Bright Moments with David Murray

The powerhouse saxophonist looks back on key entries in his mammoth discography

David Murray (photo by Fabrice Monteiro)

David Murray credits his notoriously tireless work ethic to his father, who made his way from Nebraska to Los Angeles at age 15 without even the money to pay for a train ticket. He ended up serving a stint in the Navy and working a variety of jobs to provide for his family, from garbageman to circus acrobat, and instilled the same drive in his son.

“My father was the kind of guy who, if they asked him if he could do brain surgery, he’d say, ‘Yeah, sure!’” Murray joked over lunch at a Philadelphia bar in March, the day after a freewheeling set at South Kitchen & Jazz Parlor. “Never say you can’t do something, because you can learn—and you can learn fast.”

Murray carried that drive from Pomona College to New York City, originally inspired by professor/mentor/early collaborator Stanley Crouch to pursue both music and journalism. He undertook an independent study to interview artists like Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman and John Cage, but it was Dewey Redman’s advice to “put down the pencil and pick up your saxophone” that he ultimately heeded. He left college for good—much to his family’s consternation—and dove into the deep end of the then-thriving loft-jazz scene.

Still, the hustle persisted: Murray kept a pair of skates in his backpack to facilitate covering more ground while hanging gig fliers around the city. He coaxed local business owners into transforming their establishments into unlikely venues, like the time a pillow store ended up hosting a solo tenor recital, with the shop’s wares as makeshift seating. (By the time his Guinness arrived as we talked, Murray had eyed the ideal spot for a temporary stage near our table.)

That same work ethic lies behind the 63-year-old’s famously voluminous discography, which boasts more than 150 titles over his four-decade career. He’s the first to admit that the results vary in quality, but it’s the ones he didn’t record that Murray regrets: “I don’t need to document every minute, but I’d write some music, do six weeks on the road playing the music, come back and do the Vanguard and Sweet Basil, and the next week I’m in the studio. I didn’t want to lose a project. There’s some that got away and I’m pissed off about that.”

It’s a daunting task to whittle that vast catalogue down to a handful of key titles, but we covered as much ground as possible during a two-hour-plus conversation. The following recollections are in Murray’s own words, edited slightly for space and clarity.

*****

David Murray
Flowers for Albert (India Navigation, 1976)
Murray, tenor saxophone; Olu Dara, trumpet; Fred Hopkins, bass; Phillip Wilson, drums
Technically, Flowers for Albert was supposed to have been my first release. I actually recorded it before Low Class Conspiracy, but that came out first. I had come to New York when I was 20, and this whole thing was happening with loft jazz. I hit the ground and saw a lot of charlatans around. There were a lot of cats that played hard, but they didn’t know that much about music. All of a sudden, I was placed in this avant-garde thing. I guess that’s what I was into, but I knew a lot more than these guys around me about music.

I met Olu Dara and a lot of people in trumpeter Ted Daniel’s Energy band. The idea of that band was no music, just energy. I met Hamiet Bluiett there, Frank Lowe, all the East Side guys, all the downtown cats and uptown cats, too; some of them were bebop cats, but most of them were what they call in New York the “outcats.” I met all the outcats in one day, and I learned something that day: I learned that in New York City, if you’re going to be associated with these guys, the first thing I had to learn was to play loud.

Stanley Crouch had come to New York and he was a little ticked off that I didn’t put him on that recording. I respected him as a writer, but people didn’t like his drumming all that much. His style was out of Sunny Murray’s style. I always considered Sunny the father of avant-garde drumming. He was an uncle to me, almost. When I first came to New York he took me in. He didn’t have nothing, but he gave me what he had. I wrote the song “Flowers for Albert” after Sunny told me some stuff about Albert Ayler. I was walking along the East River [where Ayler drowned], and the next thing you know this tune came into my head.

The World Saxophone Quartet
Steppin’ With the World Saxophone Quartet (Black Saint, 1979)
Murray, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, alto and soprano saxophones; Hamiet Bluiett, baritone saxophone, flute
Steppin’ was recorded in Milan. That’s one of my favorite albums by the World Saxophone Quartet, without a doubt. Julius was writing his ass off during that period. That came after [the WSQ’s live debut] Point of No Return, which I used to call “Star Bores,” because everybody was trying to outblow each other. We hadn’t learned how to play together yet, and we had one of the finest composers in the world right amongst us. He had to step up his game, and we had to listen.

Julius was very energetic, too; he was one of the Star Bores. He’d play until you took the horn out of his mouth. So you’ve got all these guys with ego to blow; each one of us could play an hour by ourselves, and it was hard to crunch all those egos in. It took some years to do that. With Steppin’, we started to understand that you’ve got to make music for people to listen to. Even if it’s hardcore and driving, even if they put the avant-garde label on it, let’s still make it good. Let’s not run the audience away. The World Saxophone Quartet proved that four ridiculously hard-blowing people could work together and build some music. But we’ve run our course and now it’s over.

