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Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation

Edited by Barbara A. Baker, with contributio Lons fromuis A Rabb, Roberta S. Mag

Publication Year: 2010

This collection consists of essays written by prominent African American literature, jazz, and Albert Murray scholars, reminiscences from Murray protégés and associates, and interviews with Murray himself. It illustrates Murray’s place as a central figure in African American arts and letters and as an American cultural pioneer.
Born in Nokomis, Alabama, and raised in Mobile, Albert Murray graduated from Tuskegee University, where he later taught, but he has long resided in New York City. He is the author of many critically acclaimed novels, memoirs, and essay collections, among them The Omni-Americans, South to a Very Old Place, Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, and The Seven League Boots. He is also a critic and visual artist, as well as a lifelong friend of and collaborator with artistic luminaries such as Ralph Ellison, Duke Ellington, and Romare Bearden. As such, his life and work are testaments to the centrality of southern and African American aesthetics in American art. Murray is widely viewed as a figure who, through his art and criticism, transforms the “fakelore” of white culture into a new folklore that illustrates the centrality of the blues and jazz idioms and reveals the black vernacular as what is most distinct about American art.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi

Someone told me once that Albert Murray said he would rather be judged on a basketball court than anywhere else because when it comes to sports, people always look for the best player. He has always striven to be the best player in whatever arena he plays, and in all his omni-American perfectionism, he has succeeded. This is the ideal ...


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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-9

No one has more eloquently and thoroughly represented Alabama’s influence on the art and culture of the United States than Albert Murray. The lush landscapes of Murray’s Alabama have always fed his astonishingly imaginative creative capacity and provided a spyglass tree from which he formulates both his poetic vision and his insightful cultural critiques. As a journeyman who ...

Observations, Interpretations, and Conversations

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1. In Response to Being Awarded a Citation for Distinguished Literary Achievement by an Alabamian (2003)

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pp. 13-14

It didn’t take me very long to realize that fairy tales, fables, nursery rhymes, and fire circle and fireside and barbershop lies, store porch and cracker barrel tall tales and yarns, no less than the great national sagas, epics, and classical masterpieces regardless of geographical origin and cultural, which is to say environmental variations, applied to everybody. ...

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2. King of Cats (1996)

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pp. 15-36

In the late seventies, I used to take the train from New Haven to New York on Saturdays, to spend afternoons with Albert Murray at Books & Company on Madison Avenue. We would roam—often joined by the artist Romare Bearden—through fiction, criticism, philosophy, music. Murray always seemed to wind up fingering densely printed paperbacks by Joyce, Mann, Proust, or Faulkner; Bearden, typically, would pick up a copy of something daunting ...

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3. Trading Twelves: The Omni-American Literary Identity of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison

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pp. 37-50

Forgive me for borrowing Senator Obama’s campaign chant. I do so because Albert Murray foretold the call Barack Obama is making to the American people as far back as 1970 in the case he made for multifaceted American identity in The Omni-Americans. During the presidential campaign I heard that same omni-American accent in the voice of my four-year-old African American, Irish American granddaughter. When I asked her ...

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4. Cosmos Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation

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pp. 52-67

What impresses me most about Albert Murray is his drive. As a young man studying on the campus of Tuskegee Institute (University), he seemed already to understand that the classes he was taking and the books he was reading should come together in some grand scheme; race and region and culture and life, and most importantly art, are not only connected to each other but create a synergy that speaks beyond America ...

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5. Albert Murray and Visual Art

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pp. 68-83

Albert Murray has a profound knowledge of and interest in visual art. Unlike writers such as John Updike or John Ashbery, who have impressive side careers as art critics (and artists), Murray is not just a critic and explicator of art (or dabbler in art), but was intimately involved in the production of some of the most important visual statements in American art in the second half of the twentieth century ...

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6. Murray and Mann: Variations on a Theme

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pp. 84-101

As you enter Albert Murray’s Harlem apartment, you find yourself facing, at the far end of the room, a wall of windows that blaze with a dazzling white light on a sunny springtime afternoon. And as you involuntarily shift your glance away from the flood of sunlight that is too bright until your eyes have had a chance to adjust, you take in the immense bookshelves that line the left wall of the room. The bookshelves, in fact, snake throughout Murray’s apartment ...

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7. Dewey’s Pragmatism Extended: Education and Aesthetic Practice in Train Whistle Guitar

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pp. 102-113

Albert Murray readily acknowledges a debt to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, as it was there he began the process that led to his becoming a writer and, as he describes himself, “all-purpose literary intellectual” (Pinsker 207). He recalls not courses especially, but rather Tuskegee’s marvelous library as the site of his real learning while at college. He has said that his major in education was something he “just did on the side” ...

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8. Albert Murray and Tuskegee Institute: Art as the Measure of Place

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pp. 114-129

Some years ago, Albert Murray inscribed my copy of South to a Very Old Place, “For Caroline—who is doing what I once did in these parts, A. Murray, Tuskegee 1935–1939, 1940–1955.” This generous inscription acknowledges a bond—in this case, the fraternity of those who have taught English 101 at Tuskegee. Most important, however, Murray’s inscription underlines the length of time that he spent at Tuskegee Institute ...

