David Murray: Three Days in the Life

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David Murray's saxophone
By Jimmy Katz
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David Murray
By Jimmy Katz
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David Murray
By Jimmy Katz

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Like Wynton Marsalis, David Murray can talk. It may be all they have in common, but the two certainly do share a gift for gab. And they are equally out-spoken. Get Murray going and he will talk about anything. But time is tight this morning and just running down his current activities and rash of recent releases will take up most of it.

For the record, there are his new and typically intense recordings Octet Plays Trane and Requiem for Julius with the World Saxophone Quartet, recent duet gigs in Italy and Ireland with Andrew Hill, as well as his ongoing projects focused around such recent releases as the Senegalese-inspired Fo Deuk Revue, the Haitian-flavored Creole and the gospel-drenched Speaking in Tongues (all for the Montreal-based Justin Time label).

As he sits there fielding questions and expounding between bites of grits and croquettes, I am flooded by vivid memories of past Murray gigs. The chronology has become blurred over time but the images remain powerful: An explosive duet with drummer Milford Graves at the (now-defunct) New Music Cafe; a 1984 Clarinet Summit performance at the Public Theatre with Alvin Batiste, John Carter and Jimmy Hamilton; a JATP-styled cutting context at a mid-’90s JVC Festival that pitted him against fellow tenor saxophonists George Coleman and Don Braden; an early ’80s appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the World Saxophone Quartet; a moving performance at an early ’90s JVC Jazz Festival of Bobby Bradford’s suite “Have You Seen Sideman?” in honor of the late John Carter; a free, outdoor Central Park Summerstage bash two years ago with Fo Deuk Revue that had both Murray fans and the uninitiated dancing side by side.

Equally memorable are his riveting re-creation of Paul Gonsalves’ masterful improvisation on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” from the classic 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, backed by a potent American Jazz Orchestra at Cooper Union Hall, and last year’s sublime interpretation of Ellingtonia with big band and strings at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem. One gig that jumps out in this wash of Murray nostalgia is the night his Shakill’s Warrior band, featuring the late Don Pullen on Hammond B-3 organ, rocked the hallowed Village Vanguard like a roadhouse rib joint with their greasy brand of avant-funk. And that’s just a random sampling of New York gigs. Murray’s prolific output, and his natural tendency toward collaboration, extends to other cities all over the world, from the Baltic Sea to Africa, from Japan to Guadalupe to Washington, D.C. So many gigs, so little time...
Wednesday

With his saxophone case slung over one broad shoulder, bass clarinet and travel bag over the other, Murray hustles to the airport near Paris, where he lives. He’s flying back to New York, his home for years. He lands at Kennedy airport at 9 p.m. and jumps on the “A” train. It’s an excruciatingly long subway ride from the deepest part of Brooklyn—way down by John Gotti’s former turf in nearby Howard Beach—all the way up to Harlem, where he’ll be staying for the next few days. But Murray’s cool and, for once, he’s got plenty of time to kill. And besides, a buck-and-a-half subway ride beats a $50 cab ride any day.

He grabs all four New York dailies off the newsstand to get himself up to speed with the city he left behind and reads each one cover to cover before arriving at his appointed stop uptown. It’s nearly 11 p.m. by the time he strolls into the M&G soul food restaurant on 125th Street, just next door to Showman’s Lounge and down the strip from the historic Apollo Theater. Marvin Gaye is singing “What’s Goin’ On” on the jukebox as Murray places a take-out order of greens and fried chicken and brings it all back to his friend’s place a few blocks away. The Knicks and Hornets are on TV. The greens taste good, the fried chicken is the real deal, the Knicks are up by four in the fourth quarter with three minutes remaining. It’s good to be back in the Big Apple.

Thursday

Murray meets me at the same soul food restaurant from the night before. It’s 9:30 a.m. and jet lag has already set in. His eyes are bloodshot and he’s concerned about a photo shoot scheduled for later in the day. “But you know, my eyes are always red,” he offers. “Anyone who knows me knows that. In fact, they used to call me ‘Blood’ when I was a kid. I just wasn’t blessed with that white-eye look. I don’t know, you can’t have everything.”

