Renaissance Riffs; Albert Murray Has Been Sounding off on Culture, Jazz and Race for Half a Century

By Jones, Malcolm, Jr. | Newsweek, February 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

Renaissance Riffs; Albert Murray Has Been Sounding off on Culture, Jazz and Race for Half a Century


Jones, Malcolm, Jr., Newsweek


ONE RECENT BLUSTERY AFTER noon, the writer Albert Murray ushered a guest onto his apartment balcony. Eight floors below, Harlem flowed away to the east, the west and the south. In the distance the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan punctuated the horizon. "This is my spyglass tree," he announced. His latest spyglass tree, he might have added, because he has spent his life watching the world from a variety of perches, including a chinaberry tree in a yard near Mobile, Ala., where he grew up. It's a long way from Mobile to Manhattan, but Murray has always found his tree and kept tabs on the world, In 79 years of checking out the neighborhood, he hasn't missed much, and he hasn't been shy about sharing what he's seen.

The Harlem Renaissance, that explosion of African-American culture in writing, music, art and dance, ended somewhere in the mid-'30s, but apparently no one told Murray. His eight books, pubhshed over the last 25 years, include a memoir and four collections of essays--The Blue Devils of Nada (238 pages. Pantheon. $23) is just out--that range all over the cultural landscape, from polemical attacks on black separatism to Hemingway to music: he believes the blues and jazz are the closest things Americans have to an art of epic heroism. His three quasi-autobiographical novels, including his current one, The Seven League Boots (369 pages. Pantheon. $25), are spirited but never saccharine accounts of what it was like to grow up black in this century. In the midst of all this, he took off nearly a decade to help Count Basie write his autobiography. Murray's eclectic output has prompted the critic Nat Hentoff to say, "Albert has developed for American intellectual history a wholly new dimension."

Though he never achieved the fame of his close friend Ralph Ellison, Murray has nevertheless emerged as one of America's most influential cultural figures. Walker Percy wrote that Murray's first book, "The Omni-Americans" (1970), "may well be the most important book on white-black relations in the United States, indeed on American culture, published in this generation." Stanley Crouch called "Stomping the Blues" (1976), Murray's freewheeling tour of jazz and blues, "the most eloquent book ever written about African-American music."

But Murray's influence now extends well beyond his books. All his years of preaching the centrality of blues and jazz in American life paid off when he helped create jazz at Lincoln Center, the first program to accord the same institutional sanction (and backing) to jazz that has been bestowed on opera and ballet. He also serves as intellectual godfather to some of the key young black American artists and critics now working, notably Crouch and musician Wynton Marsalis, by urging them back to the musical roots of jazz. "He's my mentor, but it's more than that," says Marsalis. "'Stomping the Blues' had a profound impact on me in terms of understanding the context of the art form, and the society."

When Murray is asked to name his own influences, his teachers at Mobile County Training School and Tuskegee Institute always top the list. Although he has lived in New York almost 30 years, he still thinks of Tuskegee as home. it was there he met Ellison and there he married Mozelle, his wife of 54 years. During World War II, he helped train the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military pilots. …

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