Sunday, June 19, 2016

Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues - The JazzProfiles Synopsis

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“We could say that art is a means by which you process raw experience into aesthetic statement. . . the aesthetic statement. . . feeds back into general human consciousness and raises their level of perception of their possibility in the face of adversity.”
—Albert Murray to Wynton Marsalis

After reading Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues, [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2016] I came away with the impression that I had read the work of four authors: Albert Murray and “three of his guys.” For as Gary Giddins explains it in his Foreword which he subtitles St. George and the Blues:

"This is one of my guys" or "These are my guys" was often how Albert Lee Murray would introduce to friends and colleagues the disciples he attracted in the 1970s, and we were all proud to bear the inclusionary tag. We were, in fact, his guys, which meant not so much reading his books, though of course we did, as absorbing his conversation and reading from his book list. Indeed, his guys (a modest, diverse group: men and women, black and white, young and not so young) recognized each other not by a secret handshake or a coded phrase but by our libraries. You might attend, say, a party thrown by a friend of a friend, and notice on the shelves volumes such as John A. Kouwenhoven's Made in America, Susanne Langer's Problems of Art, Constance Rourke's American Humor, Lord Raglan's The Hero, Roger Caillois's Man, Play, and Games, or Andre Malraux's The Voices of Silence mixed with the more usual suspects (Douglass, Mann, Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner, Al's friends Ralph Ellison and Robert Penn Warren), a book or three on jazz, and Murray's own work. You'd ask if the host happened to know Al Murray, and invariably his or her eyes would light up. Like Kilroy, Murray had been there.

A dazzling savant and a thoroughly original prose stylist, Murray was also a dedicated mentor, a responsibility that gave him much pleasure, bringing the world to enlightenment one person at a time. A master discourser (this book is proof) and an intellectually munificent friend, he could, at his best, radiate extraordinary charm and wit. ….

For a young jazz critic, Murray provided more than liberation. He provided a sword: the language and aesthetics to cut through the brambled triteness of borrowed prestige and establish a new domain in which blues music, as he writes in The Hero and the Blues, defines "the rugged endurance of the black American," and by extension everyone everywhere who understands that "blues-idiom dance music challenges and affirms his personal equilibrium, sustains his humanity, and enables him to maintain his highest aspirations in spite of the fact that human existence is so often mostly a low-down dirty shame." In 1976, he delivered the fullest measure of his aesthetics in Stomping the Blues, a novella-length essay, Aristotelian in its authority and expanded by dozens of illustrations into a paradigmatic purview of how blues music's values embody ritual responses to life; he explored the music's origination and the individual geniuses who stylized it into art of universal import, and he did it with a prose that makes you tap your feet. Stomping the Blues remains the foundation on which much contemporary music writing is built.

The copiousness of Murray's vision was such that, like the Constitution, it could accommodate other visions —even those that he tended to underestimate at the time he wrote it…..”

The mainstay of the book are nineteen 19 interviews, essays, and lists of recommended recordings [aka “The Canon”] by Albert Murray, but equally important for the perspectives they provide in helping us understand Albert Murray’s significance are the above-referenced Foreword by Gary Giddins, an Introduction by Paul Devlin and an Afterword by Greg Thomas. Naturally, Messrs Devlin and Thomas join Gary Giddins as “one of Albert Murray’s guys.”

Briefly, to better acquaint you with Albert Murray and “his guys:”  

ALBERT MURRAY (1916-2013) was a renowned jazz historian, novelist, and social and cultural theorist. Among his major works are The Omni-Americans [1970], South to a Very Old Place [1971] and a series of lectures that he gave in 1972 at the University of Missouri which have been collected and published as The Hero and the Blues [1973] Not only did his prizewinning study Stomping the Blues (1976) influence musicians far and wide, it was also a foundational text for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which he cofounded with Wynton Marsalis and others in 1987.

PAUL DEVLIN teaches at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He is the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, as told to Albert Murray (Minnesota, 2011), a finalist for the Jazz Journalists Association's book award in 2012. Devlin is a leading Murray scholar who contextualizes the essays and interviews in an extensive Introduction to Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues, which doubles as a major commentary on Murray's life and work. The volume also presents sixteen never-before-seen photographs of jazz greats taken by Murray.

GARY GIDDINS is one of the world's foremost jazz critics. His books include Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams and Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Minnesota, 2013), Visions of Jazz: The First Century, Satchmo, Weather Bird: Jazz At The Dawn of Its Second Century and Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation.

GREG THOMAS is an award-winning jazz writer, editor, educator, and broadcast journalist. His work on jazz has been published in the Village Voice, The Root, All About Jazz, Salon, The Guardian, American Legacy, and the New York Daily News, for which he was the jazz columnist.

The commentaries by Gary Giddins, Paul Devlin and Greg Thomas also provide instructive testimonials about the importance of Albert Murray in American arts and culture in the second half of the 20th century.

Frankly, I benefitted from such accolades as by the time Murray’s magnum opus Stompin’ The Blues was published in 1976, I had largely moved away from Jazz and its related literature to pursue other aspects of my life both personal and professional.