James “Blood” Ulmer
Are You Glad to Be in America? (Rough Trade, 1980)
Ulmer, guitar; Murray, tenor saxophone; Oliver Lake, alto saxophone; Olu Dara, trumpet; Amin Ali, electric bass; G. Calvin Weston, drums; Ronald Shannon Jackson, drums
That was a gas. I originally met Blood at the Keystone Korner, where he was playing with Ornette. I used to follow him around and carry his amp, and we’d hang out and talk. When I got to New York, the first cat I went looking for was Blood. From that moment on we’ve been tight as brothers. Blood was playing at CBGB and places like that, and I was following him. Whatever he was doing with Amin Ali and those cats, I was right there with them. If they wanted to have me, I was their saxophone player.

That was a scene. When Stanley finished up teaching at Pomona he came out and joined me, and we shared the loft that became Studio Infinity. It was right down the street from Studio Rivbea, the Ramones stayed right next door, and CBGB was right over there. We were growing up in this environment. I remember Jean-Michel Basquiat coming around and trying to play the clarinet. He could never fucking play, so he got a rock band [Gray] and just played real hard. I don’t remember him as a painter; I remember him as a bad clarinet player.

Blood used to say, “All you saxophone players out here, y’all can say anything you want about David Murray, but David Murray is one of the only cats out here that’s free.” I dug the fact that he understood that that’s what I’m trying to do. A lot of people don’t know that’s what I’m trying to do. Everybody else is out here trying to adhere to stuff. I’m trying to be free.

Jack DeJohnette
Special Edition (ECM, 1980)
DeJohnette, drums, piano, melodica; Murray, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; Peter Warren, bass, cello
That was a very interesting period. Jack is such an exceptional drummer. His mind is so advanced. As far as I’m concerned, as long as he’s got sticks, Jack is number one. He’s a pretty good piano player, too, and a lot of times he would want to play the piano as much as he wanted to play the drums. The promoters would always come up and try to get me to ask Jack to mostly play drums. But I couldn’t do that; he was my employer and Jack does what Jack wants. Then they’d ask Arthur Blythe, and he’d say the same thing. I would try to intimate it, but I was very young and in no place to dictate to Jack.

Arthur Blythe was one of my gurus. He was the Coltrane of the West Coast. We called him Black Arthur Blythe because he wasn’t afraid to talk to the police in a bad way. In the community, when you cursed out the police we gave you a stripe; we called you “Black,” which was like “Captain.” Arthur wasn’t scared of the police. He was way ahead of Black Lives Matter. He was such a great player. He didn’t have to go to Africa and Guadeloupe and all these places to find African rhythms. He had his own African rhythm shit in his style of music.

Everybody wanted to be in Jack’s band. I was kind of a renegade in the band. I wasn’t a good sideman, because I always wanted to do my thing. The gig I really wanted was with Charlie Mingus. I wanted George Adams’ gig, but I wasn’t old enough to be in that band while Mingus was healthy. Playing with Jack was a wonderful experience, but I couldn’t stay long because Jack wanted you to conform to Jack, and after a while I wanted to move on.

David Murray Octet
Ming (Black Saint, 1980)
Murray, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone; Olu Dara, trumpet; Lawrence “Butch”Morris, cornet; George Lewis, trombone; Anthony Davis, piano; Wilber Morris, bass; Steve McCall, drums
Those guys [Threadgill, Lewis and McCall] always had this AACM moniker, but I think they really just wanted to be New York jazz musicians. We were all loft-jazz guys. Wherever we were from, it really didn’t matter. I don’t know why they needed that, but I guess it was important to them. All the California cats like me, all we cared about was being virtuosos on our instruments. We weren’t gonna call ourselves the California Contingent of African-American Castaways. We didn’t need any of those abbreviations. It was Arthur Blythe, it was James Newton, it was David Murray, it was Butch Morris.

The first big band I was allowed to do was at the Public Theater—I remember, because I had Jaki Byard on piano. Then I realized I couldn’t keep a band like that together, so the Octet was born the same year. That was a standing group and I could run it from the stage. With Ming, I was really honing and developing my writing and arranging skills. An octet is a very easy vehicle for me to express myself. That’s something I’d like to get back to, because it’s a perfect unit for jazz.

