When Albert Murray arrived at Tuskeegee Institute in 1935, Ralph Ellison was an upperclassman who was, in Murray’s words, “dressed like a ‘Joe College’ right out of Esquire Magazine.” According to Murray, Ellison “represented the type of aspirations that I had been expecting for myself.”
While their paths split geographically, the two kindled an emotional and intellectual friendship that gained momentum during the era of Ellison’s creative peak, when his timeless novel of identity Invisible Man was being written, distributed, reviewed, and rewards reaped upon. They honored successes, encouraged intellectual growth, and shared a deep love of music. They were best friends.
Now 85, Murray remains active as a director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and as a cultural critic, biographer, essayist, and novelist. His work includes The Omni-Americans, South to a Very Old Place, Train Whistle Guitar, The Blue Devils of Nada, The Seven League Boots and the American masterpiece, Stomping the Blues. A recent publication of correspondence between Ellison and Murray, Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, exhibits their special friendship.
In an interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Murray focuses on his relationship with Ellison, talks of their collective literary mentors, their view of bebop and the arts, and his take on “Ken Burns’ Jazz.”
JJM What is your background?
AM I was born in Alabama, in 1916. We moved to the outskirts of Mobile because of the war boom. The people in Mobile were still in transition from slavery. With the war boom and various industries that supported ship building in Mobile, people moved off the farms and into the city of Mobile. All my schooling, until the 12th grade, was in Mobile.
JJM You went to college at Tuskeegee Institute
AM Yes, Tuskeegee. The high school that I went to was a training school, really a prep school, and the principal really encouraged us to go to college and get as much education as possible. He believed that any child showing promise should be encouraged – even pressured – to go to college.
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
AM I have written about that. In the novel Train Whistle Guitar, there were various people I wrote about. There was a piano player, a guitar player who seemed like a legend to me, and there was the great Satchel Paige, who lived on the outskirts of Mobile. Baseball was a big thing there, and he was the greatest baseball player in the world. In school, in the third grade, I started studying geography, and was encouraged by the teacher to look upon school as a way to open up my world. That was the start of me becoming what I have become.
JJM Is there a book that you read as a child that was particularly influential in your life that made you want to become a writer?
AM I didn’t realize I wanted to become a writer until I was in college. I was an all-around student, interested in drama and very much into athletics and language. I was good in Latin and French, also. By the time I was in high school they started grooming me for college. We didn’t have any money or anything, but the whole thing about that school was to find the talented kids and encourage them to provide leadership and become outstanding citizens. At this time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, people of this level, were making their first national splashes. I was trying to learn to come to terms with all of that and how I fit into being an American.
JJM How did you and Ralph Ellison meet?
AM He was two years ahead of me in college. I was a very serious college student, on a scholarship. I had no money. He was only a junior. I was looking at other people who were going to college and was looking for older people, upper-classmen, who represented the type of aspirations that I had been expecting for myself. Ralph impressed me. He dressed well, and we were all influenced by a new magazine at the time, Esquire, which was very cosmopolitan. College was romanticized in the movies in those days, the 1930’s, and he was dressed like a “Joe College” right out of Esquire Magazine. He was a good student and was majoring in music. He was also taking courses in Literature, particularly any course that was being conducted by the head of the English department, who was also my freshman English teacher, because the highest ranking freshman students got the attention of the head of the department. So, I became aware of Ralph in an advanced course.
JJM If I have the story right, you followed him through some of the books you were checking out of the library. You seemed to be reading many of the same book.
AM I didn’t follow him in that sense because I didn’t know him. College was pretty formal, at that time, the freshmen and sophomores didn’t know upper-classmen very well. I was aware of him, and did see his name in the book check-out list in the back of the books that you borrowed from the library. I had a list that I got from my English teacher, and he had read a number of those books. I wasn’t reading the books because of Ralph, but because I was doing something that I thought was quite important.
JJM Clearly, the two of you had quite a connection, and had much in common.
AM We had the basis for a connection, yes. He didn’t finish college
JJM When did he go to New York?
AM That would have been 1936. I went to college in 1935, so that year I was aware of this upper classman. When I became a sophomore, I didn’t see him, because he had gone off to New York after the end of his junior year. He didn’t come back for his senior year. I was aware of him and I did see a few things in magazines later on. He was a music major who happened to work in the library, and this employment was part of the terms of his scholarship. Part of him was already active in English because he was experimenting in literature, which I can vouch for because I was very much interested in literature and we read many of the same books. So, while I became aware of him that way, we actually met several years later, after I had finished college and came to New York on a visit.
