ALBERT MURRAY: NOVELS & POETRY

Co-edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Paul Devlin (LIBRARY OF AMERICA)

The twentieth century, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote in a 1996 profile, “is Albert Murray’s century; we just live in it.” Few writers have penetrated as deeply into the complexities of race and culture in America as did Murray in such indispensable books as The Omni-Americans and Stomping the Blues. But his literary élan, wit, and sense of exhilarating play found its fullest expression in his novels, a semi-autobiographical tetralogy published to great acclaim over some thirty years and here collected for the first time in a single volume.

Deeply engaged with the modernist legacy of writers such as Faulkner and Joyce, and with the work of his great friend Ralph Ellison, Murray’s four novels form a wise and rollicking “memory book,” mining his own history to fashion an indelible portrait of life in the Deep South in the 1920s and ’30s and in prewar New York City. His narrator and protagonist, Scooter, is introduced in Train Whistle Guitar (1974), a novel about a boy’s upbringing in a blue-collar African American community in which he learns as much from musicians and wise elders as he does in school. Murray extends his tale of Scooter’s youth—an education in books, music, and the bent-note-blues realities of American life—in The Spyglass Tree (1991), his portrait of the artist as a Tuskegee undergraduate. The Seven League Boots (1996) goes on to tell the story of Scooter’s tenure as a bass player in a touring band not unlike Duke Ellington’s. In the final novel The Magic Keys (2005), Murray’s hero at last finds his true vocation as a writer in Greenwich Village, in a tale that, in the words of John Leonard, is at once “elegy, reverie, . . . and musical score.”

The volume is rounded out with a selection of Murray’s remarkable poems—potent verbal firecrackers in the form of blues lyrics, gospel hymns, barbershop aphorisms, and high-modernist word portraits, including eleven published here for the first time. An appendix features two stories bookending Murray’s career as a fiction writer: “The Luzanna Cholly Kick” (1953), the first published iteration of what would become Train Whistle Guitar, and the previously unpublished story “Manifest Destiny U.S.A.” (2004–5), a tantalizing glimpse at an offshoot to the Scooter novels.


STOMPING THE BLUES

By Albert Murray, Introduction by Paul Devlin (UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS)

In this classic work of American music writing, renowned critic Albert Murray argues beautifully and authoritatively that “the blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say in high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.”

In Stomping the Blues Murray explores its history, influences, development, and meaning as only he can. More than two hundred vintage photographs capture the ambiance Murray evokes in lyrical prose. Only the sounds are missing from this lyrical, sensual tribute to the blues.


GOOD MORNING BLUES: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF COUNT BASIE

As told to Arthur Murray (UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS)

In Good Morning Blues, Count Basie details his life story, from his childhood years playing ragtime with his own pickup band, to searching for opportunity in New York City, to rollicking anecdotes of his encounters with fellow artists. Albert Murray brings the voice of Count Basie to the printed page in what is both testimony and tribute to an incredibly rich life.

Count Basie was one of America’s pre-eminent and influential jass pianists, bandleaders, and composers, known for such classics as “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “Goin’ to Chicago Blues,” “Sent for You Yesterday and Here You Come Today,” and “One O’Clock Jump.” In Good Morning Blues, Basie recounts his life story to Albert Murray, from his childhood years playing ragtime with his own pickup band at dances and pig roasts, to his years in New York City in search of opportunity, to rollicking anecdotes of Basie’s encounters with Fats Waller, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones, Billie Holliday, and Tony Bennett. In this classic of jazz autobiography that was ten years in the making, Albert Murray brings the voice of Count Basie to the printed page in what is both testimony and tribute to an incredibly rich life.

"Good Morning Blues is a remarkable achievement . . . Mr. Murray is an excellent arranger for the Count, just as the Count was an excellent leader of his orchestra." New York Times Book Review


ALBERT MURRAY: COLLECTED ESSAYS & MEMOIRS

Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Paul Devlin (LIBRARY OF AMERICA)

“The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. . . . 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.” These words, written by Albert Murray at the height of the Black Power movement, cut against the grain of their moment, and announced the arrival of a major new force in American letters. Reviewing Murray’s groundbreaking first book The Omni-Americans in 1970, Walker Percy called it “the most important book on black-white relationships . . . indeed on American culture . . . published in this generation.”

Murray’s singular poetic voice, impassioned argument, and pluralistic vision are perhaps more relevant today than ever before. For Murray’s centennial, editors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Paul Devlin have assembled the definitive edition of his collected nonfiction, including The Omni-Americans and the five brilliant books that followed. The memoir South to a Very Old Place (1971) recounts the author’s return, in his mid-fifties, to the people and places of his Alabama youth, weaving personal encounters with several Southern writers into a richly textured report on the newly integrated South. The Hero and the Blues (1973) is a series of lectures on the trickster-hero figure in world literature and its relation to musical improvisation. Stomping the Blues (1976), a masterpiece of music criticism and perhaps Murray’s most influential work, outlines a history and aesthetics of jazz and the blues that, in the 1980s, became the foundation for programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the “House of Swing” that Murray did so much to establish as a founding board member.

The essay collections The Blue Devils of Nada (1996) and From the Briarpatch File (2001) enlarge upon the themes of his previous books, focusing on individual American writers, artists, and musicians. For an out-chorus, Gates and Devlin present eight previously uncollected pieces, early and late, on topics ranging from the Civil Rights movement to the definition and use of such American words as soul, stone, and jazz.


MURRAY TALKS MUSIC

Edited by Paul Devlin (UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS)

"Albert Murray is . . . an authority on soul from the days of old . . . and commands respect. He doesn't have to look it up. If you want to know, look him up. He is the unsquarest person I know." — Duke Ellington

The year 2016 marks the centennial of the birth of Albert Murray (1916–2013), who in thirteen books was by turns a lyrical novelist, a keen and iconoclastic social critic, and a formidable interpreter of jazz and blues. Not only did his prizewinning study Stomping the Blues (1976) influence musicians far and wide, it was also a foundational text for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which he cofounded with Wynton Marsalis and others in 1987. Murray Talks Music brings together, for the first time, many of Murray’s finest interviews and essays on music—most never before published—as well as rare liner notes and prefaces.

For those new to Murray, this book will be a perfect introduction, and those familiar with his work—even scholars—will be surprised, dazzled, and delighted. Highlights include Dizzy Gillespie’s richly substantive 1985 conversation; an in-depth 1994 dialogue on jazz and culture between Murray and Wynton Marsalis; and a long 1989 discussion on Duke Ellington between Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Loren Schoenberg. Also interviewed by Murray are producer and impresario John Hammond and singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine. All of these conversations were previously lost to history. A celebrated educator and raconteur, Murray engages with a variety of scholars and journalists while making insightful connections among music, literature, and other art forms—all with ample humor and from unforeseen angles.

Leading Murray scholar Paul Devlin contextualizes the essays and interviews in an extensive introduction, which doubles as a major commentary on Murray’s life and work. The volume also presents sixteen never-before-seen photographs of jazz greats taken by Murray.

No jazz collection will be complete without Murray Talks Music, which includes a foreword by Gary Giddins and an afterword by Greg Thomas.

Review in The Nation       Discussion in The New York Times