He sips a lemonade and slowly shakes off the cobwebs. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he apologizes. “Sometimes it takes a minute to get rolling in the morning with the interview stuff. I’m not perfect.” His plan is to eat a hearty breakfast, chat with me for an hour or so, attend an afternoon rehearsal of “Soul Deep”—a collaboration with his Octet and the Urban Bush Women dance company scheduled for a New York premiere the following evening—then grab a quick nap and freshen up before the photo shoot. They aren’t serving any greens or fried chicken this early at the M&G so he orders salmon croquettes and grits with eggs. He adds a generous dose of hot sauce to the grits before settling in to some flowing, no-holds barred conversation and breakfast, Harlem-style.

JazzTimes: Both Speaking in Tongues and “Soul Deep” represent a kind of coming full circle for you.

Murray: Yeah, it’s nice to get back into the gospel thing. Going out and leaving the church and doing my jazz career, there’s always a little part of me that’s really still in the church. And when I get to express it, it really makes me feel good. Gospel is happening, man. In fact, I just did another gospel project down in Washington, D.C., with some friends of mine from college. We’re putting together a spiritual jazz label and we just did a recording of gospel music called I Want Jesus to Walk With Me. The theme is gospel and jazz, bringing spiritual jazz into the church. You know, people in the church have always called jazz the devil’s music so jazz musicians have been outcasts. But now people are starting to get hip that jazz can be very spiritual, as ‘Trane and Albert Ayler have shown. And so we’re bringing that into the church, using jazz as a tool to, for one, upgrade the music in church and also just to hip people to something that’s new around them—something that they should be digging anyway.

JazzTimes: What was it like growing up in the Church of God in Christ and also being interested in jazz?

Murray: It was very strict. When I grew up I could only play the music I played in church or concert band music I played in school. I couldn’t play jazz in the church. I couldn’t even play jazz growing up in my house. So now we’re trying to change this. We’re trying to make our own jazz standards to put into the hymnals so that people can understand that this is music that rejoices God as well. I don’t know how most people are but most people in my family, no matter how far they may have wavered from spirituality and religion, they always tend to get back to it at a certain point in their life. So this is where I’m at with myself and this music is how I’m trying to express it.

JazzTimes: How do you see yourself fitting into the jazz community at this point in your career?

Murray: I feel like the missing link sometimes in this whole jazz thing. Because I knew a lot of the older cats that none of these younger cats today would ever have been able to meet. It’s weird. Like when I’m talking around younger guys, they look at me like I’m an old relic just because I even know some of these guys.

JazzTimes: Like Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves?

Murray: Yeah. Or even Dexter Gordon. People that they didn’t get to see, somebody like Junior Cook, who they only heard about. It just reminds me that I’m just older than some guys, that’s all.

JazzTimes: How has the musical climate changed from when you first came to town?

Murray: When I came to New York, people were really trying to make the music move. We really made an effort to do that. But the people that came after us, they weren’t so interested in moving the music along. They were more interested in just being part of the status quo.

JazzTimes: I know that you and Stanley Crouch were friends and colleagues when you both came to town in 1975 from the Bay Area. Have you been in touch with him over the years?

Murray: No, I usually don’t talk to him so much. I see him every once in a while. He came down to the Iridium for a little while and then left. I don’t know. I don’t see him too much. I guess he’s doing all right. It’s just that our ideas of what’s good are so different. I think maybe we’ll just stay away.

JazzTimes: It sounds like you’ve gone in different directions at some point, certainly since you played together on the Wildflowers sessions from Studio Rivbea.

Murray: Yeah. Stanley was into the loft music scene at that point. But people go their different ways in life. He went his way in life, probably more opposite than I did in terms of where he started out in this music. But he’ll pretty much do what he needs to do to get over in the city. He’s proven that. He’s a good artist. I just wish he had realized what his true art was. I think he’s a guy who never really showed the world what he really could do. It’s a shame. Because I always thought that he could’ve been one of the greatest playwrights or directors around. I guess he kind of got more involved with being a music critic or something, which seemed to be a lower calling. I mean, I keep up with what he’s doing. I know what he’s doing. I know exactly what he’s doing. But I’m just saying, he had a potential to be a really wonderful playwright and director because he has a vision in that area that he didn’t pursue. Perhaps it’s something that he’ll pursue later in his life. But as far as I know, he got more interested in talking about the scene and being a social advocate than being a true artist that he probably is deep down inside. Other than that, he’s still my friend.

JazzTimes: He certainly is highly opinionated and...

Murray: Cantankerous? That’s what happens to people when they waste their lives being a reactionary instead of an artist. When you’re really an artist and you become a reactionary to make money, it doesn’t jibe right with the creator of the universe. And I think that’s the kind of problem that he has to face.