JJM Your lives went different paths geographically, anyway, and my understanding is that the two of you developed and maintained a friendship through letters, many of which are part of a collection called Trading Twelves. The letters span the decade of the 1950’s, and included the time that both of you were exploring your creativity. Did the success of Invisible Man change Ellison at all?
AM He took on a lot of responsibility after Invisible Man. Everything he said had much more significance. People were constantly interviewing him. He had a desire to explain and develop ideas that were assumptions underlying what he would be writing about. He actually spelled those things out in books like Shadow and Act, and in essays that came up because of issues that were developed from implications in Invisible Man.
JJM Did the success of Invisible Man surprise you at all?
AM Well, it surprised both of us because, while we thought it was a good book and a good effort, we had no idea it would be such a big hit. It was about half-way up the best-seller list, which was surprising because it was a very serious book. We were delighted that such a serious book would have such an impact and such wide appeal. The whole idea of the story is that the story’s details have universal implications, so that people can identify with it. That’s why the very last thing he writes in the book is, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” He is not the only person who is invisible, everybody is invisible. So we can take that specific, detailed, American example, and it implies as a literary statement, that nobody sees you the way you really want to be seen.
JJM There are many common interests you and Ellison shared. One of them is that the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Mann and T.S. Eliot were very important to both of you. What did these writers have in common and why did they effect the two of you so deeply?
AM Well, there were differences too. I was much more interested in Mann than he was. He was more interested in Dostoyevsky than I was. I was more interested in Tolstoy. He felt closer to the types of complexity that Dostoyevsky dealt with, whereas I had an interest in dealing with the types of complexity and mythological base that Mann dealt with. When it came to Hemingway, there are so many things that he did that we liked to do ourselves. In other words, he was like one of us. He liked sports, he liked hunting, he liked fishing and that type of thing. He was interested in the complexity of combat. As for Faulkner, I was a southerner, so was Faulkner. He engaged in basic problems – universal human problems – that were closer to the shared idiom of southerners. Southern weather, southern landscape, things like that, and how you use those and weave them into literature. To me, what Faulkner achieved, was southern idiom comparable to what James Joyce achieved with Irish idiom. What Faulkner created was literature, poetry, myth, ritual. He was deeply involved with basic moral problems of all humanity, but he was dealing with it in terms of southern issues. Hemingway’s work, so far as I was concerned, was “swinging.” In other words, his work was profound as “swinging the blues,” dealing with the fundamentals of life. When you are dealing with that, you are dealing with something as basic as myths and fairy tales. The language that he was using was English, and he made the language “swing.” Faulkner was almost like “church language”. Hemingway’s language was “swinging language.” It was like it came right out of a newspaper or the radio – but it was poetic that was based on simplicity but it was dealing with something that was very complicated and very profound.
JJM The quality of the writers you were influenced by is what is so striking
AM Well, that is what we were trying to become!
JJM It has been suggested that your work and Ellison’s is the literary equivalent of jazz. Ellison was quoted in an interview as saying that his strength “comes from an eclectic group, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Hot Lips Page, Mark Twain…”
AM Yes, these are examples of men who made an “aesthetic” effort. What were they trying to do? To us, they were trying to “swing.” To “swing” means to see human behavior at its best – when it is elegant. That’s what swinging is. Elegant behavior is the highest thing that a human being can do, to do something that is not only practical, but pretty! The blues confront the basic problems of the “nothingness of life.” It makes form out of it. The blues represent chaos and you confront the fact that life is chaos. You have to build the form on that, and the form has got to be beautiful.
JJM How did you handle it when you had the blues?
AM All I can tell you is what I have been doing.
JJM Listening to music is a critical and effective way of dealing with the blues, as you say, “stomping the blues.”
AM What the average American may think when they hear “stomping the blues” is whamming it down with something like a sledgehammer or something – but snapping your fingers, now that’s stomping the blues! The more elegantly you can respond to the blues, the more likely you are to put them down. In other words, if you don’t get sad, or if you don’t cry, if you snap your fingers at it, then that holds the blues at bay. That is the story of the blues, “holding them at bay.” A Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker masterpiece can hold them at bay time and time again. Their work is indestructable and in elegant form. You play a pop tune and it might drive the blues away temporarily, but after a few months of playing that tune, it will give you the blues! Now, you play the opening of Armstrong’s West End Blues, it will knock out the blues every day!
