We were at dinner with Stanley Crouch tonight, and I brought up Albert Murray. Stanley did the math and concluded that Murray was 97. After getting home, we all learned that Murray had actually just passed away a few hours ago.
Albert Murray's great observation was that all Americans are both black and white; that nobody here is racially pure no matter what neighborhood they are from. In 1970, when he brought out this thesis in The Omni-Americans, it shocked Black Nationalists. In some circles he was never forgiven.
Murray changed tactics slightly in Stomping the Blues from 1976, where he highlighted the primacy of the black experience in blues and jazz music. This shocked certain white jazz critics and fans, and once again, in some circles he was never forgiven.
While his theoretical essays on writing like The Hero and the Blues are always intriguing, Murray's fictional novels I always found tough going. Even though Murray's command of bluesy English is impeccable there isn't usually enough dramatic tension for my taste. Murray loved the idea of "hero" and his leads always seemed to be almost too heroic, or at least lacking enough obstacles.
There's an amusing moment in Good Morning Blues when Basie says of Murray (his collaborator):
There is also that little four-bar riff that my co-writer likes to run down. He says that as a child you are forever putting yourself in the place of the heroes in whatever storybooks you know about. So he says, "When you set out from home to seek your fortune in the world at large, you really are trying to accomplish something that will turn the bright-eyed little honeybunch or sly-eyed little rascal into a prince or king or duke, or even a Count."
Murray was much more than the Omni-theorem, the blues, and the hero, but those were his main three riffs. I've always forgiven any small imperfections because of his exceptional rarity. He is especially important for anyone who writes about jazz or any other kind of black music: if you're in that mix, you gotta deal with Albert Murray.
Duke Ellington on the dust jacket of Train Whistle Guitar (as quoted in Stanley Crouch's "Chitlins at the Waldorf"):
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.