I began writing about music for alternative weeklies in the 1970s. Having come of age in the ’60s dancing to rhythm and blues by Irma Thomas, Tommy Ridgley, Art and Aaron Neville, et alia, I found myself a decade later in love with the music all over again and wondering who they were. (Get a tape recorder, go ask.) But the music posed a challenge. How to convey those marvelous sounds in prose; how the melodies and rhythmic innovations color an evening, the change in a room or parade when bodies moving hit the groove? Writing about politics paid better, but enduring the speeches and specimens of mendacity, many names worth forgetting, was a slog. The musicians had stories about the sounds that sent me digging deeper, trying to grasp a collective story.
I lived in the Irish Channel, two upper floors in succession, rent at $75 and $150 respectively, tall ceilings, ample room. I wrote at night and toward 3 a.m., put on music to unwind. One summer, alternating between Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 records and Beethoven’s Symphonies, I discovered a tender symmetry between “Strutting with Some Barbecue” and “Ode to Joy.”
Among the books I read to get grounded: Blues People by LeRoi Jones, Hear Me Talking to Ya the great oral history by Hentoff and Shapiro, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and John Broven’s seminal book on R&B, Walking to New Orleans. I read many others; but the sky opened in 1976 when Albert Murray published Stomping the Blues. I had never read such a swinging performance in language, nor one of such ranging cultural wisdom. With the careful orchestration of vintage photographs from the swing era, Murray’s book came as close as anything on paper to sounding like music. He was focused on the bridge between dancers in blues clubs and dancers in the aisles of churches.
“Downhome church music,” he wrote, “is not of its nature fundamentally less dance-beat-oriented, it simply inspires a different mode of dance, a sacred or holy as opposed to a secular or profane movement, a difference which is sometimes a matter of very delicate nuance. Indeed, sometimes only the initiated can make the distinctions. But churchfolks are always very much aware of them, and so are blues musicians for the most part.”
Murray also wrote: “In the old days to play church music as dance music used to be condemned as sacrilege by church elders and dance-hall patrons alike. There were some exceptions, of course, and some very notable ones at that. There were the now classic renditions of ‘The Saints’ and ‘Bye and Bye,’ for example, by none other than Louis Armstrong,” he continued, calling him “a product of the highly unconventional religious attitude that the existential bodaciousness of New Orleans post-cemetery music expresses.”
Murray had been a classmate of Ralph Ellison at Tuskegee Institute in the 1930s, and after years in the Air Force, settled in Harlem. As a writer he started late. He was 55 when he published a ’71 literary travelogue, South to a Very Old Place, which included a visit with Walker Percy.
I followed the evolution of Murray’s prose voice in the 1974 novel, Train Whistle Guitar (which won the Lillian Smith Award for Southern Fiction). It is the tale of an Alabama childhood in a mythical setting and the influence of a revered bluesmen. The dialogue includes a riff between two boys, like this:
“Say now hey now Mister Luzana Cholly.
Mister Luzana Cholly one time …
Mister Luzana Cholly all night long.
Yeah me, ain’t nobody else but …
Got the world in a jug.
And the stopper in your hand.
Y’all tell em, ’cause I ain’t got the heart.
A man among men.
And Lord God among women!”
Then came Stomping the Blues. The language with its unerring musicality emboldened me to pitch The Nation for an essay on his work, which ran in January 1977, the first consideration of his entire work to date if I’m not mistaken. Many others weighed in as his line of books extended. We began corresponding, and did an interview for a small literary journal (reprinted as introduction to his ’97 collection, Blue Devils of Nada.) He had compared the bluesman to the bullfighter in another book, The Hero and the Blues, reflecting on Hemingway. “You say that his heroes are blues heroes,” I said. “In what stylistic sense, if any, has he influenced you?”
“His cadence is that of process and of ritual reenactment,” said Murray. “As casual as it seems, his style achieves its realistic effect through incantation.”
In 1978, I spent a grand afternoon drinking bourbon in his Harlem apartment amid paintings by his friend Romaire Bearden and a big library. Murray’s style drew inspiration from Flaubert, Joyce and Mann. He disdained racial separatism; he saw America as an assimilating society, jazz a metaphor of democracy. He took his share of criticism but the arc of culture bent toward Murray. A mentor to Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s, he was a major figure in Ken Burns’s Jazz. In the winter of his life he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and profiled in The New Yorker.
In August he died at 97. His obituary began on the front page of the New York Times.
I regret the failure to keep those letters going; but I got pulled into some heavy investigative reporting. We had a nice reunion years later when he spoke at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. As I realize how much I learned from what Albert Murray wrote, and the way he wrote, that day in New York comes back, the subway from Harlem down to the Village, roaming the Strand Bookstore, talking about jazz and books, and in the last blue touch of twilight, watching him saunter off with an elegant bounce to his step, serenely confident about what he had to say.
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