JJM Yes, the work is timeless
AM Yes, you can play it time and time again, but a pop tune will bore the hell out of you in six months.
JJM You said that jazz is not just a kind of music, but a way of feeling and knowing, in fact you said it is the “definitive aesthetic form of American life.” Explain this please.
AM That is based on improvisation. The early settlers, the first explorers, that is based on improvisation. They don’t know what’s going to happen next, right? But they have aspiration to face the unknown, but they adjust to it, improvise, which means you have to be alert at all times. A contemporary example would be to turn on the television and look at the stock market, and think about how that represents American life. Anybody who wakes up in the morning and decides before seeing the news how he is going to spend his money is going to lose his money in the stock market. It’s like a jazz tune, you really don’t know what you are going to play until you hear the other guys playing. Now, understand, that is a lightweight illustration of what I mean. I don’t mean to say that the stock market is like a jazz jam session, but you see improvisation everywhere. If you went to college to learn one thing but it did not apply to their every day problems of existence., you learned as you went along. Jazz is improvisation, and it synsthesized everything. There was a disposition to choreograph life. When Africans came here, they had their own dances, and they couldn’t speak the language here, and couldn’t even speak to themselves because there weren’t enough people speaking their language, so they couldn’t really speak to one another except in English. So they were the first Americans, culturally speaking. People that came over from Europe brought a lot of things with them, for instance, if they made cheese in the old country they would come to America and make cheese. But when so many different people came from so many different places, they couldn’t communicate with one another, except in English.
JJM I have a question about music. To answer critics who felt Louis Armstrong’s stage antics embodied “Uncle Tom behavior,” Ellison makes a case that Dizzy Gillespie’s stage antics or Miles Davis’ performances of indifference were also means of “selling out.” He defends Armstrong further with the viewpoint that at least Armstrong was determined to keep his music “deeply meaningful and swinging.” How did the musicians of the bebop era feel about Ralph Ellison? Did they have any opinion about Ellison’s view of their work?
AM Not that I know of. I didn’t know too many artists who were book oriented, who had philosophical analysis of Ellison. They were artists, involved with the technology of that particular art form. There were stories of what they were doing, and their magnificent development, but they didn’t spend a lot time analyzing it.
JJM Did Ellison feel bebop was a threat to the traditions and rituals of the music?
AM He was interested in the refinement and an extension of jazz, and that was considered valid. If the music became self-indulgent or pretentious, he would criticize it. It is the same principal that anyone else takes if you are a serious person. If you are following a fad, you are always going to overstate it in interest of your enthusiasm for it.
JJM It’s easy to understand that his musical heroes came from the Lester Young era
AM Serious musicians are like any great artist. They find their approach to something and they develop it. Journalists, every six or eight years, they move away from bop and they talk about “cool” or “modal.” That’s “journalism.” Journalists try to find something new all the time. It’s superficial. The people who are not critical, they don’t have to keep up with it. So, they live in a “state of hysteria.” If you are not sufficiently “historical” in your understanding of something, your behavior or your responses are going to be “hysterical” because you are not coming out of a rich enough background to make a solid judgment that might have some endurance or duration. People at one time thought of jazz as “folk.” There are three levels of aesthetic statement: “folk” level, the “pop” level, and the “fine arts” level, which is the highest development of a technique, which is art that will last. Armstrong’s “West End Blues” or Ellington’s “Cottontail” or “Ornithology” from Charlie Parker or some pieces from Miles Davis are on a “fine arts” level.
JJM I think we are both in agreement that whether it be “West End Blues” or “Kind of Blue,” its fine art
AM It’s fine art because of the sophistication of the idea, the mastery of the technique involved in making the statement
JJM But is there a point, as Ellison talks about, where the music become too intellectual for the culture or the ritual? Is that a problem bebop created for itself?
AM It’s a problem for people who are dealing with this thing on a journalistic or popular level. Tastes change every ten years, understand? The average person thinks of music on the level of “pop”. Pop is what is current. It has a wider audience and the most ephemeral appreciation. So, let’s not confuse what the real problem is, it depends on how seriously you take it.
JJM I want to read something that knocked me out. This was in the notes to Ellison’s novel Juneteenth. “A great religious leader is a ‘master of ecstacy.’ He evokes emotions that move beyond the rational on to the mystical. A jazz musician does something the same. By his manipulation of sound and rhythm, he releases movements and emotions which allow for the transcendence of everyday reality.” It’s an interesting philosophy, and I immediately think of John Coltrane as a “master of ecstacy.” Who were Ellison’s “masters of ecstacy” in his view of jazz musicians who moved their work from the “rational to the mystical?”
