The Human Factor

Folks in general, especially those of varied shades of pink and brown most in need of his wisdom and perspective, still haven’t discovered, much less figured out, Albert Murray. It’s not as though they haven’t had enough time to try. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Murray’s birth, and he almost made it to the centennial finish line, missing it by three years. His first book, The Omni-Americans, published in 1970 when he was fifty-four, was a collection of essays submitting vibrant, complex, and liberating counterarguments to those—well-intentioned or not, militant and moderate alike—who insisted on depicting the black-American story as one of dysfunction, self-loathing, pain, and despair. If you want the full story, Murray said, you start by listening to blues music and acknowledging its assertion of grace, resilience, and even defiance in response to racism’s fear and loathing.

From this vision, Murray assembled a substantial shelf of books bearing his name, including his memoir (South to a Very Old Place) and somebody else’s (Good Morning, Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie), criticism of a literary (The Hero and the Blues) and musical (Stomping the Blues) bent, a collection of poems (Conjugations and Reiterations), a quartet of semiautobiographical novels (Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots, and The Magic Keys) tracking the life and education of a sensitive Mobile-born boy named Scooter, a collection of correspondence with his close friend and fellow Tuskegee Institute alumnus Ralph Ellison (Trading Twelves), and two grab bags of essays and reviews (The Blue Devils of Nada and From the Briarpatch File).

In releasing an omnibus of his nonfiction, the Library of America intends to make sure Murray’s formidable body of work is always around to remind us that we each are more complex, more human, than anybody’s sociology or ideology will ever acknowledge. But will readers retrieve these lessons? They need to; especially now, as we contend with a recent wave of unarmed black Americans dying because of excessive police force. These events have helped set off a resurgence of the kind of organized African American activism Murray critically scrutinized in The Omni-Americans. Back in 1970 the cry was “Black Power”; this time it’s “Black Lives Matter,” a movement that’s aroused a concurrent backlash that includes a police coalition insisting that “Blue Lives Matter.”

Albert Murray at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1961. Courtesy the Albert Murray Estate
Albert Murray at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1961. Courtesy the Albert Murray Estate

Because I got to meet Murray and spend some quality time with him at his book-lined apartment on West 132nd Street in Harlem, I have little trouble imagining how he’d react to all of it, especially at the tail end of the first African American president’s administration. I can see him pacing around his study, like a veteran shortstop or a welterweight boxer, rolling on his heels, looking for an opening with intense, peppery animation, expounding in the “velvety, raspy-soft voice” aptly described by fellow jazz critic Gary Giddins in his forward to Murray Talks Music, a collection of conversations about jazz and blues, compiled by Paul Devlin (who also coedited the LOA collection with Henry Louis Gates Jr.), that includes such diverse partners as Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and John Hammond. Like Gary (yes, I know him, too; there’s a bunch of us Acolytes of Al roaming the Earth), I can picture Murray talking “a mile a minute” in a digressive, riff-inflected flow of “apothegms and japes,” as he’d once again lament how so many people who should know better keep missing the point, and that they need to be reminded that—dammit!—when you confine definitions of black-American life to the jargon of “social science fiction” (as he liked to name it), you degrade and simplify African Americans’ essence as destructively as the white supremacists you insist you’re battling.

He would also, I think, be quite cross with me for some of the terminology I’ve used so far, especially the words black and African American or any combination thereof. Listen to him say why in this 1997 interview:

I don’t like being called “black American,” because it so often implies less American. And I absolutely despise being called “African American.” I am not an African. I am an American. And I still can’t believe my ears when I hear educated people calling themselves a minority-something, by the way, which uneducated people never do. All of my values and aspirations are geared to the assumption that freedom as defined by the American social contract is my birthright. Man, aint nothing African about that kind of birthright. Aint nothing Chinese or Japanese or Italian or Austrian or Iranian or Jordanian and so on either.

To repeat: This was 1997, and The Omni-Americans had been circulating in public discourse for almost thirty years. Yet he’s compelled to repeat himself somewhat truculently, as if he were speaking to a distracted audience through the whirring blades of a giant wind tunnel. And there remain many clinging to all sides of our nation’s racial chasm who, if they bothered to listen to Murray, would be bewildered, offended, or some worse compound of both.

