Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues by Albert Murray and Paul Devlin (Editor), University of Minnesota Press, 2016
It’s entirely possible that when Albert Murray died in 2013 at the age of 97, jazz lost its biggest fan. That sounds like a huge call but after reading this book, I think it can be made.
Murray Talks Music is a collection of unpublished interviews, and a few short pieces. For any other writer, this might make for a slight volume but Albert Murray clearly didn’t do slight. These are all of considerable weight. His observations on jazz, blues, art, aesthetics, race, and literature come fast and furious here.
So who is this Albert Murray? If you haven’t heard of him you will wonder where you have been after you’ve read a few of these interviews. He was a jazz critic, possibly the greatest ever, a novelist, and a biographer. His first book was published when he was 54 years old, following a career in the American military. Along with his protégés, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, he co-founded Jazz at the Lincoln Centre.
And he was the biggest jazz fan who ever lived. This is a man who possessed such a fine understanding of the form that he was treated like an equal by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jo Jones and many others. The discussion – interview isn’t the right word – with Dizzy Gillespie is remarkable. The trumpeter is completely relaxed. Even the friendliest of musicians, and Dizzy was pretty friendly, are wary of interviewers. There is more than a little pressure to get things right and not misrepresent their music, their colleagues, themselves. Dizzy trusts Murray and talks openly about his career and the people he played with, particularly in the early days. It’s without doubt one of the most satisfying exchanges between a musician and writer that I have ever read.
His love of jazz goes far beyond his vast knowledge of the music and its players. For Murray, jazz is the purest form of American art. Like the country itself, it is about innovation and improvisation. Jazz music, he says, is the sound of a restless nation pushing against boundaries and frontiers. It is also, for Murray, an African American art form. Some of his critics, notably Terry Teachout, have suggested that he underrated white jazz artists but Murray’s views here are far more complex. His position was that the race problem in America is one of definition and artificial lines. America for Murray was an idea, rather than a geopolitical or economic entity. He believed that African Americans were the ‘real’ Americans because they arrived from Africa with no language and no culture. They absorbed the culture of America and practiced it in its purest form, untainted by a sense of Europe as a center. They were thus able to create jazz, the greatest and perhaps only truly American art form. His first book, The Omni Americans (1970), a response to Patrick Moynihan’s damning 1965 report on the state of African Americans, suggests that the way forward could be in a redefining of American culture, to recognize the contribution of everyone involved, rather than any one group. Sadly, this probably still seems overly idealistic almost 50 years later. However, while pondering this, it occurred to me that the blues heritage of Mississippi and Chicago are now institutionalized in a manner that would have seemed unlikely even 25 years ago. When I visited Maxwell Street, Chicago, in the early 90s, the market was closed and there was no sign that this was one of the crucibles of American music. It is now heritage listed, the market has reopened, and tourism has revived what was a very depressed neighbourhood. Richard Daley’s son, of all people, made this happen! It would be lovely to think that we might one day say that music provided the groundwork for a real change in race relations in America.
Albert Murray’s own influences are of great interest as well. Though best known as a jazz critic, he was also a novelist who thought deeply about literature. Again and again, he makes reference to novels like The Magic Mountain and the ideas of Andre Malraux. Now there’s a name you don’t hear much these days! Intriguingly, he doesn’t seem to have had much interest in African American literature. He never mentions figures like CLR James and is dismissive of Zora Neale Hurston. Toni Morrison even gets a quick brickbat for Tar Baby. As far as jazz in fiction, he seems to be only impressed by one American writer: Ernest Hemingway. Yup, Papa’s staccato sentences and uncluttered phrasing has a distinct jazz sensibility according to Murray. I have read similar things about Eliot’s early poetry. Murray, like others, links jazz to Modernism at points. I would have been curious to know his thoughts on the Beats, surely the most jazz influenced of all writers’ circles. I also wondered what he thought of Walter Mosely. But then I spent the whole book wanting to ask Murray questions.
But what about Ralph Ellison, you ask? Good question. They were lifelong friends and their correspondence is collected in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. I ordered a copy – you can borrow it when I’m finished! Though it’s never stated, I had the feeling that Ralph was possibly not the jazz fan I might have imagined and that perhaps Albert Murray played Ezra to his TS in this area. Make it new and put some jazz in that book!