AM Well, you like the statement so you are applying it to someone you like. In Ellison’s judgement of artistic appreciation there are going to be some variations. People can generally agree on certain masterpieces, but they don’t write about them with the same amount of emotional excitement. So, it’s hard to really apply that. He may not have been all that enthusiastic about John Coltrane, it doesn’t mean he considered him invalid or anything like that, but he would have thought his art was exaggerated if he played something he couldn’t see. It doesn’t matter if “West End Blues” is older or younger than Beethoven’s Fifth, what is important in art is will it endure? At Lincoln Center, they play much more Bach, much more Beethoven, Chopin, than they play Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. In jazz, journalists desire a more popular form. They say that the jazz played there is “old.” They don’t feel that way when talking about the Philharmonic. If you want to apply to what Ellison said, he might not agree with you that Coltrane achieved that ultimate level.
JJM The connection I make with Coltrane is that Ellison’s statement is relating this thing about an artist moving his work from the rational to the mystical, and Coltrane
AM I understand that, but the point is you can say that about anything you like. You gave me an example of what sort of art you like, and I may say, “Oh man, I don’t see that at all.” It’s a matter of personal taste. The question is whether a large number of people would say that over a long period of time. Now, whether you like Louis Armstrong or not, a song like “Up a Lazy River” sounds as good now as it did then. The jazz critics and audience is going for the “latest” thing, whereas at the Philharmonic, they are playing the most “enduring” thing.
JJM In a 1957 letter to you, Ellison refers to his second novel in progress, which was posthumously released as Juneteenth. He had been writing a number of letters to you throughout the 1950’s, and the novel came up quite often, but this is the statement that is most compelling to me. He writes, “I am going to whip the damn thing but it is giving me a tough fight. It just looks as though every possible emotional disturbance has to happen to me before I can finish the book.” What emotional obstacles were being presented to him, and can you shed some light on why his second book was 40 years in the making?
AM The only thing I can say is that he had so many things going on. As John Callahan would tell you, he had stacks of manuscripts. He wasn’t “stuck,” like he wasn’t writing anything. He was working on a number of things, the problem was getting them to work. My impression was that he would be in a certain situation of a narrative, and he wanted to bring two things together, and, like they do in the movies, where the director shouts “Cut, two!”. He would be in that type of situation, a “Cut, two!” transition. He became so fascinated with the transitions and the options.
JJM Did Ellison closely associate himself with the character, the Reverend Hickman? Do you think he saw himself in that character?
AM He was all of them, in a way. There were a number of characters that were not in Juneteenth that were also very functional in the narrative sense – of the construction of the narrative. In Juneteenth, the editor (John Callahan) was concerned with the strongest narrative sequence that would give the reader the least amount of trouble in following the narrative sequence from that big manuscript. Sequences that made the narrative more complicated are not there. Ralph did not suffer from “writers block.” He had plenty of material. The difficulty was how to sequence the material.
JJM What is the ultimate jazz event that you experienced in person?
AM I was in Morocco and Ralph was in Rome in 1956 when Ellington played Newport, so we missed that It’s hard to separate an event from recorded music. I can remember the impact of records, and being conditioned and developed by the recordings of Armstrong and Ellington and Basie before I saw those people. Records were just being widely distributed, and radio came in. Some people were more excited about the advent of radio than they were about hearing music in person.
