Mr. Murray was a man of letters whose works interpreted and illuminated African American culture and how it has transformed American society, often through the metaphor of blues and jazz music.
In books such as “The Hero and the Blues” (1973) and “Stomping the Blues” (1976), he saw the musical idiom not as a primitive means of expressing sorrow and pain but as “a sound track for an affirmative lifestyle” in spite of the existential chaos.
In short, he wrote, the blues were saturated with creativity, resolve and improvisation — the equipment of life. The cadence of the music also influenced the art of jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, artists including Romare Bearden and writers such as Ralph Ellison, author of the widely acknowledged masterwork “Invisible Man.”
Mr. Murray was a classmate of Ellison’s at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the late 1930s and mentored a later generation of writers and scholars including Stanley Crouch and Henry Louis Gates Jr. In a statement, the trumpeter and jazz ambassador Wynton Marsalis called Mr. Murray, who helped conceive Jazz at Lincoln Center, “one of America’s great cultural thinkers and one of our original champions.”
With essay collections such as “The Omni-Americans” (1970), the literary criticism and historical analysis of “South to a Very Old Place” (1971) and a bildungs-roman quartet starting with “Train Whistle Guitar” (1974), Mr. Murray attracted superlatives for his often-erudite and lyrical writing.
In the New Yorker, author Robert Coles once wrote that Mr. Murray possessed “the poet’s language, the novelist’s sensibility, the essayist’s clarity, the jazzman’s imagination, and the gospel singer’s depth of feeling.”
Mr. Murray had an unlikely path to a career in scholarship. Born out of wedlock, he was adopted in infancy by a working-class family and raised in a black enclave of Mobile, Ala. He recalled growing up in a bustling community of Pullman porters and returning World War I veterans who supplied a panorama of worldly experience — not to mention blues and jazz music — that fired his ardor for storytelling.
He spent more than a decade in the Air Force, alternating overseas military duty with an academic career that took him to Columbia University in New York, Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He completed a master’s degree in English at New York University in Manhattan, where he immersed himself in the city’s 52nd Street jazz club scene of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
He began a full-time writing career after leaving the Air Force in 1962 at the rank of major. His debut collection, “The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture,” had immediate cultural impact.