Amiri Baraka
New Music – New Poetry (India Navigation, 1982)
Baraka, poetry; Murray, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Steve McCall, drums
Somebody asked me, “What would Baraka say about Donald Trump?” I told them, “What he always said about every president: You voted the motherfucker in—you deal with it.” And he was right. Lay down, shut up and take the poison. A lot of people didn’t like Baraka. He was vilified for growing and saying what he thought. Baraka is the only cat who changed. He embraced the Back-to-Africa movement and cultural nationalism. A lot of people put him down, but he was going through a period, he dealt with it and then he moved on.

We truncated everything into a trio for New Music – New Poetry, because there was no money. We went out on tour with that. Steve and I did it because we wanted to be up there with our hero Baraka. That was me being political without speaking myself. Everything that came out of his mouth, I liked. When I was on the road with him, Baraka used to tell me, and it always stuck in my mind, “David, you’ve got to learn something every day.” Wherever we stopped on tour, he’d go to all the bookstores, looking for something he’d never seen. His mind was in constant motion, and I’ve never seen anybody operate that way. I can truly say that Baraka is one of my heroes. He inspired me. I still feel that way.

David Murray Quartet
Morning Song (Black Saint, 1984)
Murray, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; John Hicks, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums
That was the beginning of what I call my Power Quartet. Any time you had an opportunity to play with John Hicks was a great opportunity, because John Hicks was one of the only piano players from that era that could take the whole band, put it on his shoulders and you could ride. Man, if you don’t learn something playing with him, you’re stupid.

I wrote “Morning Song” for my mother. She taught me how to play music on her lap. The first memory I have of music is playing on the floor, in between my mom’s legs, as she was trying to learn how to play the Hammond organ. I was 3 or so, trying to hit the foot pedals and throw her off. My father was a garbageman for the city of Berkeley, and he had to go to work at 5:30 in the morning. My mother started practicing after she got him out the door. She started off playing hymnal stuff, real quiet. Half an hour later it started getting louder and started to sound less hymnal, more lively. Then, by 7, she was banging, and that was my wakeup call. That’s why I called it “Morning Song.” From then on, music was part of my life.

McCoy Tyner
Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane (Impulse!, 1988)
Tyner, piano; Murray, Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone (on separate tracks); Cecil McBee, bass; Roy Haynes, drums
That was a Bob Thiele production for Impulse!. Bob Thiele was the kind of cat, you did what Bob said. That wasn’t your album; that was Bob’s album. His concept was just putting people in the same space at a certain moment. There was no concept there other than Coltrane. And we won the Grammy [for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group] because of the names. Bob gets you some money. That money ain’t available no more. When Bob died, that was the end of it. So I love Bob for that. Bob bought me a house.

Everybody else was [emulating Trane]. I didn’t know why I had to get in that line. It was like they didn’t hear nobody else. What I did was started hearing cats like Paul Gonsalves, and I’d go back to the source. For me, the source was Coleman Hawkins. There might have been people before him, but for me it all came from there, if I were to start with the guy who really put his stamp on that horn. And I think everybody feels that way who plays tenor. I know Sonny Rollins does. I did my study of Coltrane after I let everybody else get it out of their system. I grew up in California, and the best guy who aped Coltrane was Azar Lawrence—wasn’t nobody gonna out-Coltrane Azar.

David Murray Big Band
David Murray Big Band (DIW/Columbia, 1991)
Murray, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Lawrence “Butch” Morris, conductor; Graham Haynes, Hugh Ragin, Rasul Siddik, James Zollar, trumpets; Craig Harris, Frank Lacy, Al Patterson, trombones; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Bob Stewart, tuba; Don Byron, Khalil Henry, Patience Higgins, John Purcell, James Spaulding, woodwinds; Joel A. Brandon, whistle; Sonelius Smith, piano; Fred Hopkins, bass; Tani Tabbal, drums; Brother G’Ra, poetry; Andy Bey, vocals
“Conduction” was born in the David Murray Big Band. Butch stayed at my house when he came to New York. He was developing this idea about conducting. The first cat he’d seen do it was Charles Moffett, and Ellington was into it, in a way. Butch turned it into something quite different.

As he went on with the conducting, Butch could never get the kind of quality guys that I could have in my big band. The higher the quality of jazz musicians, the less they’d look at him. I used to have to make them watch him. A lot of people were like, “Why you got this guy conducting the band?” And I said, “Well, does it sound different than other people’s bands?” The purists didn’t like it, and the purist musicians wouldn’t watch him. I’d have to remind them: “In this band that’s what we do.” That album was probably the highest that we could have went during that time with my big band.