JJM Sure, because going to concerts was the only way to experience quality music. You had to physically attend …
AM To answer your question in another way, a high moment in jazz for me was traveling with the Count Basie Orchestra while I was writing Basie’s biography. Spending a couple of days, riding on the bus with the band, doing interviews, things like that. I can remember Ellington rehearsals, concerts, recordings over a period of time that were incredible experiences. It wasn’t like one big epiphany. From the first radio broadcasts back in the 1930’s, hearing “Mood Indigo,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “East St. Louis Toodle-OO,” a song that moved me very deeply. It was his theme song for many years. In his essay “Homage to Duke Ellington on His Birthday,” Ellison writes about how it represented a view of life which we shared. It sounded spiritual, it sounded like gospel, it sounded like the blues, all that
JJM We are from a different generation. You had opportunities to take part in a world that is fascinating to me. I get excited thinking about what it would have been like to go to 52nd Street, or Newport, or LA’s Western Avenue
AM In 1947 or 1948, I had just come out of the Air Force, I went to graduate school at NYU. At that time, most of the graduate courses were at night. I would be getting off school at 9:30 or 10:00. I would come up to 52nd Street and stop at the Three Deuces and see Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Max Roach. These were the great innovators in jazz! The area from Broadway to 7th Avenue, and that strip from 7th and 6th Avenues, where CBS is now, and the block between 6th and 5th, where the 21 Club is now. You could zig zag across the street throughout that area, and there must have been 15 or 20 spots to hear jazz. I do remember being there and feeling the excitement around Parker being the “new, hot thing.” This must have been 1947. He was at the Three Deuces. A whole lot of these experiences stand out, going backstage to see Duke Ellington, and to hear the Ellington band when they played the “Deep South Suite” and the “Liberian Suite.” I was there to hear all that. It helped develop my relationship with Ellington. I was introduced to Ellington by Harry Carney, who had a cousin who not only went to Tuskeegee but was in the Air Force with me. My friend told me that when I go to New York to be sure to say hello to Harry Carney. Carney then took me in and introduced me to Duke.
JJM What is your most vivid memory of Duke Ellington? What do you think about when you think about Ellington?
AM That’s pretty hard to answer. You just had to see him in various situations. In my book, Seven League Boots, the character called “Bossman” was created around a lot of the experiences I had with Ellington.
JJM Did any of the reaction to the Ken Burns broadcast surprise you at all?
AM In what way?
JJM I am a fan of jazz and was appreciative of what Burns did, especially in bringing the culture of jazz as a whole to the average viewer. I was struck by how people found reason to criticize Burns’ work based on who was left out of the production, or what may have been dwelled on in his storyline. It goes from something as simple as a fan’s frustration of not having artists like Wes Montgomery or Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the film to the opinion that he didn’t pay homage enough to the bebop era, that his documentary was mostly of the swing and Louis Armstrong school. Were you surprised by some of the reaction to it?
AM Well, I was involved in it, so I don’t have much to say, and I am much more involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center than I was in that particular film. The objective of Jazz at Lincoln Center is to present jazz as a “fine art” and not just a “pop” art. People are confused about whether certain music is pop, or whether it’s fine art. If it’s pop, then they react in a way that says “well, you didn’t cover this, you didn’t cover that.” As I said earlier, there is so much confusion around jazz as to what is “pop” and what is “fine art.” Critics are not going to criticize anyone if they play Bach instead of Aaron Copland, just because Copland is more recent than Bach. To me, that’s crap, that’s adolescent. Certain music forms are not sufficiently developed and sophisticated. There may be something that people are excited about, but the background that is brought into it must be worthwhile, other than personal preferences. I thought there was a lot of “pop” in the Burns film. Once you get into “pop” you have to be up to date. The argument is that it was as if nothing has happened since the end of the period Burns’ film documents. Who said he was dealing with a comprehensive, completely detailed record of jazz? I never thought that was his purpose. If you stopped jazz with World War II, you would still have a body of classic American music, if you stopped music at 1941. You would have a form of American music that qualifies as “fine art.” Just as if you stopped documenting music at World War I, you would have a great body of classical music as “fine art.”
JJM Perhaps much of the frustration was a result of not truly understanding what Burns’ motive as a filmmaker is. He is a documentarian, but mostly he is a story teller. His interest was not to be an encyclopedia but to tell a story, and sometimes when a story is told some of the sidebars aren’t told. He chose to tell the story within three or four main characters, and his hope was to endear people to the culture through these people. If he had tried to merely pump in information for the sake of informing, and if that was his style from the start, he never would have got to the point in his career to even make this film…
AM I don’t know what you mean by “information.” To me, there are a number of different ways to make a valid documentary about jazz. Is it about music, or is it about people or is it about other things? If it’s about music, and you wanted it to be about people, you would be unhappy. You could put in ordinary performances simply because you have the footage, and that would be one thing. If you pick out what you consider to be masterpieces you just have to go with that. I am a writer, I have to pick out what I want to go with. Either they like it or they don’t. If I try to be as good as I can be, as comprehensive as I can be, and as profound as I can be, I have the freedom to make it as complex as I feel like. The other night I was watching a story about Vesuvius on the History Channel. They didn’t have to tell me about the whole history of the Roman Empire, to tell me about Vesuvius. What you do have to know is what cultural elements were destroyed, and what we can learn from it because of what has been excavated.
The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
Ralph Ellison products at Amazon.com
Albert Murray products at Amazon.com
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan