Murray, Albert L. 1916–
Albert L. Murray 1916–
Novelist, essayist, biographer, philosopher
A well-known author and essayist, Albert L. Murray has been called, according to Malcolm Jones, Jr. in Newsweek, one of the “most influential cultural figures” of the twentieth century. Murray’s writings cover a variety of subjects, most notably his focus on African-American culture and music. Although most clearly identified as a spokesperson for African-American culture and widely acknowledged as one of black America’s foremost thinkers, Murray himself rejected that label, pointing out that his skin is brown, not black (he prefers the designations “Negro” or “colored”), and that all Americans, black and white, share a common culture. He has called himself simply an American writer. According to Murray, that common culture is most eloquently expressed in blues and jazz music; somewhat like writer Amiri Baraka, who characterized black Americans as a “blues people,” Murray identified a “blues idiom” that gives Americans the spirit and wit to overcome adversity.
In novels, essays, travel narratives, poems, and other forms, Murray has expressed his ideas with at least three mutually reinforcing levels: he writes, in the broadest sense, about the blues, in a style that resembles the blues, creating works that embody what he sees as a blues aesthetic of survival, perseverance, and a positive spirit in the face of difficulty. The writer who has created this complex style took much of a lifetime to forge it; he did not publish his first book until his sixth decade.
Albert Lee Murray was born to a single mother in Nokomis, Alabama, on May 12, 1916. He was taken in and raised by a couple in the Magazine Point neighborhood of nearby Mobile, and his teachers recognized him as uncommonly intelligent while he was still a young child. Murray was sent to the Mobile County Training School, an institution whose strong-willed and oratorically gifted teachers were the source of an influence Murray has often acknowledged.
Murray moved on to the flagship of the pre-integration system of black higher education in the South: the Tuskegee Institute. He studied the classics of European literature and received a bachelor’s degree in education there in 1939. Of special influence during this time were the works of Austrian novelist Thomas Mann, who incorporated the music of classical composers Beethoven and Wagner into his mode of storytelling.
At a Glance …
Born Albert Lee Murray in Nokomis, Alabama, June 12, 1916; raised in Mobile, Alabama area. Married Mozelle Menefee, May 31, 1941, one child. Education: Graduated from Mobile County Training School; Tuskegee Institute, B.S. in education with much literature study, 1939; postgraduate work, University of Michigan, 1940, Northwestern University, 1941; New York University, M.A., 1948; University of Paris, Paris France, postgraduate study, 1950. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1943-62; reached rank of major.
Career: Writer and educator. Taught at Tuskegee Institute, 1940s-50s; trained Tuskegee Airmen during World War II; moved to New York City, early 1960s; published numerous essays, 1960s; published first book, The Omni-Americans, a collection of essays, 1970; published trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels: Train Whistle Guitar, 1974; The Spyglass Tree, 1991; The Seven League Boots, 1996; worked with Count Basie on Basie’s autobiography, early 1980s; published several volumes of essays and musical criticism; numerous visting lectureships at various colleges and universities, 1970s-90s.
Selected Awards: Lillian Smith Award for fiction, for Train Whistle Guitar, 1974; ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for musical criticism, for Stomping the Blues, 1976; National Book Critics’ Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996; numerous honorary doctoral degrees.
Address: 45 W. 132nd St., New York, NY 10037.
After doing graduate work at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, Murray returned to Tuskegee, teaching English there for many years and also joining the U.S. Air Force. He became one of the trainers of the Tuskegee Airmen who distinguished themselves during World War II. Murray himself spent time in the great capitals of Europe during a stretch when he was stationed in Morocco; he studied at the University of Paris for a time. While stationed in the northeastern United States he completed an M.A. at New York University in 1948.
After retiring from the military with the rank of major in 1962, Murray moved with his wife and family to New York’s Harlem neighborhood and turned to writing in earnest. His first book, The Omni-Americans (1970), collected essays he had published during the 1960s. In these writings Murray emphasized the idea of an American culture composed of a unique mixture of elements, taking sharp issue both with black separatists and with the predominant white sociological writings of the day that emphasized only grim pathologies in the black experience. Murray then published the travel narrative South to a Very Old Place (1972), an account of a trip he made to his hometown of Mobile, with side visits to Tuskegee, Memphis, and other locales; the book, containing vivid descriptions of Mobile’s black community, embodied Murray’s original and very musical prose style.
Murray’s other writings of the 1970s included the first novel of an eventual autobiographical trilogy, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), which depicted the coming-of-age of an intelligent Mobile youth named Scooter. The other two works of the trilogy followed Scooter to Tuskegee (The Spyglass Tree, 1991), and into a swing-era jazz band (The Seven League Boots, 1996); Murray considered himself a fiction writer foremost. For many years, however, music came to the fore in his writing.
