6 minute read

Albert L Murray Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Nokomis, Alabama, 1916. Education: Tuskegee Institute, B.S. 1939; New York University, M.A. 1948; postgraduate work at University of Michigan, 1940, Northwestern University, 1941, and University of Paris, 1950. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1943-62, including service during World War II; retired as major. Career: Instructor, Tuskegee Institute, 1940-43, 1946-51, director of College Little Theatre; lecturer, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, 1968; O'Connor Professor of Literature, Colgate University, 1970, O'Connor Lecturer, 1973, professor of humanities, 1982; visiting professor of literature, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1971; Paul Anthony Brick lecturer, University of Missouri, 1972; writer in residence, Emory University, Atlanta, 1978; adjunct associate professor of creative writing, Barnard College, 1981-83; Woodrow Wilson fellow, Drew University, 1983; Dupont visiting professor, Washington and Lee University, 1993; lecturer and participant in symposia. Awards: Lillian Smith award for fiction, 1974; Deems Taylor award for music criticism (ASCAP), 1976; Lincoln Center Directors Emeriti award, 1991; Literature Achievement award (National Book Critics Circle), 1997; Harper Lee award for Literary Excellence (Alabama Writer's Forum), 1998. Litt.D., Colgate University, 1975; Doctor of humane letters, Spring Hill College, 1996.



Train Whistle Guitar. New York, McGraw, 1974.

The Spyglass Tree. New York, Pantheon, 1991.

The Seven League Boots. New York, Pantheon, 1996.


Television Programs: Newport Jazz '90 (cowriter, with others). WETA-TV, 1990.


The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (essays). Outerbridge & Dientsfrey, 1970; published as The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy. St. Paul, Minnesota, Vintage Book, 1983.

South to a Very Old Place (memoir). New York, McGraw, 1972.

The Hero and the Blues (lectures). Columbia, University of MissouriPress, 1973.

Stomping the Blues. New York, McGraw, 1976.

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (with CountBasie). New York, Random House, 1985.

Reflections on Logic, Politics, and Reality: A Challenge to the Sacred Consensus of Contemporary American Thinking. Riverdale, New York, Braimanna Publishers, 1989.

Contributor, Alabama Bound: Contemporary Stories of a State, edited by James E. Colquitt. Livingston, Alabama, Livingston Press, 1995.

The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement. New York, Pantheon, 1996.

Romare Bearden in Black-and-White: Photomontage Projections, 1964. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997

* * *

Albert Murray has had a profound influence on American art since World War II. A brilliant cultural critic, novelist, essayist, and biographer, Murray's artistry is found in his description of the forms and meanings of the blues and jazz. Robert O'Meally explains that "more than any other writer, he has taken on the complex task of naming the aspects of performances by blues-idiom musicians, and then of saying with precision what it is that makes such performances so irresistible to audiences and dancers, so definitive of their time and culture." Murray's works include The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture, South to a Very Old Place, Train Whistle Guitar, Stomping the Blues, The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots, and The Blue Devils of Nada.

Murray's first work, The Omni-Americans, is a clear defense of African-American culture found in a collection of essays, commentaries, and reviews dealing with politics, literature, and music. His next work, South to a Very Old Place, is an autobiographical memoir of his youth and a celebration of black culture. The Hero and the Blues is a collection of Murray's Paul Anthony Brick lectures at the University of Missouri on ethical implications of literary esthetics. Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, and The Seven League Boots constitute "the Scooter trilogy." Train Whistle Guitar begins the saga of Scooter by telling the story of his childhood in the deep South of the 1920s. The Spyglass Tree then follows Murray's resilient, intelligent, vibrant, and universal protagonist to an imaginary Alabama college in the 1930s. The last novel in the trilogy, The Seven League Boots, recounts Scooter's experiences as a bass player in a touring jazz band following his graduation from college. During the Scooter trilogy, Murray also wrote Stomping the Blues, an examination of the redefinition of blues music and its connection to American culture, and Good Morning Blues, a biography of Count Basie. The Blue Devils of Nada, a more recent work, focuses on the creative process, what he calls "the vernacular imperative for American aesthetics."

In all of Murray's works, one encounters the people and places of the blues, and the author's theories on jazz and the blues seek to define a modern consciousness and create a new archetype of the American hero known as the "blues hero." An opposition of the unhappy reality presented in the blues music with improvisation by the dancers, musicians, and even the music itself implies the role of the hero, who may not always win but who will most assuredly always go down swinging. According to Murray, "the blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people. It's the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people. Jazz is only possible in a climate of freedom." It is this elemental differentiation between the blues as a feeling of despondency and blues music, which brings people happiness by gathering them together to dance and sing and flirt and "stomp" the blues away, that is a reoccurring theme in Murray's work.

Murray not only writes about the blues and uses the music as a basis for his philosophy, he also imitates the art form in his prose, which Larry Neal calls the "acoustical iconography" of language. This musical emulation provides a unique framework for Murray's novels that are, according to O'Meally, "arrangements of verbal vamps, breaks, riffs, choruses, and out choruses—rhythmically repeated figures analogous to … Basie's 'One O'Clock Jump' or Leadbelly's 'Good Morning Blues."' In his long passages of dialogue and monologue, and in his lyric description, Murray's language dances across the page, intruding on the reader's awareness and impressing rhythmic order in the story. Through a unique creative process, Murray has found a way to actually write the blues.

Murray is regarded as one of the nation's best black Southern writers, yet he doesn't regard himself as such. Rather, he chooses to be known as an "all American writer." Working to establish a foundation for a national identity, Murray describes the American culture as "mulatto," a race of interrelated, multicolored people, and focuses on the irony of intolerance existing in a sophisticated society such as the United States. Whether he regards himself as a black writer or not, Murray has been a very real inspiration for several generations of African-American writers ever since he burst onto the scene with The Omni Americans, which challenged its readers to undertake the hard, honest work of accepting his vision of the mulatto culture. Accused in the past of fostering racism when he was, above all, attempting to transcend racial peripheries, Murray today offers his elegant "blues aesthetic," steeped in black cultural tradition, for engaging in the turmoil of subsistence.

Murray is indisputably America's great literary practitioner of the blues idiom, the creator of a bold, new, elegant, lyrical style comprised of the black folk tradition, the Southern tradition of storytelling, the rumination of Faulkner, the wordplay of Joyce along with the cadences and idioms of African-American speech. Duke Ellington said it best when he once explained: "Albert Murray is a man whose learning did not interfere with understanding. An authority on soul from the days of old, he is right on right back to back and commands respect. He doesn't have to look it up. He already knows. If you want to know, look him up. He is the unsquarest person I know."

Cathy Kelly Power

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) Biography