When saxophonist David Murray made the trek from Los Angeles to New York two years ago, he was 20, a student at Pomona College and going cross-country to write a paper about the changes in saxophone playing since 1959.
"After being in New York for a while," Murray recalled recently, "I found out that what I suppose to be doing was playing my horn and not just going around talking to people. The next thing I knew there was a lot of publicity for me and I was performing regularly."
Murray has done more than perform regularly. In the two years he's been in New York, the saxophonist has become one of the most talked about new personalities in jazz, and he is demonstrating the potential to become a major figure.
The New York critics have termed him an imposing talent and a musician whose promist is closely entwined with his immediate future. To hear David Murray is to witness the development of a bright star.
When the saxophonist made a weekend appearance at Harold's Rogue and Jar in April, he performed with the authority of a much older man. His playing was marked by a robust rhythmic drive and dancing melodic figures.
It's not money, it's not just personal style - though he has plenty of that - and it's not backing from some high-pitched public relations machine that's sent him on his way.It's simply the way he plays the saxophone - the rare sound of a young man who's learning fast and who will be worth watching in the years to come.
Murray added an extra dimension to his performance here by having poet Ntozake Shange, author of the Broadway hit drama, "For Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf," read her work in tandem with his group.
Social companions as well as artistic collaborators, Murray and Shange met in Berkeley shortly after she had completed "Colored Girls." They first performed together last summer in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, and they appeared at Yale in April. The two are also scheduled to appear next Tuesday at the Whitney Museum in New York. They will perform in Europe throughout much of June.
Playing music with poetry imposes special demands on jazzmen, whose improvisations must blend with set word patterns.
"You have to think about filling up a total kind of space rather than just play notes," he said. "You have to cover up the whole room with notes to make the poetry come alive."
Shange said she allows her poetry to take on the rhythm of the moment they are performing. She'll linger on a word, she explained, or she'll wait for him to finish a phrase. Sometimes she changes lines, or improvises verse, to fit his melodic configurations.
Murray is writing the music for "A Photography: A Study in Cruelty," a drama that Shange is completing and that Joseph Papp expects to produce this fall.
For a young man who's already reached a high level of maturity, Murray is still intent on learning as much as he can about the jazz saxophone tradition.
"I've been working on the lyrical part of Paul Gonsalves' playing," he explained, "or the robust feeling that Ben Webster had, the fluidity of Lester Young."
Murray has also closely studied the work of Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist who upset the jazz world in the early '60s with his so-called "free approach."
"I tried to play like him in his harmelodic system," said Murray, "which enables the ensemble to play in three or four different keys at the same time. So you have a lot of different color shifts going on."
Murray said the only major saxophonenist he's that studied in depath is - surprisingly - John Coltrane, though he has has to his records frequently.
"When I grew up, everbody was trying to learn all of Coltrane's solos," Murray amplified. "So I said maybe I shouldn't learn all of his solos because all these people are going to sound the same in five years. And I was right - they all sound the same.
"I've just recently been playing Coltrane's Giant Steps' on the alto - just for facility. I'm sure Coltrane himself looked at that as a technical exercise. The tune itself is not a melodic composition. But it's made to be more than it is.
"Cuts use that as a criterion for being able to play. It's like 'Cherokee' used to be in the bebop days. If you couldn't play 'Cherokee' in every key, you might as well forget it."
Murray plays tenor saxophone, his main instrument, with a soothing, ironwood tone and quicksilver facility. His alto saxophone playing is marked by spurts of zig-zag melodic figures and a wailing tone.
Looking like a Wall Street banker or lawyer in his three-piece suits, Murray calls on incongruous figure on the bandstand , especially when he lets loose with torrents of bleating sounds.
"The late Albert Ayler, the last important tenor saxophonist stylist, has been a major influence on Murray's playing. Like Ayler, the younger man sometimes uses a variety of disparate meledic patterns from anthems, bugle calls, flok songs, dirges, marches and work songs - sometimes as burlesque and other times in dead seriousness.
Murray's piece, "Flowers for Albert," incorporates many of these elements. If Charles Ives had composed jazz, he probably would've done the same thing.
After consciously listening to an array of players, Murray concedes that it's hard not to play back their styles. "I like to remember what (poet-percussionist) Stanley Crouch said about a seasoned player. "The thing is really not to know what to play but what not to play."
Murray's musical roots are deep. He started playing piano at age 5 in Berkeley, Calif., where he was born Feb. 19, 1955, less than a month before the death of Charlie Parker, one of the founding fathers of modern jazz.
Starting saxophone at age 9, Murray played in his family's group that performed in the Sanctified Church.In the group, his mother played piano, his father guitar, a brother was on clarinet and a cousin played trumpet.
Murray links the church music experience directly to what he's doing today harmonically. Everytime a song was started in service, he recalled, different people would intitate the music. That meant different keys many times. But his mother had perfect pitch. So no matter which key direction the vocalist took, his mother could find the key.
"She always knew where the key was - even if it was in G-flat," he said. "The church thing made me do that, made me get a good idea of keys. People starting songs in three different keys and you have to find the best key in about second.
"In the structures we use now, say a tune in A-Flat, we're going to be playing all over the horn. It's not really about A-flat - it's about whatever feeling A-flat suggests."
By the time he was 12 or 13, Murray had a rhythm and blues revue, David Murray and his Magic Castellations. He was the director and supervised everything - singing, dancing, instrumentals, the clothes people wore. He worked with older people and said this experience helped him mature.
At age of 15 he led a jazz trio - saxophone, organ and piano - that played at pizza parlors around the San Francisco Bay Area ("We weren't playing serious jazz - just stuff like 'A Taste of Honey' swinging").
During this period he heard tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins perform in solo recital at the Berkeley Jazz Festival. "After I saw that I really knew what I wanted to do," he recalled. "I wanted to get a serious group or play solo like he was playing."
Next came college and further playing in the Bay Area and around Los Angeles.
So now he is creating excited talk in New York, playing with his group or the Real New York Saxophone Quartet in lofts, scattered jazz clubs and a few concerts - wherever the "New Jazz" is accepted.
He's already a symbol of jazz in evolution. How does he feel about that? "I hope I'm able to be creative when I get to be 35," he answered. "When people come to hear me now, they expect a lot because a lot has been written about me . . .
"Most musicians I play with are about 10 years older than I am. I know I can't lay back because somebody else right behind me is going to take a solo. I've got to be smoking."