Albert Murray May 12, 1916 - Aug. 18, 2013 Writer Whose Works Illuminated Black Culture

By Bernstein, Adam | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), August 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

Albert Murray May 12, 1916 - Aug. 18, 2013 Writer Whose Works Illuminated Black Culture


Bernstein, Adam, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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 music.

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 "Invisible Man."

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 storytelling.

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. …

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