For, as he writes near the very beginning of The Omni-Americans:

To race-oriented propagandists, whether white or black, the title [of this book] makes no sense: they would have things be otherwise. But the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multi-colored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.

Throughout the book, Murray uses the term “U.S. Negroes” to characterize African Americans, and his preference for what was, by the early ’70s, considered by progressives of all colors a retrograde, even derogatory term was taken as evidence of a conservative, even reactionary streak in the retired US Air Force officer.

But Murray isn’t denying the existence of pain and despair; rather, he chooses to emphasize how black Americans have shown their hardiness against them. Far too much attention was paid in the ’60s to the grim diagnoses of psychologist Kenneth Clark and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and nowhere near enough paid to the inquiries of cultural historian Constance Rourke, whose American Humor argues that the quintessential American spirit is, in Murray’s words, “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.” (Ladies and gentlemen, your Omni-American! And “black” and “white” have nothing to do with it!)

No, not Kenneth Clark, Murray insisted, but Kenneth Burke, the literary theorist and philosopher whose frames of acceptance and rejection offer, to this day, the most useful context for what, for Murray’s sake, we’ll label the Negro Condition. Think of Murray “playing changes” (in jazz parlance) on Burke’s ideas: With the “rejection” frame, Murray argued in a 1996 interview, you have “the plaint, the elegy, the complaint, you get moral outcry. . . the idea of victim,” while “acceptance” neither denies nor countenances injustice and inequality, but acknowledges that life is a struggle that one negotiates, improvising one’s way through travail toward democratic triumph.

Nowhere else, in Murray’s view, are these conflicting frames better placed in all-American relief than in blues music, which for generations before Murray was regarded solely as an expression of sorrow and grief. Uh-uh, says Murray: “Blues music is an aesthetic device of confrontation and improvisation, an existential device or vehicle for coping with the ever-changing fortunes of human existence.” Sorrow itself, in other words, was never the point. Rather it is the release from sorrow, the transformation of one’s mood or destiny through engaged, stylized play with blues changes, themes, modes, and orchestration that make up the foundation of one’s being—which again, is owned by no imperious color-caste system or political ideologies beyond those already implied in democracy’s promises.

Murray advanced such musical-cultural insights in essays, in lectures, and, most emphatically, in 1976’s transfiguring, eloquent Stomping the Blues, included in the Library of America collection (though, regrettably, without the original book’s many photos and captions, each of which was just as illuminating as the main text). Those of us who were young, black, and intellectually curious viewed Murray’s perspective as it emerged in the ’70s as an empowering gift, a drinking gourd in the sky leading us away from reductive or hidebound definitions of both our selves and our connections to society and history. Far from reactionary or retrograde, Murray’s ideas represented to us the purest kind of radicalism. Yet over time, radicals and cultural nationalists have continued to try placing Murray among the mossbacks. His aesthetic values, as expressed partly through the philosophy of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which he helped found in the 1990s, were seen as dogmatic and rigid in establishing what “swung” and what didn’t in classic jazz.

But the freewheeling give-and-take in Murray Talks Music is robust and colorful enough to lay waste to any accusations of stodginess. In conversation, Murray was even more of a paradigmatic jazzman in his spontaneous digressions and in his ability to call on a breathtaking range of resources and references. (Among the names that surface in a 1997 interview with Sanford Pinsker reproduced in the Library of America volume are Rourke, Burke, Thomas Mann, Hemingway, Coleman Hawkins, Robert Donat, August Wilson, Benny Goodman, and the Gardner Museum.)

And as many besides me have been saying all along, it isn’t just the ideas of Albert Murray that serve as an unending source of argument, counterargument, and potential enlightenment, but the idea of Albert Murray himself: the existence of a “brownskin” (one of his favorite adjectives) man of letters who spent a long, fruitful life exemplifying sweet-swinging independence from starched orthodoxy. He exalted the constantly improvising hero of Mann’s epic Joseph and His Brothers and aligned his impulses with those of the consummate jazz musician, whose drive to reinvent time and space from within the parameters of his chosen craft serves as an abiding example for all Americans, whether or not they acknowledge themselves as “omni-.” Life is a peevish, ugly bear. But the blues, in whatever form they take, are always around to tell you that you don’t just roll over for the mauling. And you don’t always have to maul back, either. You sing. You play. You think.

Gene Seymour is a frequent contributor to Bookforum. He is currently working on an essay collection.