The Omni-american


Murray used a career in the Air Force (he left a major) to become a world traveler. Stationed in Morocco in the mid-fifties, he hopped the Mediterranean to Paris, Rome, and Athens, sampling their cafés and cultural treasures. Shipped to Massachusetts, he became a habitué of Cambridge jazz- and book-loving circles. He already had haunted late-forties Manhattan while earning a master’s degree at New York University.

In 1962 he and his wife, Mozelle, and daughter, Michele, settled in New York City. There he remained, pursuing his writer’s vocation in earnest and cultivating friendships with New York-based jazz musicians from Ellington to Wynton Marsalis, whose intellectual development Murray has overseen in almost fifteen years of discussions, arguments, and bull sessions. Murray serves on the board of directors of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which doesn’t begin to indicate his impact on the influential concert series. He is its philosopher-in-residence.

Murray’s thought isn’t hard to summarize; one of the admirable things about the set of ideas he unshyly calls Cosmos Murray is that it is a cosmos. His views add up to a cohesive, elegant whole, making him a rarity in today’s attenuated intellectual world: a system builder, a visionary in the grand manner.

He grounds his thought in the notion of literature as “equipment for living,” not a disinterested contemplation of the world but an active engagement with it. The basic literary motive, says Murray—storytelling—inheres in every human being; indeed, without inventing stories and metaphors to order our raw experience, we would be unable to function. The artist, playing, improvising, shaping, becomes the model for the rest of us, who struggle to wrest meaning from the flux and chaos that underpin our lives, our brief term on earth. The artists with the clearest vision of the nothingness at the heart of human existence, Hemingway, Mann, and Malraux, make up Murray’s pantheon, into which he inducts a fourth member, Ellington.

JAZZ, IN FACT, PROVIDES MURRAY WITH HIS KEY concept, the “blues idiom,” a phrase he uses to describe both his heroes’ artistic method and their unsentimental view of the world. For him, blues idiom has a double meaning. On the one hand, it connects with “down-home Negro USA,” the Deep Southern birthplace of the blues and jazz, but on the other, it transcends ethnic connotations. It is the aesthetic of the novelist, painter, or jazz musician who has mastered the high-wire act of affirming his existence, of celebrating himself, in the face of adversity. Adversity might be the grinding misery of Negro slavery or the lack of meaning modern, existential man sees at the root of all life. Life may be pointless, but it is nonetheless livable if approached with the courage and physical grace of a Hemingway toreador, or the novelist’s shaping eye, or the jazz musician’s joy in pulling beauty, wit, and meaning from thin air. For Murray, any great artist is doing the same thing: keeping what he calls the blue devils of nada at bay.


That is the central idea of the small book that underlies Murray’s entire project, The Hero and the Blues , whose final chapter, “The Blues and the Fable in the Flesh,” is as exciting a piece of intellectual trailblazing as anything written in the last quarter-century. Murray’s coupling of jazz with literature—with all the fine arts, via their defining activity, the improvising creativity of the human mind—is a lasting achievement and one that likely will be built on by others in years to come.

In the end Murray may endure more as a thinker than as a novelist (he would strenuously disagree; he sees himself as a writer of fiction). In any case, his best prose is wonderful indeed. Jazz isn’t just a source of ideas for Murray; he has worked hard to model the rhythms of his sentences on those of jazz. His best-written books, Train Whistle Guitar and South to a Very Old Place , are studded with the rolling cadences of down-home speech, perfectly grasped.

In South to a Very Old Place he imitates the child-loving, baby-talking women he grew up surrounded by, sliding, sentence by sentence, into high-grade nonsense: “Play the little man for Mama, Albert Lee. Just play the little man for Mama. That’s all right about that old booger man. You just be the little man for Mama. You just be my little Mister Buster Brown man. Mama’s little Buster Brown man ain’t scared of no booger man and nothing else. Mama’s little man ain’t scared of nobody and nothing in creation, or tarnation either. Because Mama’s little man is Mama’s BIG man, just like him daddy that’s what him is. That’s exactly what him is, betchem bones. Him momom Mittchem Buttchem Bwown. Momoms itchem bittchem Mittchem Buttchem Bwown; betchem tweet bones.”