The Blues Aesthetic of Albert Murray (AWP 2022) Print E-mail

AM(Panel on Writing & Music, AWP, March 25, 2022)

The Blues Aesthetic of Albert Murray

To say that Americans in the 2020s are suffering from our tribal divisions is nothing new. But what of the divisions based in our hyphenation: African, Asian, Hispanic, Native, and the dwindling majority, white? These identities range from economic to ethnic to racial and extend further to gender and sexuality. But for each assembly there’s another category: the Other, the caste of that which your group is not. Such as Black is not White; Asian is not Native. And so on. Then there’s a third identity, which we might label trans: those who prefer an amalgam, a yesteryear phenomenon, the American. This singular cohort makes the most sense to me as a critic when I talk about the art of music and the art of writing about music

In order to discuss the pluralistic essence of American music, I need to decenter politics and, instead, square the broadest synthesis of a shared culture with the psychic impossibility of artistic exclusion. The way in is to inhabit the blues aesthetic of Albert Murray.

A Black Alabamian, Murray was born in 1916, retired an Air Force Major in 1962, and died in 2013 at the age of 97. He and Ralph Ellison were the preeminent contrarian American music critics of the previous century. Murray was a writer who from 1960 to his death wrote thirteen books, nine on literary and musical aesthetics and four novels—plus his masterpiece, South to a Very Old Place. South, an essayistic memoir, came in the wake of his well-received and controversial first book, The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy, a collection of essays, profiles, and reviews about Black culture and literature.

The stupidity of bigotry, of which white supremacy is the most contemptuous, proves that no society can sustain itself by mandating exclusion and segregation as its identity. The human topography in the arts is too diverse, too muddied up. I might sum up the crux of Murray’s idea by quoting his famous declaration from The Omni-Americans: “After all, someone must at least begin to try to do justice to what U.S. Negroes like about being black and to what they like about being Americans.” The book’s radical conceit is that intrinsic to the best American music and writing is its mode of improvisatory creation and raw expression, some of which issues from African-Americans’ development of the blues. There, in recordings of Ma Rainey or King Oliver, we hear a storytelling genius first appear, merging risk and ritual, vernacular speech and rhapsodic style, restraint and freedom. Murray terms this genius the “blues idiom” and argues that from its roots in Black life it is contagious in our culture—from Charley Patton to Charlie Parker, from William Faulkner to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Murray defines the blues and its idiom in several ways. He calls the creative behavior among an ensemble dialogue of musicians “antagonistic cooperation.” He speaks of the idiom in a few places, as “the specific texture of existence in a given place, time, and circumstance," and, elsewhere, as music "processed into artistic statement, stylized into significance.” And, in modernist terms, he labels the statement and its significance “a SECULAR form of existential improvisation," his capital letters.

The blues is what’s American about our music and literature, in particular, and about the art of the New World, in general. It may have grown, in part, via racial separateness but its power lies in its diverse expansion, the result of separateness lived, confronted, bent, blended, outlived, preserved, inter-blooded and interpolated by everyday people and their tunes. Murray sums up the idea in what’s become another Murrayism: “You can’t be an American unless you’re part us, and you can’t be an American unless you’re part them.” Note that neither us nor them is identified. Nor is you. In our time, I think this is also our or an identity, one singular and plural; I like to view it as geologic, as miscegenetic, as liquid, as a means to lessen our social divisions and strengthen our artistic bonds.

How do I know this? Musicians born in America or the Americas rely on the inseparability of what they hear from any source to tell them what is musically possible. “If it sounds good, it is good,” said Duke Ellington. End of story.

Today some insist on artistically dividing people by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, saying it’s a moral crime for any non-Other to write about or play in another’s tribe. Murray opposed this sacrosanctity not only on stylistic grounds but also on the facts: artistic segregation guarantees stagnation, makes your sociological strata more of a determinant than your artistic talent, and is the educational equivalent of tracking people through grade school.

Reading Murray you realize his claim is proven time and again, namely, that the richest and most subversive elements of American art lie in the ingenious farragoes that artists have wrought, for example, in music, the industrial velocity of Count Basie, the Spanish melancholy of Miles Davis, the Hank-Williams-inspired “modern sounds of country-and-western” of Ray Charles, the blue-turned-purple despair of Joni Mitchell, the gospel pop of Whitney Houston, the heartbreakingly tender solo of “Over the Rainbow” by Keith Jarret, live in Tokyo.

We don’t think of the blues anymore as Bessie Smith. We think of the blues in all its metastases, so much so that its migratory adaptations and conflictual energies are universally accepted as a musical language—a kind of covenant—open to anyone.

Murray asks—as do I—What is the blues? Is it the blue note, the motherless child’s grief, the celebrant animating the embittered, the happy/sad amalgam, the shadings of the shadow? Is it its practitioners, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Lester Young, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Amy Winehouse, the operas of Anthony Davis and Terence Blanchard? Is it the one-hundred-and-forty years of its evolution (rendered live and captured in recordings), a river whose tributaries are reborn in each musician who attempts to sing or solo bluely?

It’s all these things. Writers must remember that the blues is its played essence not its social hierarchy. Musicians don’t regard musical expression as private property: If you trespass where you’re not supposed to, you’ll be shot or canceled. The blues may sound like a protest or a complaint; it may even be a Ken Burns documentary. But before and after any of those things; it’s an art. Millions of women have been through Billie Holiday’s hell and happiness. Why is there only one of her and legions of the brokenhearted who—hearing her—say, Billie, you’re singing my song?

Murray sets a very high bar for his writing: to swing and sway like a jazz band, its competitive contradictions and consonances a kind of symbol for the self and its profusion of roles. He is alive in his writing because of music: As the Maria Schneider Orchestra (to name just one great jazz band) creates, in each tune, bold colors and sounds, locomotive riffs and melodies, written arrangements alternating with improvised solos, so, too, does Murray mimic this elegant synthesis on the page. His expert technique and soulful bounce in phrases, sentences, and sections brings out the probing inquisitiveness of an author who is speech-writing and prose-improvising his way, all at once, through folk, blues, jazz, and pop idioms while he discovers their joyous pulse amid their contentious plurality.

To hear all this commotion for yourself, read Albert Murray. I recommend his Collected Essays and Memoirs in the Library of America edition.