At another time in my life, the news that Albert Murray had passed on yesterday at the age of 97 would have caused me to clear my decks for the afternoon and probably well into the night for the bittersweet task of writing an obituary for one of my heroes for Omnivoracious. In this space, with my number of readers and my number of recent posts both approaching the x-axis, I don't feel so ceremonial a need, but still...
I've said before that I'm not much of a completist as a reader, and that's the case even with a hero (a word he liked to use himself) such as Murray. Of his dozen or so books, I've actually only read his great manifesto, The Omni-Americans, his as-told-to (auto)biography of Count Basie, and Trading Twelves, the too-short collection of his correspondence with his friend Ralph Ellison. Stomping the Blues, South to a Very Old Place, and others are waiting for me on the shelf. But from those few, and from what I've read about him, I have an idea of him I've held to, as a feisty and stylish battler, a patiently self-made intellectual, a passionate friend of other artists, and an idea man whose interest in integration was founded in his unapologetic, joyful confidence that African American culture was as creative and complex (one of his and Ellison's favorite words) as any American culture, if not more so: that it was American culture. (By the way, I love everything about the cover of the Da Capo reissue of The Omni-Americans--I love so many of their reissues!--except the subtitle, "Black Experience and American Culture," which doesn't match the feistier and far more evocative original, which at least still appears on the title page inside the book: "Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy.")
And as I learned more about him I found especially appealing the path of his late-blooming career, in which he rejoined the Air Force in his mid-30s, just before his pal Ellison suddenly became a literary star with Invisible Man, and spent a decade or two revving up in anonymity to write his first book. But then, as Ellison got bogged down in living up to the accolades of his great (and only finished) novel, Murray hit his stride with The Omni-Americans and South to a Very Old Place. Though he remained relatively unknown, he was writing--often about ideas he and Ellison shared--while Ralph wasn't, and for a long time it soured their friendship, at least from Ellison's side.
The New York Times has a lengthy (and probably long-composed--the man was 97!) obituary, but the place to go to read--or in my case this evening, re-read--about Murray, aside from his own books, is Henry Louis Gates's wonderful profile from 1996, which the New Yorker has appropriately made available to nonsubscribers as well today. (By the way, the Times features my favorite photo of Murray, the one to the right with Ellison, taken by Fred W. McDarrah. I just adore the look of pleasure and admiration on Murray's face.)
And, if you have it handy, I'd also recommend looking into Trading Twelves, a spirited record of a decade of his friendship with Ellison--the only period in their lives when they weren't both living in New York, and therefore the only time when they wrote each other regularly. Part of the fascination is seeing ideas and experiences shared equally between these two men, as one becomes famous and the other bides his time, a situation made most evident in the mid-50s when they were living on opposite sides of the Mediterranean: Ellison on a fellowship at the exclusive American Academy in Rome, and Murray in Morocco as an officer in the Air Force. Here's an longish excerpt from a letter of Murray's from November 2, 1955, that gives a flavor of some of the voices and subjects they exchanged, as he responded first to a funny story of Ellison's about running into the drummer Jo Jones and then to his qualified admiration of a favorite book of mine, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian:
Good to hear from you, man. Good to hear you in there riffing like that. But then you're bound to be riffing if you're cutting dots for that goddamned Jonathan Jones. He's every bit as crazy as that goddamned Sonny-assed Greer, the main difference being that he drinks only cokes and claims to be a narcotics agent. You got to hit em and git, blowing over that Birmingham-KC tempo, Jim. Remember what he told that fay drummer that time. This poor square cat was clunking and plunking up there on 52nd and one night he looked out there's old Jo sitting there not even looking. Whereupon this cat falls to and commences to fair-thee-well all but cook supper on them skins as only a grayboy feels he's got to do. Sweated himself into a double krupa trying to make old Jo take notice, then at the end of the set he came over and asked if he dug him. "You're distorting me, man," old Jo lectured him right then and there, his teeth set into that razor-edged footlights not-smile, his eyes crowfooted, his nose narrow, his voice nasal, "This way, man, this way. Lighten up, lighten up and loosen up. Watch your elbows, man. Watch your shoulders. What you mad about? It's music, man, music, music. From here man, here, here, here. It's heart and soul, pardner. Man, you're distorting the hell out of me." Man, that cat didn't use nothing but brushes the rest of the night....
By the way, speaking of reading, I did "Hadrian's Memoirs" last spring. Found it completely absorbing. Also picked up some of Robert Graves' Roman stuff.
But speaking of books, man, I've bought SEVENTY since I've been here. Regular editions, condition good to excellent. GI library salvage sale. TEN CENTS EACH!! Stuff like this: Ten volumes of that Rivers of America series, Six volumes of the American Folkways series (Deep Delta Country, Palmetto Country, High Border Country, etc), Van Tilburg Clark's City of Trembling Leaves, Track of the Cat; Mencken's Supplement One; Buckmaster's Let My People Go; Perry Miller's Jonathan Edwards; Robber Barons; The Big Con; The Great Rehearsal; Reveille in Washington; Douglas Moore's From Madrigal to Modern Music; Gods, Graves and Scholars; Michener's Voice of Asia, Return to Paradise; Capa's Slightly out of Focus; Vincent Sheean; etc, etc.... Good thing old Uncle Sugar is hauling this stuff around for me for free.
We've now taken a small villa and have just about gotten settled into the new routine. Mique of course never missed a beat, school nor otherwise. And Moque you know just lays in there strumming like old Freddie Green does in that Basie rhythm section. Me, I'm zeroed in and zunking. We were in a hotel for five weeks, but now we're out in one of the quartiers.
Mique (his daughter, Michelle, who later danced with Alvin Ailey) and Moque (his wife, Mozelle, who must be well into her nineties herself now) both survive him.
P.S. And then I woke up this morning to the news that we lost another hero, Elmore Leonard. Rather than clearing another day's decks, I'll point you to my appreciation of the great Dutch that I already linked to near the top of this post.