The final interview is a transcript of a radio program that he did with the combative critic, Stanley Crouch. Probably the most remarkable aspect of it is how deferential Crouch is to Murray. But then Crouch is controversial because he rejects most of the rhetoric around race and music in America. Crouch is a formidable critic and a force of nature in interviews but he remains a Murrayite.
The long discussion with Wynton Marsalis that opens the book is riveting. I’ve always enjoyed reading interviews with the trumpeter. He is highly articulate, passionate, and opinionated. There is a widely held perception that he is something like the active political wing for Stanley Crouch’s program. I now believe that the program might actually be Murray’s!
So, you might ask, what did the biggest jazz fan in history listen to? Clearly, The Count and The Duke were his guys. He saw Ellington as a major composer on par with Beethoven, except that he thought Ellington was better. The Count seems to pull more at his heartstrings though and is the musician that best illustrates his theory of the blues. I won’t spoil it here. If his love for these two figures seems conventional it is probably because Murray created the convention. He makes a good case too. I only wish he had lived long enough to take down Adam Gopnik, after that thuggish dismissal of the Duke in the New Yorker last year!
It’s hard to believe that Murray never played music. Most music writers, it must be said, are frustrated musicians. I certainly am! Murray does admit to tinkering with bass at one time but certainly never at a level he himself would have rated. Reassuringly, he says that music writers don’t need to be able to play music, they just need to be able to listen to it! It’s a good point and, if it is true, there is no doubt that this man was the Art Tatum of listeners.
Teasers: A masterclass in fact checking as Murray cross examines trombonist, Don Minor on the beginnings of the Basie band; Dizzy and Albert reveal the BeBop creation story. Hint: it all started with Earl Hines.
Jo Jones laying it down with Coleman Hawkins. For Murray, Jones was THE jazz drummer.
Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in a Musical Age of Plenty by Ben Ratliff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
I’ve just celebrated, if that’s the right word, one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays, the ones that end in zero and send you into all kinds of generally pointless reflection. Out of the rubble of regret and mourning for my lost youth came an idea. I would try to listen to something new every day. This isn’t some kind of mid life crisis where I start listening to current pop or rock and roll. I try to listen to new bands but I always feel like Mr Jones. I can hear something is happening but I don’t know what it is. No, the idea was that I would listen to albums, bands, or songs that I had simply hadn’t heard. So, for example, I listened to Hot Rats the other day. I had never heard it and now I have. I listened to an Eric Dolphy record called Out To Lunch and Joao Gilberto’s self titled ‘white album’ from 1973. I can hear you screaming, ‘what you’ve never heard that album?! Why am reading your blog?!’ Relax, I’ve heard it now.
A handy book appeared around the time I made this momentous decision and it is called Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in a Musical Age of Plenty by Ben Ratliff. The premise of the book is this: We have access to an enormous amount of music at the moment but what do we do with it all? How can we handle the sheer weight of, say, every Fela Kuti album? It’s changed everything. When I think back to the mid eighties and the time and energy I spent trying to hear, just hear, Big Star… Ok, I’m showing my age and being boring!
He acknowledges the obvious problems with this much access. Writers like Nicholas Carr have suggested that the internet is turning us all into shallow readers and I suppose the same argument could be made about listening. Ten seconds of a Burundian guitar player, back to Blonde on Blonde for a few bars of Absolutely Sweet Marie, hmm, I’m going to listen to that Roger McGuinn solo album that Petty plays on now. And so on. Every Song Ever is thus a self help book of sorts for distracted listeners.
His twenty chapters are based around specific elements in music. But this isn’t like one of those old LPs which explains music theory in a ‘fun’ way. He avoids, for the most part, formal music terms and looks instead at elements like ‘Slowness’ and ‘Speed’ where he considers the effect of tempo. He makes the interesting observation that music should never be too fast for dancing. He also dismisses the idea that speed is a mark of virtuosity, noting that speed is instead ‘like a sweater on a dog at a show’. It’s nice but it’s the dog that’s being judged.
The chapter on ‘Transmission’ is particularly interesting. He quotes the 19th century writer Evard Hanslick who wrote that ‘music mimics the motion of feelings’. This rather romantic idea was dismissed by the formalist critics of the early 20th century who tried to quantify the effects of music with elaborate theory and somewhat pseudo scientific ideas about our relationship to it. Ratliff points to the Sufi tradition and the wildly spiritual music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as evidence that the place where music comes from is no simple matter. John Lennon’s performance of Julia, one of his great moments, is mentioned here too.
