MIAMI — Earlier this week, I learned that noted writer and accessible intellectual Albert Murray had passed away in his Harlem, N.Y. home on Monday at the age of 97.
I had first heard of Murray after reading Dick Russell’s book Black Genius, and as an emerging writer, wanted to reach out to the man credited with shaping the art of Ralph Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man had made a huge impression on me.
Murray was puzzled, almost annoyed that I had called him out of the blue, and not happy with the ease with which I had found his number (in the white pages). But he must have sensed my true intentions, and was very generous in offering feedback and advice in what turned into perhaps a 30-minute telephone conversation.
I remember being struck by one recommendation in particular that he gave: Read William Faulkner. Not knowing much about Murray, I thought it unexpected that a black intellectual, and eyewitness to some of the great milestones of the African-American 20th century, would suggest that the work of the writer who created the fictional Yoknapatawpha County was a great primer for an aspiring writer.
Oh, the things I had yet to learn about Albert Murray. Murray was a jazz man with a blues background in musical aesthetics. His curiosity was perhaps matched by his ability to transmit what he so acutely observed and remembered.
A prized possession of mine is a book, a history of jazz, the printed accompaniment of Ken Burns’ 2000 documentary Jazz, that uses Murray’s descriptions and depictions of artists we now know as jazz legends as priceless insights into the excitement of being there when live music is born. In the opening of that book Murray says that live jazz is “the creative process incarnate.”
It is fitting that I was reminded of that while enjoying the music of vocalist Brenda Alford and other great artists at the Avocado Jazz Festival in South Dade, just one day before Murray died.
An essayist, fiction writer and poet, Murray also guided the shaping of the craft of the writer Stanley Crouch and musician Wynton Marsalis with whom he worked to establish Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Born in rural Alabama and raised in Mobile by his adoptive parents, Murray’s excellence as a student there earned him admission to what in the late 1930s was the Tuskegee Institute. There he met Ellison and the woman he would later marry, Mozelle Menefee. It was at Tuskegee that Murray read works by authors such as Faulkner, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway.
Murray, who is survived by his wife and their daughter Michéle Murray, once wrote that “when the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest and the medicine man.”
In his 1976 book Stomping the Blues, Murray made the argument that the blues is the essential element of the music known around the world today as jazz. His appreciation and respect for the blues as an art form was unwavering: “The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people. It is the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people.”
Another of Murray’s protégés, the academic Henry Louis Gates Jr., famously said of Murray in a piece he penned for New Yorker magazine that “This is Albert Murray’s century, we just live in it.”
The Real Tracy Fields, host of WLRN radio’s Evening Jazz, used a well-known description of Murray by Duke Ellington to pay tribute to the writer on her program’s social media page this week. Ellington said Murray was “the unsquarest man I know.”
Murray is one of the less visible of the United States’ gifted minds, and perhaps now with his demise, he may become even less visible. But as his protégé Ellison showed, an invisible man is still a man, and a man is important. Descansa en paz Maestro – Rest in peace, Teacher.