Jazz Critic Albert Murray Dies at 97
Albert Murray, the acclaimed jazz critic and novelist, died at his home in Harlem on Aug. 18. He was 97.
Murray wrote four novels—Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), The Seven League Boots (1996) and The Magic Keys (2005)—but may be best remembered in the jazz world for co-authoring Count Basie’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues, which he spent seven years working on before the book was published in 1985, a year after Basie’s death.
In the introduction to the 2002 edition of Good Morning Blues, jazz critic Dan Morgenstern likened Basie and Murray’s rapport to “one between old friends,” while a 1996 New Yorker profile on Murray recounted one of his favorite sayings about the period. “For years, when I wrote the word ‘I,’ I meant Basie,” Murray would often comment.
As his recognition grew, Murray also mentored young writers and musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, and helped launch the jazz program at Lincoln Center in 1987.
“Albert’s conceptions are the intellectual foundation of our institution,” offered Marsalis in a statement on Murray’s death, issued by Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Deeply philosophical about Jazz’s rightful place in the pantheon of Western Arts, Albert was an engaged listener to Jazz of all styles, and had a profound belief in the transformative power of the music,” wrote Marsalis.
In 2001, Murray appeared in Ken Burns’ documentary series Jazz. “When you see a jazz musician playing, you’re looking at a pioneer, you’re looking at an explorer, you’re looking at an experimenter. You’re looking at all those things because it’s the creative process incarnate,” he mused in the documentary’s opening segment.
Murray’s 1976 book of blues essays, Stomping the Blues, drew important parallels between jazz and blues. The book is a “timeless antidote to the blues,” wrote Rob Gibson, then-executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, in the introduction to the 2000 edition of the book.
Murray was born in Nokomis, Ala., on May 12, 1916, and grew up in an area called Magazine Point, outside Mobile.
As an undergraduate at the Tuskegee Institute, Murray met and befriended a music student named Ralph Ellison, who would go on to write the classic novel Invisible Man.
The Random House collection Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray chronicles the two writers’ correspondence, beginning in 1950. The letters in this book (edited by John Callahan) reflect both writers’ deep love of jazz.
Murray earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Tuskegee in 1939 and later earned a master’s degree in literature from New York University.
Murray’s first book, The Omni-Americans, was published in 1970, and took a contrarian stance to black nationalism, which earned Murray the wrath of many of his peers.
The Blue Devils of Nada, a collection of essays on some of Murray’s favorite subjects—Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ernest Hemingway—was published in 1996. In 2010, the University of Alabama Press honored Murray with a collection of contemporary essays about his work, Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation.
Murray served in a number of notable academic positions, including as the O’Connor Professor of Literature at Colgate University, Paul Anthony Brick Lecturer at the University of Missouri, visiting professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts and writer-in-residence at Emory University.
In the New Yorker profile, writer Henry Louis Gates fondly recalls visiting Murray and the painter Romare Bearden on Saturday afternoons at a New York bookstore in the ’70s.
“I loved to listen to his voice—grave but insinuating, with more than a hint of a jazz singer’s rasp,” wrote Gates.
Murray is survived by Mozelle Menefee, whom he married in 1941, and their daughter, Michéle Murray.