an intellectual of great depth, a prolific writer and iconoclastic thinker, a professor and philosopher, an epicure, elegant dresser and graceful dancer, a devoted husband and good father, and pater-familias to a tribe of intellectuals and artists who are shaping the culture of the world. When one considers that he taught literature and military aviation, was a novelist and essayist of distinction, an equally able and insightful critic of literature, music and the visual arts – all of which he wrote highly original treatises on – we are compelled to place him among the modern renaissance men.
Mr. Murray was an exemplar of a type of black southern gentleman that is fast fading from the scene. He was cut from the same cloth as my Uncle Jimmy Strawder, who also danced and joined the honored ancestors just days before Mr. Murray played his out chorus. Both were men from small southern towns, Mr. Murray from Nkomis Alabama, Uncle Jimmy from St. Augustine Florida. Both men grew up during the era of American apartheid, when the ruling ideology was white supremacy, and although life in their birthplace was really a low down dirty shame they kept on swinging for a nearly a century – Jimmy Strawder for 90 years Albert Murray for 97!
One could say their lives were like “fully orchestrated blues statements,” a term Mr. Murray coined, in that they were complete and left nothing to be desired. They were “Killer Dillers;” handsome hep-cats who dressed to the nines and strutted their stuff like peacocks on the dance floors of elegant ball rooms that were all the rage in their youth; places with names like the Savoy Ballroom, Grand Terrace and Paradise Lounge. This is where the fabulous big bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm played the fully orchestrated blues statements Mr Murray wrote so insightfully about, music played at “the velocity of celebration.”
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
“America as She Was Swung!
The fact that one gets no hint that “Fatha” Hines and his great orchestra was playing for dancers at the elegantly appointed Grand Terrace, a scene so hip Al Capone came by to dance to the music, in Richard Right’s wildly acclaimed novel Native Son, which was set in Chicago during this era, is one of Mr. Murray’s most potent grievances against the text.
Mr. Murray would become a military officer and a writer, Uncle Jimmy became a military officer and would have become a writer if Columbia University – to their everlasting shame – had not turned him away after congratulating him on his distinguished war record as a decorated combat officer, and his outstanding performance on the entrance exam, part of which he took in Latin, with the cold announcement” ‘Columbia College already has its quota of Negros.”
As I noted in my eulogy to Uncle Jimmy: “If white Americans who survived the Great Depression and fought World War II can be considered “The Greatest Generation,” men like Uncle Jimmy and Professor Murray” are the greatest of The Greatest Generation! Thus I bid these good men… officers and gentlemen, hail and farewell.
Playthell and Professor Robert O’Meely of Columbia at Sorbonne
Analyzing the influence of Mr. Murray on Wynton Marsalis, Virtuoso trumpeter
Double Click to see the Basie Orchestra Swing!
A fully Orchestrated Blues Statement
Double Click to Hear Duke Ellington and his Orchestra!
Duke plays his classic compositions
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 23, 2013