Scholar and literary icon Albert Murray (1916 – 2013)

The world is mourning the loss of one of its most prolific cultural figures, Mr. Albert Murray, who passed away August 18 at the age of 97. The author and critic was a sound force in the integration of the blues and other forms of African American culture within literature. Murray was a part of the generation of writers who transformed the perception of black literature. Those include his good friend and Tuskegee Institute classmate Ralph Ellison, whose novel The Invisible Man, was a milestone in African American fiction.

Murray shared acclaimed poet Langston Hughes philosophy that the blues were an integral part of American culture and should be celebrated on the same level as European art.

He wrote a series of acclaimed works including the highly-praised book, Stomping the Blues, which presents a thorough, well documented musical analysis of blues as a form of music and as a cultural canon.

A firm supporter of black music, Murray was a co-founder of the famous Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Wynton Marsalis heads up as the artistic director of the musical organization.

“People want to say the blues is an ailment. Any fool can tell you the blues is good-time music. It’s entertainment. It ain’t for no church. ‘Kill the white folks,’ that’s not what the blues is about. You see the blues with that stuff, it means some Marxist got hold of that.” — Albert Murray

Below is an excerpt from the NY Times piece about Murray:

” The Albert Lee Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., to middle-class parents who soon gave him up for adoption to Hugh Murray, a laborer, and his wife, Matty.

“It’s just like the prince left among the paupers,” said Mr. Murray, who learned of his adoption when he was about 11. The Murrays moved to Mobile, where Albert grew up in a neighborhood known as Magazine Point. In “Train Whistle Guitar,” his largely autobiographical first novel, he called it Gasoline Point.

An Alter Ego in Novelsstomping-the-blues

Through the novel’s protagonist, Scooter, his fictional alter ego, Mr. Murray evoked an unharrowed childhood enriched by music, legends, jiving and jesting, and the fancy talk of pulpit orators and storefront storytellers.

As rendered in Mr. Murray’s inventive prose, the adolescent Scooter and his friend Buddy Marshall could imagine themselves as “explorers and discoverers and Indian scouts as well as sea pirates and cowboys and African spear fighters not to mention the two schemingest gamblers and back alley ramblers this side of Philmayork.”

After graduating from the Mobile County Training School, where he earned letters in three sports and was voted the best all-around student, Mr. Murray enrolled at what is now Tuskegee University, where he discovered literature and immersed himself in Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Mann. He met Ralph Ellison, an upperclassman, as well as another student, Mozelle Menefee, who became his wife in 1941. She survives him, as does their daughter, Michéle Murray, who became a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Mr. Murray received a bachelor of science degree in education in 1939 and began graduate study at the University of Michigan. But the following year, he returned to Tuskegee to teach literature and composition.

He enlisted in the military in 1943 and spent the last two years of World War II in the Army Air Corps. After the war, the Murrays moved to New York City, where he used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree from New York University and he renewed his friendship with Ellison. In 1951, a year before Ellison published his classic work, “Invisible Man,” Mr. Murray rejoined the military, entering the Air Force.

He served in the military, peripatetically, for 11 years — teaching courses in geopolitics in the Air Force R.O.T.C. program at Tuskegee in the 1950s, taking assignments in North Africa and studying at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Paris.

After retiring from the Air Force as a major in 1962, he returned to New York with his family and settled in an apartment in the Lenox Terrace complex in Harlem. He began writing essays for literary journals and articles for Life and The New Leader, some of which were included in “The Omni-Americans.”

He also became a familiar figure on campuses, holding visiting professorships at the University of Massachusetts, Barnard, Columbia, Emory, Colgate and other schools. And he resumed exploring the streets and nightclubs of Harlem with Ralph Ellison.

From 1970 to the mid-1990s, as if compensating for his slow start, Mr. Murray published nine books. His second, “South to a Very Old Place” (1971), recounted his return to his Southern homeland. The book later became part of the Modern Library. In “The Hero and the Blues” (1973), a collection of essays based on a series of lectures, Mr. Murray criticized naturalism and protest fiction, which he said subjugated individual actions to social circumstances. ”

CLICK HERE to read the entire NY Time article.


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