In 2016, encountering Albert Murray (1916-2013) can be a complex experience. Murray’s work as a novelist, essayist and cofounder of Jazz at Lincoln Center espoused a vision of jazz firmly, some would say intractably, fixed in the music’s origins as a dance-oriented derivative of blues. The title of what became arguably Murray’s most famous work, 1976’s Stomping the Blues, is tied to this notion of jazz as a tool for “getting your head straight,” for facing life’s problems with style. It’s a powerful reading, but one with seemingly no room for the genre’s enduring avant-garde.
Murray Talks Music (University of Minnesota Press), a new collection of largely never-before-published interviews and essays, with a foreword by Gary Giddins and an afterword by Greg Thomas, consistently brings these issues to bear without ever entirely resolving them. Throughout these works, spanning 1958 to 2006, Murray’s conception of jazz is clear and concrete. Though he does view jazz as dance-related, he nevertheless believes the music has loftier effects than just the facilitation of leisure. In a 1994 conversation with Wynton Marsalis, he describes playing jazz as “stylizing the raw material of experience, to make it into a form that elevates your conception of life and possibility.” He cites Duke Ellington’s definition of jazz as “Negro American feeling expressed in rhythm and tune,” and links the music’s improvisational emphasis to the need for adaptability in the life of the American slave. But Murray doesn’t trap the music in a folk context. Rather, he draws hard lines between folk, pop and fine art forms, with the work of Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie solidly in the “fine” column.