Albert Murray, author who drew on the free-wheeling spirit of jazz, dies at 97

Albert Murray, a self-described “riff-style intellectual” whose novels, nonfiction books and essays drew on the free-wheeling spirit of jazz and whose works underscored how black culture and the blues in particular were braided into American life, died Aug. 18 at his home in New York City. He was 97.

His executor, Lewis P. Jones III, confirmed the death but said he did not know the exact cause.

(Craig Herndon/The Washington Post) - Author Albert Murray during an interview at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 1974. Murray, author and intellectual whose writings focused on race relations and jazz, died Aug. 18, 2013, at his home in New York City. He was 97.

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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.

It was a tome of contrarian, independent thinking — a riposte to both black complacency and black militancy. It also fought attempts to interpret black life through sociological concepts, even those espoused by well-meaning liberals such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

“The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people,” Mr. Murray wrote. “It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.”

American culture, he continued, is “incontestably mulatto,” and Americans of all races are inheritors of a cultural tradition that makes them “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian — and part Negro.”

In an interview on Monday, Gates said this was a “bold argument at a time when black people didn’t want to hear it. They wanted black culture to be neo-African, something divorced from the Anglo-American tradition.”

Author Walker Percy wrote at the time that “The Omni-Americans” “may be the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture, published in this generation.”

A rare dissent came from the black history scholar J. Saunders Redding, who in his New York Times review said that the essays are a “dense mixture of pseudo-scientific academic jargon, camp idiom and verbal play.”

Mr. Murray was 54 when “The Omni-Americans” appeared, and perhaps to make up for lost time, he began a prolific outpouring of essays and reportage for publications including Harper’s. With “Train Whistle Guitar,” he also launched a career as a novelist. His protagonist, known only by his nickname Scooter and raised in fictional Gasoline Point, Ala., in the 1920s, bore similarities to the author.

The novels continued with “The Spyglass Tree (1991), “The Seven League Boots” (1996) and “The Magic Keys” (2005), and follows Scooter through a college like Tuskegee and eventually to a career as a bassist in a jazz band like Ellington’s.

On the basis of Mr. Murray’s books about jazz, Mr. Murray collaborated with Count Basie on the bandleader’s autobiography starting in the late 1970s. The author plunged into the project with such near-abandon that it took him more than five years to complete the research alone. “For years,” he later noted, “when I wrote the word ‘I,’ it meant Basie.”

“Good Morning Blues” was published in 1986, two years after the bandleader’s death at 79, and won plaudits as a definitive account of the influential musician.

Mr. Murray remained a cultural watchdog for decades. He targeted literary tastemakers who expected black writers to thunder about prejudice or risk irrelevance. “Critics?” he wrote in the prologue to his 1996 essay collection “The Blue Devils of Nada,” “Man, most critics feel that unless brownskin U.S. writers are pissing and moaning about injustice they have nothing to say.”

Mr. Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., and raised in a black neighborhood of Mobile called Magazine Point. He described his adoptive father, Hugh Murray, as a “common laborer” who worked at times as a sharecropper and railroad crosstie cutter. The boy was christened Albert Lee Murray.

“As far as the Murrays were concerned, it was a fantastic thing that I finished the ninth grade, or that I could read the newspaper” he later told Gates for a 1996 New Yorker profile.

He received a scholarship to attend the Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, where he bonded with Ellison over their similar tastes in books by Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Mann and Andre Malraux.

Decades later, in his preface to “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray” (2000), Mr. Murray reflected on his longtime friendship with his former schoolmate.

“Yes,” he wrote, “it would be the likes of him from the Oklahoma Territory and me from the Deep South, the grandchildren of slaves freed by the Civil War, betrayed by Reconstruction and upstaged by steerage immigrants, it would be us who would strive in our stories to provide American literature with representative anecdotes, definitive episodes, and mythic profiles that would add up to a truly comprehensive and universally appealing American epic.

“Whatever the fruits of that grand ambition, he and I conceded nothing to anybody when it came to defining what is American and what is not and not yet.”