JazzTimes: I noticed that a lot of young musicians that I’ve seen are beginning to integrate a lot of Middle Eastern scales and tonalities. They’re bringing world music influences into jazz.

Murray: That’s good. But the fact is, after you studied all of the world music you can what you find out is that most of that information is already in jazz. When you peep through some of the things that Wayne Shorter was doing, some of the things ’Trane and Dolphy and Yusef Lateef were doing. Those kinds of things have been checked out before. Ellington with the Far East Suite. So I think, the concentration of study really is jazz. I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to be running away from jazz because jazz is certainly the teacher. And other musics are something that we like to study where we can bring it in and incorporate it into our music but we as jazz musicians, we really have to remain focused on strictly jazz and really conquering what that is. You find this kind of a concept that I’ve been talking about in dealing with what Sun Ra did all his life. I only played with his band once, but I watched him hundreds of times. I remember as a kid in Berkeley before I came to New York, I think I spoke to Sun Ra for about six hours one time. He went on and on and on and everything just made so much sense. Even to this day I’ve never heard anybody expound on himself, what his relationship is to the universe and music and why are doing this, why are we expressing ourselves in this way, what difference does it make—it makes a difference to the universe. He makes it seem like if you don’t do that you would be some kind of a threat, some kind of a convict to the universe, if you didn’t express what you have to express. We need those kinds of guys. And just from talking with Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill—I mean, these are the people, man, that really inspire me to do what I do. They have such a firm stance on the ground. Their footing is so solid.

JazzTimes: There are signs of a new vibrancy; different bands, different players coming up.

Murray: I hope so. It would have to be because it’s such a dynamic city. And that kind of energy will always attract real artists. A real artist, to me, is someone who is a barometer or chronicler of his times. He’s the guy that looks at the street scene and plays it through his horn. He’s the kind of guy who listens to the radio and what’s going on with everybody—something happening over here in Brooklyn, something happening in Southeast Asia—and then he just blows it out through his horn or paints a picture of it. To me, that’s an artist. All this other stuff, anybody else can learn how to do. It’s like a poet. If you don’t have no song in your language, you ain’t gonna really be a good poet. You might get it together and copy some styles, but to be really listened to and to have a voice of your own, you gotta know what’s going on with the world. It has to make sense. In jazz there’s always somebody who comes along who is just the perfect guy for that generation, and everybody’s gotta dig him. You know, the guy who you just can’t deny once you look at him. I’ve heard people say that Albert Ayler was like that. He was the perfect cat for his time. For what was happening, he just said it in a nutshell. Probably when Ornette Coleman came to New York, he was the perfect guy for that moment in time. I guess it’s kind of like somebody being president or something like that. Clinton came at a time when the people really needed Bill Clinton. Maybe they don’t need him now but they sure needed him then. But there has to be a cat for this time. It’s kind of like a prophet, like someone who comes and chronicles his time but not with a lot of fanfare—not to try to make it like a Jesus type of prophet or Mohammed, but more like a musical type of prophet. It’s important for his voice to be heard, even though it might be trying to be squelched. In this town, you may say something and the reaction to it drowns out the actual concept itself. The reaction to it is so angry that you would miss the point, because the reaction has so much media power that you could never even hear it if you didn’t hear it at first, if you weren’t the first to be there to hear it, the reaction would wipe it out. New York is like that. So you have to watch for that.

JazzTimes: In terms of playing with that kind of urgency and energy today, I’m thinking of people like David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Charles Gayle, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell.

Murray: Yeah, those guys have always been chroniclers of their time. I would include them in what I’m saying. They were also here when I was here, too. We all developed in the ’70s. They may not have been as popular as myself or as out there in the media, but they were here and they were playing good then, in the ’70s. I’m talking about somebody even younger than them. And no disrespect to those guys because they’re all my friends. But I’m looking to some of the younger guys that are not in our generation to come on with it now. I’m looking for them to see through the smokescreen of what has transpired in New York and I want them to come along and see what they can do in terms of integrating what they heard over the last, say, 25 years and coming up with their own voice.

JazzTimes: Have you heard any twentysomething-year-old musician doing that?

Murray: I heard some guys who are capable of pushing the buttons but I’m not sure if they’re as capable at maintaining a concept. That’s kind of what I see. I want to see more of somebody’s concept developing into something using all of the tools that have been developed over the years.

JazzTimes: Graham Haynes?