The chapter on ‘Space’ poses an interesting question: ‘When you listen to music, do you want to feel that you are in a particular kind of physical structure or landscape? A cathedral, a cube, a club, a desert, a marketplace?” If I was enjoying the book before this point, I was completely captivated by this idea. I thought immediately of John Bonham’s drums at the beginning of Where The Levee Breaks. Even without knowing the story behind the recording, the sound is evocative spatially. You can hear the place as clearly as the drums and it is exactly where you want to be. Paul Horn’s Taj Mahal album came to mind too. And then I thought about all of the famous studios and what the Stones achieved by recording Wild Horses in Muscle Shoals.
The book certainly got me thinking about some of my favourite songs and how they are so much more than just a riff or an evocative set of lyrics. There is a chapter on ‘Closeness’ that seemed to define what I love about The Everly Brothers 1960s output. The chapter on tone seemed to contain a clue to the religious mysteries of Buddy Holly. Even individual instruments were brought to mind. Why do I love the flute so much? Is it something to do with ‘density’?
But the other aspect of this book is the examples that he uses to illustrate his various claims. The book is not long, 272 pages, but it will take you weeks to read because you can’t help tracking down the songs and albums he mentions. They are threaded through the text and featured in a list at the end of each chapter. Hence the serendipitous appearance of this book as I vowed to listen to more unfamiliar music. In the ‘Slowness’ chapter, I discovered Dadawah’s Peace and Love album, some magic mid seventies reggae. The ‘Discrepancy’ chapter yielded Willie Colon’s Lo Mato album from 1973. The improvisation chapter alerted me to the music of Derek Bailey, an avant garde guitarist, and Paco De Lucia’s scorching 1975 En Vivo Desde el Teatro Real album. So much good stuff. I ended up keeping a notebook nearby so I could make a list of albums, both known and unknown, to listen to later. It’s that kind of a book.
Ratliff’s tastes are, to say the least, catholic. One minute he is dealing with the volume at a Jerry’s Kids (the hardcore band, not the telethon) show, the next he is providing a context for Steve Reich’s Four Organs. One of the things I considered in the lead up to my ‘milestone’ birthday was the melancholy fact that there was great music out there that I would never hear. I will try my best but there are only so many hours in my remaining days. Wow, what a grim sentence! Anyhow, this book was very reassuring. If I can’t hear everything, I can at least listen a little more deeply and make sure that none of those hours are wasted.
Teasers: Lovely analysis of Curtis Mayfield’s guitar style, the Italian word for the way Bing Crosby sings, and the idea of ‘ownership’ in music.
Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk, John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends, De Capo 2016
John Doe, like most Californians, is from somewhere else. So is Exene Cervenka, his bandmate and former spouse. John is from Baltimore, Exene from Florida. Both, oddly, were born in Illinois. Yes, the ultimate LA punk band, X, was formed by two Southerners from the Midwest.
But California has always been more about the idea of California than the state itself. Outsiders, from the original settlers to Jim Morrison, brought their imaginative sense of the west coast with them. The pure products, like Brian Wilson, go crazy. But then, so does everyone else. As James Ellroy says about the city, you ‘come on vacation and go home on probation’.
Under The Big Black Sun is a strange book in many ways. It’s not about X, despite the title it shares with their 1982 album. It’s also not about John Doe, despite his name on the cover and various contributions. He and Exene certainly haunt its pages but are by no means the main characters. It’s not an oral history in the style of Legs McNeill’s Please Kill Me though it contains many voices. There is already an oral history of LA punk from 2001 called We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb. This collection covers some of the same ground but the use of the essay form makes for a very different book. For one thing, Under The Big Black Sun is not exclusively about music. To some extent, it is a snapshot of Los Angeles at the end of a long period of decline. The seventies (and indeed, the sixties) are ending but the former governor Reagan is waiting in the wings for his turn as president. LA will rise in the 1980s and become a kind of staging ground for the cultural shift to neo liberalism and hyper consumerism.
