THE MAGIC KEYS

By Albert Murray. Pantheon. 242 pp. $24

At the age of 89, Albert Murray -- essayist, novelist, literary and social critic, raconteur and highly influential adviser of Jazz at Lincoln Center -- is sometimes regarded as the eminence grise of African American arts and letters. Born in Nokomis, Ala., in 1916, Murray grew up in Mobile and was educated at the Tuskegee Institute, where he first met Ralph Ellison, then an upperclassman, who went on to win lasting fame with the publication of Invisible Man. Through many years of friendship and correspondence, Murray riffed on distinctly Ellisonian themes in the work that first brought him public notice in 1970, his collection of essays, The Omni-Americans -- a no-holds-barred attack on the "folklore of white supremacy" and the "fakelore of black pathology" that have historically undermined any understanding of the richness and complexity of African American life. Since then, Murray has cut a wide swath across the literary landscape, penning works such as South to a Very Old Place, Stomping the Blues, The Hero and the Blues, and co-authoring Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie -- in the process celebrating a view of art, identity and African American culture that draws deeply upon the blues and the values he acquired as a boy in an orderly and disciplined Southern black community.

The Magic Keys has been hailed as the final volume of Murray's semi-fictional portrayal of his Southern childhood and youth, an extended exploration of the making of an artist that began in 1974 with the publication of Train Whistle Guitar. The Seven League Boots, the third volume in the series, received a similar reception when it was published in 1996. Considering Murray's capacity for mining his past, I suspect that the saga will continue as long as Murray's capacity for recall.

Train Whistle Guitar, set in Gasoline Point, Ala., during the 1920s, chronicled the childhood and youth of Murray's alter ego, Scooter, through a series of evocative episodes and a range of colorful characters -- all filtered through the lens of a nurturing, supportive and healthy black community. Murray resumed Scooter's story with his 1991 sequel The Spyglass Tree, set at the Tuskegee Institute during the 1930s. In The Seven League Boots, Scooter, now renamed Schoolboy, has graduated from Tuskegee and landed an enviable position as a bass player for a swing band headed by the Bossman, a character very similar to Duke Ellington. Under the tutelage of the Bossman and other musicians in the band like Joe States and Big Bloop, Scooter crisscrosses the country and the Atlantic, learning along the way that improvisation is not only a musical skill but also a way of life.

The Magic Keys picks up Schoolboy's story in Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Accompanied by his new bride, Eunice, he has enrolled as a graduate student in the humanities at New York University. As in the earlier novels in this saga, Schoolboy continues to marvel at the lasting impact of his early teachers, particularly his third grade teacher, Miss Lexine Metcalf, who always reminded him "that I should never forget that I just might be one of the very special ones who would have to travel far and wide to find out what it is that I may have been put here on earth to make of myself."

In his quest to fulfill his destiny, Scooter roams the streets of Manhattan, exploring its libraries, art galleries, restaurants, skyscrapers and jazz clubs, as well as the streets of Harlem. Characters from Murray's earlier novels reappear, like the drummer Joe States, and others emerge, like the debonair aspiring novelist Taft Woodrow Edison (Ralph Ellison), an artist named Roland Beasley (Romare Bearden) and a recording studio technician and conductor named Eric Von Threadcraft.

At the level of plot, very little happens in The Magic Keys. Schoolboy shuttles between the routine demands of graduate school and wide-ranging, often inspired conversation with his friends. They talk and reminisce as one story unspools into another, most of them leading invariably back home, "south to a very old place," the deepest source of Murray's imagination. And the narrative literally moves in this direction, too. At the end, Schoolboy makes the fateful decision to return to Alabama to teach, a decision that coincides with his selection to collaborate on writing the biography of a famous bandleader named Daddy Royal (who sounds a lot like Count Basie). No one is better qualified, Joe States assures him: "Your ears are something else! . . . Maybe it's a part of your gift as a storyteller and lie swapper like back in primitive times even before English was English or, hell, even Greek was Greek or the Bible was the Bible. I don't know, but I do know you've got the musical version of a photographic memory. You hear it, you've got it. And that includes absolute pitch, and along with all that, you hum everything like a conductor who knows how all the sections hook up." Thus does Schoolboy begin to fulfill his destiny: "I began to smile because it was as if I were all the way back in Miss Lexine Metcalf's third-grade classroom in Mobile County Training School again and she was going to say, 'Who if not you, my splendid young man?' "

For readers who have traveled with Scooter/Schoolboy on the earlier stages of his journey, reading The Magic Keys will be like rejoining an ongoing conversation with an old friend; for those who have not, it would probably be worthwhile to get acquainted with Murray first before taking the plunge. *

James A. Miller is a professor of English and American studies and director of Africana studies at the George Washington University.