Murray: Oh yeah, Graham always did have a concept. He got some great seasoning playing with Ed Blackwell and he just built from there. But Graham is older. Still, we’re talking about guys mostly from my generation. I’m talking about guys that are in their early 20s right now. These guys need to make their statements now, not 10 years from now. Now! I’m just saying that your energy is different when you’re younger than when you get older, your enthusiasm is different. So I would like to hear that young enthusiasm inside of this music. And I know that some of these young guys today want to be out here but they don’t quite know what to play in order for their real soul to come out. So they’re playing all these other people’s tunes instead of writing their own tunes. They should be writing their own tunes and playing them out so people can react to them. It’s time for these young guys to come on out. But what I see is, cats are scared. They’re a little paranoid to come out in a certain way because they may be chastised because they don’t follow this little mode that’s been made. So they come out in this little mode with their little suits on...

JazzTimes: It’s like joining a country club.

Murray: Yeah, and they’re too young to be in that country club. It’s strange. I’m talking about it because I want to see it happen for them. I mean, let’s see what’s going on next.

JazzTimes: You seem so caught up in the process of creating that you don’t worry too much about criticism.

Murray: It’s ridiculous to worry about stuff like that. I mean, when it’s all over and it’s all said and done, we’re all on our death beds and stuff, then we can go back and say, “Oh, I shoulda did that, I shoulda did this.” But right now, I could care less what anybody thinks about me. I mean, I’m happy when I hear accolades. And when I hear something negative, I’m happy they spelled my name right. But other than that, man, I’m just kind of doing my thing, man. And if somebody wants to step into my world and see what I’m doing, that’s great. But if they don’t, man, I’ll still be doing it.

JazzTimes: What do you see on the horizon for you?

Murray: Aside from getting more involved in gospel music or spiritual jazz, I’m also interested in spreading myself around to different kids and young adults around the world. I go to Africa and there’s all these cats running around behind me, excited to learn about jazz. In general, man, when I see people from different countries, I get a thrill out of showing them what jazz is. I go to Senegal or Guadeloupe or Martinique and do some big band workshops over there. Those cats, man, they were just so happy that someone would take some time out and show them something about jazz. They’re hungry to learn. So I’m ready for the next John Coltranes to come from somewhere else. They might not be coming from North Carolina or New Orleans. Maybe they’ll come from Dakar or Nigeria or Guadeloupe or Martinique. Maybe they’ll come from Scandinavia, I don’t know. All I know is, I see these people, they’re eager all over the world for jazz. What I don’t see is that same kind of enthusiasm in the United States. For instance, I don’t see a lot of jazz in the black community here like it should be. But I’ll go to Dakar and I’ll start playing and people are interested. I start playing in the black community here, man, people be like, “You gotta stop now, we’re gonna put on some boom box stuff.” I mean, something is happening that’s brainwashing people, that makes them think that. Like, I heard a rapper on TV a couple of months ago and he said, “You know, we don’t even have to learn how to play instruments no more.” And I thought that was the epitome of ignorance. I always thought it was to someone’s advantage to be taught something that they could use the rest of their life. But people don’t think that way these days. Even some of the kids in my community in Paris, they don’t see it that way. They want to be like the American rappers. They see the guys with the cars and the cell phones, they wanna be like these guys. So they’re just rapping in French. You get that kind of MTV brainwashing all over. Believe me, it’s not just America. It’s happening in Africa, too. But young people just gotta know that there should be a bigger picture out here. So in all these places you gotta reach in and find the points where people are really digging in and expressing themselves more honestly. You gotta look hard and sometimes it’s difficult to find. But you’ll find it eventually.

As the interview winds down, Murray takes out his wallet and produces pictures of his family. There’s his son Mingus, a basketball star in Sacramento on the nation’s number one team, according to USA Today. There’s an older son, Kahil, who performed and recorded with Murray’s big band in the early ’90s and now leads his own band, Ixhire. There’s a gorgeous two-year-old niece, Olga Kiavue, whom Murray is convinced should be the poster child for Guadeloupe’s tourist board. Last, but not least, there’s little baby Ruben with his mommy, Valerie, back home in Paris. “Gotta keep my kids close,” Murray smiles as he stuffs the bulging wallet back into his coat pocket, “just in case.”

He slings the sax bag around his shoulder, hoists the bass clarinet and his travel bag up over the other one, and he's off. There's a rehearsal to get to, followed by a photo shoot, then the gig. Scanning his itinerary for the days ahead, there's a whole other string of upcoming appointments that will keep him running: rehearsals and gigs, workshops and clinics, sessions and collaborations, photo shoots and interviews. It's the never-ending saga of David Murray, the hardest working man in the avant garde.

