Albert Murray, a self-described "riff-style intellectual" whose
novels, nonfiction books and essays drew on the free-wheeling spirit
of jazz and whose works underscored how black culture and the blues
in particular were braided into American life, died Sunday at his
home in New York City. He was 97.
His executor, Lewis P. Jones III, confirmed the death but said he
did not know the exact cause.
Mr. Murray was a man of letters whose works interpreted and
illuminated African-American culture and how it has transformed
American society, often through the metaphor of blues and jazz
In books such as "The Hero and the Blues" (1973) and "Stomping
the Blues" (1976), he saw the musical idiom not as a primitive means
of expressing sorrow and pain but as "a sound track for an
affirmative lifestyle" in spite of the existential chaos.
In short, he wrote, the blues was saturated with creativity,
resolve and improvisation -- the equipment of life. The cadence of
the music also influenced the art of jazz musicians such as Duke
Ellington, artists including Romare Bearden and writers such as
Ralph Ellison, author of the widely acknowledged masterwork
Mr. Murray was a classmate of Ellison's at the Tuskegee Institute
in Alabama in the late 1930s and mentored a later generation of
writers and scholars including Stanley Crouch and Henry Louis Gates
Jr. In a statement, trumpeter and jazz ambassador Wynton Marsalis
called Mr. Murray "one of America's great cultural thinkers and one
of our original champions."
With essay collections such as "The Omni-Americans" (1970), the
literary criticism and historical analysis of "South to a Very Old
Place" (1971) and a bildungsroman quartet starting with "Train
Whistle Guitar" (1974), Mr. Murray attracted superlatives for his
often-erudite and lyrical writing.
In The New Yorker, author Robert Coles once wrote that Mr. Murray
possessed "the poet's language, the novelist's sensibility, the
essayist's clarity, the jazzman's imagination, and the gospel
singer's depth of feeling."
He had an unlikely path to a career in scholarship. Born out of
wedlock, he was adopted in infancy by a working-class family and
raised in a black enclave of Mobile, Ala. He recalled growing up in
a bustling community of Pullman porters and returning World War I
veterans who supplied a panorama of worldly experience -- not to
mention blues and jazz music -- that fired his ardor for
Mr. Murray spent more than a decade in the Air Force, alternating
overseas military duty with an academic career that took him to
Columbia University in New York City, Emory University in Atlanta
and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. …