So this is an unfamiliar LA, a city of derelict apartment blocks filled with misfits who are making films, writing poetry, and forming bands like The Go Gos. It’s a night place where a bunch of disaffected kids come together and try something different. All of them had grown up in the Watergate 1970s and the slow death of the 60s dream. Like their counterparts in New York, London, Sydney, and Toronto, they weren’t interested in the bloated rock music on the radio so they made it new. Henry Rollins says that history is filled with moments where someone stands up and says ‘Fuck this. No seriously, fuck this.’ This is what happened in LA in 1977.
Not much stuck. Aside from The Go Go’s, whose moment was brief, none of the bands in this story went very far. X made four stellar albums, followed by a few less stellar ones. The Blasters set a high standard for roots music and promptly broke up. Black Flag are well known but are hardly anyone’s idea of a mainstream act. There is no Blondie, no Talking Heads, no Ramones and no Patti Smith in this story. Instead this is a beautiful moment in rock and roll history that remains preserved by its own obscurity.
X is probably the least known great American band. The combination of poetic lyrics, Exene’s persona and voice, Billy Zoom’s hot rockabilly licks and John Doe’s Cosmic Country soul makes for a remarkably eclectic sound. Some critics have called them the punk rock Doors. But those are lazy critics. Ray Manzarek produced their first four albums and there are occasional references but X is a far more interesting unit. The Band maybe, if you are looking for a 60s equivalent, not so much in sound but rather in vision and depth.
Like all truly great bands, they have their own sound and comparisons don’t really add much. Nor do narrow boxes. I don’t think the punk label served X well but it is possible to see, perhaps, a road not taken for that genre. In another universe, punk might have continued to grow in more interesting ways. I often wonder why so few bands took up The Gun Club’s thrilling use of delta blues and deep south imagery. The vision of punk in Under The Big Black Sun is a long way from the subsequent ‘hardcore’ scene of mid 1980s. In fact, many of the contributors in this book bemoan the end of the initial punk period in LA as it descended into violence, monolithic rhythms, and male posturing.
Punk began in LA as the music of the outsider. There is a fine essay by Teresa Covarraubias of the band The Brat, about the scene in East LA and the contribution of Latino bands like The Plugz – who once backed Bob Dylan on Letterman. Yes, Los Lobos makes an appearance here. They once opened for PIL. What happened? Guess. It involves saliva. Her essay ends, however, on a sad note about the night that a local hall, The Vex, was destroyed by the violent suburban punks who began to dominate the scene in the early 80s. They were, for the most part, white and male. The diversity of the early scene didn’t last long. When the bullyboy skins from Orange Country turned up, women too drifted away from what had been a remarkably progressive moment in rock and roll.
Jack Grisham of the band TSOL gets right of reply here and, in an articulate and fiery essay, outlines the experience of the suburban punks who took the ‘destroy everything’ slogan very literally indeed. In some ways, the book is a series of elegies for a lost time. Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters describes a moment of truth when he walked in on John Belushi and Derf Scratch of the band Fear snorting coke. He resented the intrusion of celebrity culture and the tired inevitability of it all. That’s the moment it ended for him. Others point to the closing of clubs, the death of the Germs singer, Darby Crash, the ‘success’ of X, and the rise of bands like Black Flag.
Other essays, like Mike Watt’s stream of consciousness style story of the band The Minutemen are surprisingly touching and sad. He describes his first meeting with bandmate D. Boon, who died young in a traffic accident:
I met d. boon some three or so years after coming to san pedro, ca, from Norfolk va, when he jumped out of a tree and landed on me in peck park, thinking I was a friend of his, nicknamed eskimo – I told him I wasn’t eskimo…
The sheer oddity of this meeting is a veritable mission statement for the zeitgeist that produced LA punk.
There is much to be discussed in this book and many old albums to dig out while you are reading it. Everybody has periods in history they would like to visit – Paris in the 20s, Greenwich Village in the early 60s, and so on. I’ve added LA in the late 70s. I want to go over to East LA with my new friends John and Exene and catch The Plugz at the The Vex. Afterwards, I want to go to a party at the Canterbury and finish up at the Tropicalia where Tom Waits will stumble out and advise me to stay in school. You had to be there. You wish you had been but Under The Big Black Sun will do nicely as a substitute.
Teaser: Dave Alvin describes what it was like for a rockabilly band to open for Black Flag and describes the various items thrown at the stage that remain embedded in his 1964 Telecaster.
X in the studio with Ray Manzarek in attendance.
Before the Orange Country invasion…