In such books as The Hero and the Blues (1973) and Stomping the Blues (1976), the second of which won the music industry’s Deems Taylor Award for music criticism, Murray expressed his ideas about the place of blues and jazz in American culture. According to him, the “blues hero” is not simply a musician but the embodiment of black experience and values. Murray also regarded improvisation within a framework of a communal tradition as critical to the spirit of confrontation that resulted in the improvement of the conditions of black life in America. In other works, such as The Blue Devils of Nada (1996), he argued that the blues animated the spirit of American life itself, offering inspiration not only to African Americans beset by racism, but to anyone troubled by the lack of meaning in modern life.
A passage from The Blue Devils of Nada illustrates Murray’s unique style, seemingly composed by turns of Southern downhome speech and European didactic argument. In this passage, he argues that a complete realization of the blues attitude towards life is not only necessary for blacks but for any group of people. He says that, “a fully orchestrated blues statement” is “a fundamental device for confrontation, improvisation, and existential affirmation: a strategy for acknowledging the fact that life is a lowdown dirty shame and for improvising or riffing on the exigencies of the predicament.” In general, Murray states, suffering is a given, but can be overcome. “To protest the existence of dragons (or even hooded or unhooded Grand Dragons for that matter) is not only sentimental but naive,” he concluded.
Murray put his interest in music to work in practical realms in the 1980s, taking a decade off from his own writings to work with jazz bandleader Count Basie on his autobiography, Good Morning Blues (1985). He helped found and served on the board of directors of the Jazz at Lincoln Center concert series, a major institution that presented jazz as an art form comparable to classical symphonic music or opera. In the 1990s, approaching his 80th year, Murray once again began to write prolifically despite being slowed by a series of spine operations.
In addition to the second and third Scooter novels and The Blue Devils of Nada, Murray published a volume of poetry, Aubades: Epic Exits and Other Twelve Bar Riffs (2001), a new book of essays, From the Briarpatch File (2001), a collection of letters he had exchanged with his Tuskegee contemporary Ralph Ellison, and an art exhibition catalogue devoted to the work of his friend Romare Bearden. Late in life, Murray was feted with a parade of honorary doctoral degrees, one of them from his alma mater of Tuskegee. He was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics’ Circle in 1996.
The Omni-Americans, 1970 (essays).
South to a Very Old Place, 1972 (travel narrative).
The Hero and the Blues, 1973 (music criticism).
Train Whistle Guitar, 1974 (novel).
Stomping the Blues, 1976 (music criticism).
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie, as Told to Albert Murray, 1985.
The Spyglass Tree, 1991 (novel).
The Seven League Boots, 1996 (novel).
The Blue Devils of Nada, 1996 (music and philosophy).
(Editor, with John F. Callahan) Trading Twelves: Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, 2000.
Aubades: Epic Exits and Other Twelve Bar Riffs, 2001 (poetry).
From the Briarpatch File, 2001 (essays).
Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed., St. James, 2001.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James, 1999.
African American Review, Summer 1993, p. 287; Spring 1999, p. 168.
American Heritage, September 1996, p. 68.
New Republic, February 3, 1992, p. 39.
Newsweek, February 5, 1996, p. 60.
Publisher’s Weekly, February 26, 1996, p. 78; September 24, 2001, p. 91; October 1, 2001, p. 46.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
—James M. Manheim
"Murray, Albert L. 1916–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/murray-albert-l-1916
"Murray, Albert L. 1916–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/murray-albert-l-1916
Murray, Albert L
MURRAY, Albert L.
Nationality: American. Born: Nokomis, Alabama, 12 June 1916. Education: Tuskegee Institute, B.S. 1939; New York University, M.A. 1948; postgraduate work at University of Michigan, 1940, Northwestern University, 1941, and University of Paris, 1950. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1943-62, including service during World War II; retired as major. Family: Married Mozelle Menefee in 1941; one daughter. Career: Instructor, Tuskegee Institute, 1940-43, 1946-51, director of College Little Theatre; lecturer, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, 1968; O'Connor Professor of Literature, Colgate University, 1970, O'Connor Lecturer, 1973, professor of humanities, 1982; visiting professor of literature, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1971; Paul Anthony Brick lecturer, University of Missouri, 1972; writer in residence, Emory University, Atlanta, 1978; adjunct associate professor of creative writing, Barnard College, 1981-83; Woodrow Wilson fellow, Drew University, 1983; Dupont visiting professor, Washington and Lee University, 1993; lecturer and participant in symposia. Awards: Lillian Smith award for fiction, 1974; Deems Taylor award for music criticism (ASCAP), 1976; Lincoln Center Directors Emeriti award, 1991; Literature Achievement award (National Book Critics Circle), 1997; Harper Lee award for Literary Excellence (Alabama Writer's Forum), 1998. Litt.D., Colgate University, 1975; Doctor of humane letters, Spring Hill College, 1996. Address: 45 West 132nd Street, New York, New York 10037, U.S.A.
Train Whistle Guitar. New York, McGraw, 1974.
The Spyglass Tree. New York, Pantheon, 1991.
The Seven League Boots. New York, Pantheon, 1996.
Television Programs: Newport Jazz '90 (cowriter, with others). WETA-TV, 1990.
The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (essays). Outerbridge & Dientsfrey, 1970; published as The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy. St. Paul, Minnesota, Vintage Book, 1983.