I had grown-up on Gitler, Hentoff, Feather, Lees, Ramsey, DeMichael, Williams, Balliett, Dance, Harrison, Sales and, of course, Schuller, but the likes of Giddins, Gioia, Sudhalter, Cuscuna, Teachout and Kirchner had to wait until my retirement years which began almost thirty years after the publication of Stompin’ The Blues.

I was vaguely aware of the advent of Jazz at Lincoln Center but the names I heard most often ascribed to it were Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch. I truly had no knowledge of the importance of Albert Murray’s influence in bringing about the remarkable accomplishment of a concert hall environment devoted almost exclusively to Jazz.

As my many postings about their writings will testify, I’ve certainly made up for lost time as far as “my new guys” Giddins, Gioia, Sudhalter, Cuscuna, Teachout and Kirchner are concerned and now, thanks to Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues, I get to make the acquaintance of Albert Murray.

I also never knew that spending twenty years in the United States Air Force could prove so beneficial to 20th century American belles lettres, but as Gary Giddins explains in his Foreword, that’s exactly what provided the subsidy upon which Albert Murray began his writing career [he was pensioned off as a Major in the USAF]. And if you are, like me, a new to Murray, you’ll find that the USAF subsidy was well-placed.

The University of Minnesota press release to Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues notes that “for those new to Murray, this book will provide a perfect introduction, and those familiar with his work— even scholars—will be surprised, dazzled, and delighted. Highlights include Dizzy Gillespie's richly substantive 1985 conversation; an in-depth 1994 dialogue on jazz and culture between Murray and Wynton Marsalis; and a long 1989 discussion on Duke Ellington between Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Loren Schoenberg. Also interviewed by Murray are producer and impresario John Hammond and singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine. All of these conversations were previously lost to history. A celebrated educator and raconteur, Murray engages with a variety of scholars and journalists while making insightful connections among music, literature, and other art forms—all with ample humor and from unforeseen angles.”

The significance of Albert Murray and his zeitgeist as reflected in his writings, discourses and conversations can be surmised from the following excerpt from Paul Devlin’s Introduction:

“For Murray, art is neither created nor appreciated in a vacuum. These interviews are prisms through which to view his approaches to aesthetics, creativity, history, and ultimately, a life well lived. As Murray notes in one of these pieces, art has a particular existential function:

You wake up in the morning and realize that if you really look hard at what some of your possibilities are, life is a low-down dirty shame that shouldn't happen to a dog. You could either cut your throat right then and get it over with, or you could try to pull yourself together to be ready to stomp at the Savoy by 9:30. What is likely to help you to do that? Not money, power, all those things. Getting your head straight will help you to do that. And that's what the function of all art is. And of course, blues is an art form, and that's what it can do for you. It keeps you from giving in to the melancholy, or the sense of defeat, or the sense of uselessness that you have. You get it together so that you really want to do something elegant yourself. You're inspired to dance, to get with it, to get it on, to be yourself, to be with somebody else. . . .

Well, you know, one of the basic fallacies with so much twentieth-century art journalism is that they confuse art with rebellion and revolution. Art is really about security. The enemy is entropy, the enemy is formlessness. Art is about form. Art is about elegant form. If you're going to be just for tearing down something, that is as ridiculous as trying to embrace entropy, then you're gonna embrace chaos. If you want to try that, go down to the waterfront and try to embrace some waves coming in. You'll do much better trying to surf on the waves. You've gotta be elegant to surf. You go out there and hug those breakers coming in, that would be exactly the same thing as hugging a monster from the depths of the earth. They are always defeated by what Thomas Mann calls "life's delicate child." And man prevails through his style, through his elegance, through his control of forces. Not through his power, but through his control.”

The Afterword by Greg Thomas offers this perspective on Albert Murray’s contributions to American popular culture:

“Notwithstanding recognition by peers in elite institutions such as the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle, and other honors, the wider American and international intelligentsia remains under-informed about the value and potential application of Murray's ideas to contemporary intellectual discourse. Strange barriers of politics, fear, ideology, American racial mysticism, and academic specialization have left Murray's work as a whole is in a kind of no-man's-land. … Murray  … remains conspicuously absent from conversations on civics, philosophy, and aesthetics in which his work is central. Be that as it may, Murray's corpus is chock-full of multidisciplinary wisdom addressing predicaments that continue to rip and rend the American and global body politic since his first book, The Omni-Americans, was published in 1970. …

[Albert Murray] never did he lose touch with the pragmatic connection of his ideas to everyday life, which he narrated time and time again in the space of his fiction, essays, and, indeed, in conversation. The very ideas he formulated about the blues and jazz as found in Stomping the Blues, The Blue Devils of Nada, From the Briarpatch File, and this collection derive primarily from the organic idiomatic and national cultural experience of blacks in the United States, not as a theory from outside imposed on the music or the culture. I have deeply studied his worldview—the blues idiom—for more than a quarter century. The way he bridged the profound and the quotidian, and complexity with fundamentals, all with an earthy sense of humor, was magnetic to me. He bristled with charisma and insight, which comes through in this book.”

Thinker, teacher, talker … it must have been a ball being around Albert Murray and I’ll bet that being “one of his guys” was a privilege that those who were accorded it will never forget.

Order information can be located via this link to the University of Minnesota Press.

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