David Murray & the Gwo-Ka Masters featuring Pharoah Sanders
Gwotet (Justin Time, 2004)
Murray, Sanders, tenor saxophone; Leonard Alarcon, trombone; Angel Ballester Veliz, alto saxophone, flute; Moises Marquez Leyva, baritone saxophone; Alexander Brown, Elpidio Chappotin Delgado, Carlos Sonduy Dimet, trumpets; Christian Laviso, guitar, voice; Herve Sambe, guitar; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Hamid Drake, drums; Klod Kiavue, gwo-ka drums, voice
I used to do all these workshops in Paris, with dancers, rappers, hand drummers, people from Guadeloupe and Senegal doing different projects for the community. Some of them got so good that we tried to make a project and go to that country and do a real album. We went to Guadeloupe and found the good musicians there. I still had my record contract with Justin Time, so I used it to do that.

I made a bunch of jazz albums, so I decided to try something different. There’s jazz in all those albums, though; you have to hear that. I had some knucklehead write, “David Murray not only left America, he left jazz.” You want me to make 30 more albums like the quartet? I could do that. My objective with the Gwo-Ka Masters was to try to take that to the Grammy Awards. I think the album is good enough. Pharoah was just overdubbed. The real work came way before. I worked hard on all those albums.

Murray, Allen & Carrington Power Trio
Perfection (Motema, 2016)
Murray, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Geri Allen, piano; Terri Lyne Carrington, drums
For the [NYC] Winter Jazzfest in 2015, I wanted to put together three different ensembles to try to do something new. I put together a Clarinet Summit with Hamiet Bluiett, Don Byron and David Krakauer, since I’m the only living member of the Clarinet Summit that I used to do with John Carter, Alvin Batiste and Jimmy Hamilton. I had a quartet with Nasheet Waits, Orrin Evans and Jaribu Shahid, and I added [the slam poet] Saul Williams to that mix. And I figured I’d do something with Terri Lyne and Geri. I first played with Geri for a week at the Village Vanguard back sometime in the early ’90s, with the bass player Richard Davis. He put me and Geri together and we hooked up pretty good. I had played with Terri Lyne not too long before that, at one of those Round Robin Duet things they do at the Town Hall [presented by the Red Bull Music Academy].

It was obvious by then that the World Saxophone Quartet wouldn’t be getting back together, so I needed another collective band. But it ended up being just a band in thirds. They were very opinionated. I kicked back and just let them run things, because they were very adamant about doing that. I’ve done a lot of records on my own, but I’ve never had so much advice. It was great to play with such fine musicians, but there were a lot of opinions.

In the middle of doing the album, Ornette Coleman passed away, and that was a big thing because everybody loved Ornette. Geri played with him in one of his bands, and he was one of the first guys I interviewed when I came to New York. I had this song, “Perfection,” in my library for a long time. It was a ditty that Ornette was playing that Bobby Bradford copied out. He gave it to me while we were practicing one day and said, “This is something Ornette wrote but never recorded.” So I kept it and used it as a practice piece.

I’m not sure if the group would have stayed together anyways, but the fact that Geri passed was a drag. I really enjoyed playing with her. She may have been sick, but she played her butt off. God bless her. She was a great pianist, a great mother, a great thinker and a great educator.

David Murray featuring Saul Williams
Blues for Memo (Motema, 2018)
Murray, tenor saxophone; Williams, poetry, spoken word; Craig Harris, trombone; Aytac Dogun, kanun; Mingus Murray, guitar; Orrin Evans, piano; Jason Moran, Fender Rhodes; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Pervis Evans, vocals
I did that as a tribute to [the Turkish music impresario] Mehmet Uluğ, this friend of mine who died. Memo and his brother, Ahmet, were good people and jazz enthusiasts. They owned the club Babylon, a very famous club in Turkey. They also have a company called Pozitif, and they were the people behind anything that was jazz in Istanbul. Their father was a well-to-do businessman in Istanbul, and he sent his kids to college in the States. While they were in college they became like Sun Ra groupies. They used to follow Sun Ra around the country on spring break. That’s why we did “Enlightenment,” and Craig was in the Arkestra, so that’s why he’s on the album.

David Murray performs at NYC Winter Jazzfest with poet Saul Williams, January 2015 (photo by Alan Nahigian)
David Murray performs at NYC Winter Jazzfest with poet Saul Williams, January 2015 (photo by Alan Nahigian)

I saw Saul at Baraka’s funeral, and he spoke to me from the stage. [He recited a poem in which] he told Baraka, “Get out of the casket!” That’s how I decided I wanted to use him. A lot of people spoke that day, but he was the best. He sent some poems, I wrote some songs, and that’s how that came about. Memo, Mehmet and Butch died not so far apart, so Butch is in the mix, too; we did his song “Obe.” So it’s a tribute to more than one thing, but Memo is at the beginning of it.

[Sign up here for the JazzTimes enewsletter with the latest news and stories from the jazz world.]

Listen to this Spotify playlist with songs from several of the albums that David Murray discussed in the article above: