America’s current self-inflicted disasters — mass unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and state violence — were even more entrenched during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Then, as now, Americans suffered acutely from what writer Albert Murray calls “the blues as such” a state in which “You become afflicted as if infected by some miasma-generating microbe. You feel down-hearted and uncertain. You are woebegone and anxiety-ridden.”
During that decade, the country perfected jazz — a homegrown form that transformed everyday difficulties into high art, as artists like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald fronted big bands in jam-packed Swing-era dance halls across the country.
Murray came of age back then, when brutal circumstances coincided with buoyant Modernism. That curious juxtaposition became his lifelong muse.
Long-revered as co-author of Count Basie’s autobiography Good Morning Blues (1985) and for his formative role in establishing Jazz at Lincoln Center, Murray, in his final decades — he died in 2013 at the age of 97 — won wider recognition as a major American writer and thinker. The Library of America produced his Collected Essays & Memoirs (2016) and Collected Novels & Poems (2018). His many talks, interviews and monographs are reappearing, including this year’s 50th anniversary republication of The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy (2020).
Murray was born in 1916, in Nokomis, Alabama, and raised just outside of Mobile — fictionalized as “Gasoline Point” in Train Whistle Guitar (1971) — an environment rich with workaday music: fire-and-brimstone sermons, barbershop philosophers, riffing itinerant guitarists and pianists, and thunderous freight trains.
Studying literature at Tuskegee Institute and later at NYU, he devoured Modernist novels that drew on musical structures, like those by German author Thomas Mann, readings that incubated his theories about jazz as an exemplary fine art form. Stationed in Morocco while in the US Air Force in the mid-1950s, he gave public talks on jazz. By then he knew it as well as anyone alive. In New York, he sat in on Duke Ellington’s recording sessions and hung out in thriving jazz venues with friend and fellow jazz fan, novelist Ralph Ellison.
Rereading Murray’s writings for this review felt revitalizing, the way I imagine jazz must have sounded when it defied the stifled and stifling Victorian era. Unlike much contemporary writing about art, which can easily veer into secondhand academic obscurantism, Murray anchors sophisticated ideas about art to “downhome” realities, and his steady humor cuts down cultural pretenses — characteristics that remind me of the Albert Murray I met years back in a roundtable seminar at the 92nd Street Y about his book The Blue Devils of Nada (1996), which examines the technical correspondences between jazz and Modernist literature and painting.
In that long-ago jam session, he had us riff on our ideas while he soloed. Recalling that the future author of The Sun Also Rises (1926) picked up his spare storytelling style from the copy manual of the The Kansas City Star as a reporter in 1917, Murray cited parallels between the crisp syncopations in Count Basie’s Kansas City stride-style piano and the rat-tat-tat tempos in Ernest Hemingway’s percussive prose.
These musical equivalencies inform visual art, too. Murray explores how Romare Bearden uses a jazz-derived compositional method to paint fabulist cityscapes by “vamping” his visual medium until he arrives at a pictorial “downbeat” and “first chorus,” punctuating the unfolding imagery through “intervals.” Bearden harmonizes the idiomatic “sololike” features of the city into “ensembles,” and “call-and-response” patterns linked through the artist’s “section tonalities” and “leapfrog sequences.”
This confidence about art as transformational, elegant play conceals the covert pessimism behind it. In Murray Talks Music, he tells former protégé, jazz great Wynton Marsalis, that suffering — “having the blues as such” — is a terminal condition. “You wake up in the morning,” he tells Marsalis, “and realize that if you really look hard at what some of your possibilities are, life is a low-down dirty shame that shouldn’t happen to a dog.”
The arts offer a stylized response to an existential dead end. “We invented the blues,” he tells another interviewer, “Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need.”
In Murray’s view, jazz converts psychological pain and its vernacular offshoots into ritualized, polytonal, integrated music and dance. Jazz adapts and expands the written scores that the musician follows and ultimately surpasses; its best improvisers are extemporizing formalists learning from and competing with the innovations of peers, collaborators, and forerunners. Its refinements universalize the particular, dissolving personal history and psychosocial baggage, and call participants into the mythic dimension — an aesthetic realm that involves getting on the dusty dance floor.
When Murray brought this critical evangelism about the blues to bear on American crises over racial division and social justice, he suddenly became a public intellectual. Published in 1970, The Omni-Americans was a rebuke to American Afrocentrism ascendant during the reactionary Nixon era.
The book dismantles American Black separatism as a regressive, escapist fantasy that cedes the premise of white supremacy — the Balkanization of the country by race — to the nation’s bigots. Though he necessarily deploys them to make his points, misleading or reductive labels infuriate Murray, who believes that being American involves being neither wholly Black nor wholly white, while insisting that Blackness be defined as a characteristic as primarily American as whiteness has been since the country’s founding.
American “cryptic and submerged revolt” transcends skin pigmentation and includes Black Americans as immediate participants in the nation’s origins and evolution. Harriet Tubman is a “pioneer hero” because her intrepid Underground Railroad channels the subversive stealth that cast off colonial British rule; Fredrick Douglass is “a more heroic embodiment of the [American] self-made man” than even Abraham Lincoln.
And white progressives, mind your complicity in the racism you denounce. Murray indicts “white liberal do-gooders whose concern for the welfare of black people may be beyond reproach but whose opinion or esteem for them is often so low that it moves beyond condescension to contempt.”
Fifty years on, such liberal hypocrisy is endemic to hyper-gentrified gluten-free neighborhoods, where Black Lives Matter posters hang in the windows of pricey condos, boutiques, and galleries — stretches of real estate that once housed working-class Black families and businesses.
The Omni-Americans also debunks our country’s perennial, corporate-and-academe-sponsored liberal punditocracy: “third-rate polemicists” with their “social science fictions,” who enrich themselves on TV gigs and book deals promoting sociological “safari studies” and a “fakelore of black pathology” — reductive tropes that, in turn, have corrosive effects on creative culture when artists and writers (peers whom Murray names) sacrifice psychological complexity to appease white stereotypes about Black experience.
He warns about the danger to young Americans posed by an education system that “emphasizes conformity […], producing a nation of jargon and cliché-oriented white sheep,” even as white separatists are “armed to the teeth and on the edge of hysteria.” Backed by the “murderous hysteria of white police […], white Americans […] in the name of law and order now sanction measures […] that are more in keeping with the objections of a police state than those of an open society.”
He calls on those seeking justice to get over moralizing and sloganeering to be “involved with the practical requirements of government in action” and to learn the “chord structure and progression of official maneuvers,” noting that, “[t]he corporate structure of contemporary life in the U.S. is just simply not something you can ignore or verbalize out of existence.”
The Omni-Americans asks citizens to apply the jazz performer’s well-honed sensitivity and improvisational openness to the nation’s orchestral “score” – The US Constitution. In The Hero and the Blues (1973), he allegorizes America as Duke Ellington’s ensemble, its grandeur built on “antagonistic cooperation,” synthesizing combustible, contrarian energies into “blues extension concertos,” where the soloist:
[…] states, asserts, alleges, quests, requests, or only implies, while the trumpets in the background sometimes mock and sometimes concur as the woodwinds moan or groan in the agony and ecstasy of sensual ambivalence and the trombones chant concurrence or signify misgivings and even suspicions (which are as likely to be bawdy as plaintive) with the rhythm section attesting or affirming […]. He is also stylizing […] the actual texture of all human existence not only in the United States or even the contemporary world at large but also in all places throughout the ages.
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Excellent piece. I’d substitute “tragic realism” for “pessimism,” but otherwise the essay is on the money.
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