Friday

Aaron Davis Hall is an impressive facility near the campus of City College on 135th Street & Convent Road. It’s Harlem’s principal center for the performing arts, the Uptown equivalent of Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center or the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and this night the place is packed with a colorful mix of jazz fans, dance aficionados and residents of the community. Murray’s Octet and Urban Bush Women have been touring “Soul Deep” around the States, including one memorable stop in Texas where Murray’s sisters and stepmother were thoroughly engrossed in the exhilarating energy and uplifting spiritual undercurrent of the performance. “It was very nice to see them dig it because they’re from the Church of God in Christ, where I come from,” he says. “They don’t like anything, pretty much, outside of the church. Of course, the first part—the big party scene—kind of went by them. They didn’t grasp it at all. But the second part, which deals with the material I did with Speaking in Tongues, was right in there for them. Before the show started I told them, ‘Now you sit tight because there’s gonna be something that you like in a minute.’ And they really dug it. I was happy for that.”

As the curtain opens in the Marian Anderson Theater—named for Harlem’s great gospel singer—the Octet is lined up against the back wall downstage. From left to right there’s Donald Smith on piano and organ, Bob Stewart on tuba (subbing for trombonist Craig Harris), Billy Johnson on bass (subbing for Jaribu Shahid), Murray seated next to him with tenor in hand and bass clarinet in a stand, James Spaulding on alto sax, Ravi Best (subbing for Rasul Siddik) on trumpet, Mark Johnson behind the drums and special guest Michael Wimberly on percussion. Throughout the dynamic opening act, entitled “Saturday Night: The Party,” Murray and the horns get up from their seats and engage with the dancers, shuffling, hopping and rejoicing as they play, coaxing kinetic movement from the beautiful bodies whirling about on stage.

Throughout the first act, Murray blows with typical authority and volcanic high energy, demonstrating the same huge piercing tone, explosive upper register shrieks, swaggering delivery and Herculean circular breathing prowess on both tenor sax and bass clarinet that made him the darling of the avant garde during the '70s and '80s.

During the second act—”Sunday Mornin’: From a Whisper to a Shout,” a meditation on the black church experience that includes some inspiring lines from a Langston Hughes poem along with a pulse-quickening rendition of the old Negro spiritual “How I Got Over”—Murray seems particularly inspired. He’s smiling more than usual and at one point is so moved by Smith’s churchy organ playing and sanctified singing that he grabs a mike and joins in the call-and-response with some jubilant shouts of his own. As the final note of that glorious hand-clapping anthem resounds, Murray leap-kicks triumphantly into the air with rock star zeal, putting an exclamation point on this inspired collaboration.

Backstage, he is basking in the glow of congratulations from well-wishers. In-between hugs, Murray spies me in the crowd. “Hey man, you going out to hear some music tonight?” he inquires. “Bluiett’s playing down in Brooklyn and Bill Saxton is up at St. Nick’s Pub.”

Sounds like a long night ahead. He’ll probably sit in somewhere, maybe at both places. Then tomorrow he’ll do a repeat performance in Harlem of “Soul Deep” before heading off to some other destination, saxophone case slung over one broad shoulder, bass clarinet and travel bag over the other. So many gigs,
so little time.

Essential Listening

While choosing among his some 300 recordings may seem like an impossible task, Murray has come up with a baker’s dozen of his own favorite albums:

Speaking in Tongues (Justin Time, 1999)

Creole (Justin Time, 1998)

Fo Deuk Revue (Justin Time, 1997)

London Concert (Cadillac Records, 1978)

Octet Plays Trane (Justin Time, 2000)

M’Bizo (Justin Time, 1998)

The Long Goodbye: A Tribute to Don Pullen (DIW, 1998)

Morning Song (Black Saint, 1984)

Jazzosaurus Rex (Red Baron, 1994)

Shakill’s Warrior (DIW/Columbia, 1991)

Flowers For Albert (India Navigation, 1976)

The Tip (DIW, 1995)

Dark Star (Astor Place, 1996)

Gearbox

Murray plays a series 8600 Selmer Mark VI balanced action tenor saxophone with a Berg Larsen 120 mouthpiece and a #4 Rico Royal reed. His bass clarinet is a Leblanc, which he plays with a #3 Rico Royal tenor saxophone reed.

Originally published in June 2000

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