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Albert Murray, Critic and Author, Dies at 97

Championed blues and jazz as integral to American identity

Albert Murray, a prolific and influential author, essayist and critic who advocated tirelessly for jazz and blues, died in his sleep in New York City Aug. 18. He was 97.

In addition to his writings, Murray, along with Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, is credited with conceiving the institution that would ultimately become Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis, in a statement released via JALC, said, “Albert Murray [was] one of America’s great cultural thinkers and one of our original champions. Albert’s conceptions are the intellectual foundation of our institution. He spoke eloquently on the significance of American vernacular to the fine art of jazz. Deeply philosophical about jazz’s rightful place in the pantheon of Western arts, Albert was an engaged listener to jazz of all styles, and had a profound belief in the transformative power of the music … ”

Albert Lee Murray was born May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., and adopted by Hugh and Matty Murray. Albert learned at age 11 that he was born to a middle-class mother who gave him up to parents of lesser means because she was unmarried at the time and felt ashamed. Murray grew up and went to school near Mobile, Ala., and later enrolled in the Tuskegee Institute, where he developed his fondness for literature; after graduating he befriended fellow Tuskegee alumnus Ralph Ellison, who would also become a highly influential writer and critic.

Murray married Mozelle Menefee in 1941; she survives him, as does the couple’s daughter, Michele, a dancer with the Alvin Ailey troupe. Murray graduated from the University of Michigan, then taught literature and composition at Tuskegee. After spending 11 years in the military, he began his writing career in the early ’60s. He published nine books in all.

The Oxford Companion to African American Literature said about him: “Murray performs like the best-trained jazz musician. In his essays, Murray turns the basic beliefs of ‘social science fiction’ inside out, exposing and playing on their assumptions just as Billie Holiday created soul-stirring art out of trite popular tunes.” The bio further stated that Murray’s 1976 book Stomping the Blues was “perhaps the best book ever published on jazz aesthetics.”

In his writings on jazz, Murray promoted the cultural significance of artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington who reportedly called Murray “the “unsquarest man I know.” Murray also wrote passionately about blues music and its crucial role in formulating American identity.

Among Murray’s popular works were 1970’s The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture, which argued against black separatism, and his 1971 memoir South to a Very Old Place.

Murray also collaborated with Count Basie on the latter’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues, published in 1985, after Basie’s death.

Originally Published