South to a Very Old Place (memoir). New York, McGraw, 1972.
The Hero and the Blues (lectures). Columbia, University of MissouriPress, 1973.
Stomping the Blues. New York, McGraw, 1976.
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (with CountBasie). New York, Random House, 1985.
Reflections on Logic, Politics, and Reality: A Challenge to the Sacred Consensus of Contemporary American Thinking. Riverdale, New York, Braimanna Publishers, 1989.
Contributor, Alabama Bound: Contemporary Stories of a State, edited by James E. Colquitt. Livingston, Alabama, Livingston Press, 1995.
The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement. New York, Pantheon, 1996.
Romare Bearden in Black-and-White: Photomontage Projections, 1964. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997* * *
Albert Murray has had a profound influence on American art since World War II. A brilliant cultural critic, novelist, essayist, and biographer, Murray's artistry is found in his description of the forms and meanings of the blues and jazz. Robert O'Meally explains that "more than any other writer, he has taken on the complex task of naming the aspects of performances by blues-idiom musicians, and then of saying with precision what it is that makes such performances so irresistible to audiences and dancers, so definitive of their time and culture." Murray's works include The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture, South to a Very Old Place, Train Whistle Guitar, Stomping the Blues, The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots, and The Blue Devils of Nada.
Murray's first work, The Omni-Americans, is a clear defense of African-American culture found in a collection of essays, commentaries, and reviews dealing with politics, literature, and music. His next work, South to a Very Old Place, is an autobiographical memoir of his youth and a celebration of black culture. The Hero and the Blues is a collection of Murray's Paul Anthony Brick lectures at the University of Missouri on ethical implications of literary esthetics. Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, and The Seven League Boots constitute "the Scooter trilogy." Train Whistle Guitar begins the saga of Scooter by telling the story of his childhood in the deep South of the 1920s. The Spyglass Tree then follows Murray's resilient, intelligent, vibrant, and universal protagonist to an imaginary Alabama college in the 1930s. The last novel in the trilogy, The Seven League Boots, recounts Scooter's experiences as a bass player in a touring jazz band following his graduation from college. During the Scooter trilogy, Murray also wrote Stomping the Blues, an examination of the redefinition of blues music and its connection to American culture, and Good Morning Blues, a biography of Count Basie. The Blue Devils of Nada, a more recent work, focuses on the creative process, what he calls "the vernacular imperative for American aesthetics."
In all of Murray's works, one encounters the people and places of the blues, and the author's theories on jazz and the blues seek to define a modern consciousness and create a new archetype of the American hero known as the "blues hero." An opposition of the unhappy reality presented in the blues music with improvisation by the dancers, musicians, and even the music itself implies the role of the hero, who may not always win but who will most assuredly always go down swinging. According to Murray, "the blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people. It's the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people. Jazz is only possible in a climate of freedom." It is this elemental differentiation between the blues as a feeling of despondency and blues music, which brings people happiness by gathering them together to dance and sing and flirt and "stomp" the blues away, that is a reoccurring theme in Murray's work.
Murray not only writes about the blues and uses the music as a basis for his philosophy, he also imitates the art form in his prose, which Larry Neal calls the "acoustical iconography" of language. This musical emulation provides a unique framework for Murray's novels that are, according to O'Meally, "arrangements of verbal vamps, breaks, riffs, choruses, and out choruses—rhythmically repeated figures analogous to … Basie's 'One O'Clock Jump' or Leadbelly's 'Good Morning Blues."' In his long passages of dialogue and monologue, and in his lyric description, Murray's language dances across the page, intruding on the reader's awareness and impressing rhythmic order in the story. Through a unique creative process, Murray has found a way to actually write the blues.
Murray is regarded as one of the nation's best black Southern writers, yet he doesn't regard himself as such. Rather, he chooses to be known as an "all American writer." Working to establish a foundation for a national identity, Murray describes the American culture as "mulatto," a race of interrelated, multicolored people, and focuses on the irony of intolerance existing in a sophisticated society such as the United States. Whether he regards himself as a black writer or not, Murray has been a very real inspiration for several generations of African-American writers ever since he burst onto the scene with The Omni Americans, which challenged its readers to undertake the hard, honest work of accepting his vision of the mulatto culture. Accused in the past of fostering racism when he was, above all, attempting to transcend racial peripheries, Murray today offers his elegant "blues aesthetic," steeped in black cultural tradition, for engaging in the turmoil of subsistence.
Murray is indisputably America's great literary practitioner of the blues idiom, the creator of a bold, new, elegant, lyrical style comprised of the black folk tradition, the Southern tradition of storytelling, the rumination of Faulkner, the wordplay of Joyce along with the cadences and idioms of African-American speech. Duke Ellington said it best when he once explained: "Albert Murray is a man whose learning did not interfere with understanding. An authority on soul from the days of old, he is right on right back to back and commands respect. He doesn't have to look it up. He already knows. If you want to know, look him up. He is the unsquarest person I know."
Cathy Kelly Power
"Murray, Albert L." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/murray-albert-l
"Murray, Albert L." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/murray-albert-l