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9. A Conversation with Albert Murray (1996)

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pp. 130-137

Don Noble: The three of your books that I know the best, Train Whistle Guitar, South to a Very Old Place, The Spyglass Tree: I hear them described as either quasi-fictional or quasi-autobiographical. They seem to occupy a kind of gray area in between the novel and memoir, between fiction and nonfiction. How do you think of those books in terms of fiction or nonfiction? ...

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10. Albert Murray’s House of Blues (1997)

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pp. 138-145

Natty in velour hat, tailored sports jacket, and knit tie, Albert Murray, son of Mobile, resident of Harlem, prepares for an outing in Manhattan. Although eighty now, the novelist and blues historian is, as always, on the go. His calendar is packed with readings at Yale, Vassar, and the Library of Congress. ...

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11. An Interview with Michele Murray

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pp. 147-154

Understanding Albert Murray’s relationship to dance is crucial to understanding his work. It will help to explain his emphasis on the blues as dance music as well as shed light on why Scooter, the hero of his tetralogy, gives up music in order to (aside from becoming an academic) write the biography of the legendary tap dancer Royal Highness. ...

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12. Conjugations and Reiterations: An Interview with Albert Murray (2003)

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pp. 155-163

Barbara Baker: We’re absolutely delighted to have you here in Alabama with us to receive the Distinguished Artist Award from the Alabama Council on the Arts. I hope you’re happy about that. It’s certainly well deserved. The poems that you just read from Conjugations and Reiterations—I think I told you on the phone that I think this book of poems is like the strawberry on top of the whipped cream on top of the exquisite sundae ...

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13. Murray’s Mulatto America

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pp. 164-177

The year 1970, in the aftermath of the American civil rights movement and in the midst of black nationalism, Albert Murray published his inaugural book, The Omni-Americans. No description of the events that influenced Murray to write The Omni-Americans is more explicit than his own words ...

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14. Chinaberry Tree, Chinaberry Tree

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pp. 179-190

To complement (or to counter) moonlight, mockingbirds, and magnolias— those most stereotypical, romantic emblems of the American South—I wish to propose another iconic trio. Also (if variously) alliterative and much more widely appropriate are (1) blinding, blistering summer sun; (2) crows; and (3) chinaberry trees. ...

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15. Scooter Comes Home

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pp. 191-196

Any which way you turn Albert Murray he is ours, that is, Alabama’s. And we are his. He has helped us see and understand ourselves in ways we never saw or understood ourselves before. In his very act of naming the places, people, plants; the sounds, smells, tastes; the habits and expressions that originated here, he has revealed their capacity for meaning and imagination ...

Reminiscences and Appreciations

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16. Wynton Marsalis on Albert Murray (2001)

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pp. 199-201

Wynton Marsalis: Back in 1982, when I met Albert Murray—he was in his mid-sixties and I was twenty—it was familiar. That’s the best way to describe it. It was like talking to my grandfather, except Al knew about music. So right away he was more than a mentor, because he was like family ...

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17. Albert Murray’s Du Bois Medal Citation (2007)

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pp. 202-203

I have known Albert Murray for thirty years now, and it is a tremendous honor to present him with the Du Bois Medal for his contributions to the arts, culture, and the life of the mind. He has been my friend, my teacher, and my model, and he is a scholar and a thinker who has contributed immeasurably to the African American arts ...

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18. At the Bar and on the Avenue with My Pal Al Murray

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pp. 204-206

Soon after I met Al Murray at a PEN reception, circa 1970, I signed on as friend and fan. We swapped books, ideas, and lessons: Al as discreet teacher and mentor, I the appreciative apostle. ...

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19. My Beginnings with Albert

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pp. 207-208

Albert Murray was and is a valued friend of mine—one possessed of a delightful personality. During his days at Tuskegee he was knowledgeable on a wide range of topics and expressed comments on issues with confidence and in depth, which indicated awareness and thoughtfulness about current events and goings-on. ...

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20. The White Man Between Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch

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pp. 209-210

I have written about Albert Murray on a number of occasions, always balancing a deep respect for his work with an equally deep affection for the man. The afternoons I spent in his Harlem apartment, drinking single-malt scotch and listening to him freely range over the cultural landscape, are some of my fondest memories. Paying rapt attention ...

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21. On Michael James and Albert Murray

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pp. 211-213

Michael James (1942–2007) was Duke Ellington’s nephew. His mother, Ruth, was Duke’s sister. Mike was a unique, and in his way unmatched, authority on the history and aesthetics of jazz and was extraordinarily well read in many fields, especially American political and literary history. Perhaps his friend Hakim Hassan of the Museum of the City of New York said it best when he called Mike “New York’s premier underground intellectual.” ...

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22. Michael James on Albert Murray

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pp. 214-215

Michael James: Mr. Murray has continued the Constance Rourke paradigm. In her classic study called American Humor: A Study of Myth, Traditions and Rituals, Constance Rourke claimed that the taproots of American culture were part Yankee, part backwoodsman, Indian, and part Negro. Mr. Murray has taken that paradigm and extended it to all Americans ...

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23. Greg Thomas and “the Professor”

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pp. 216-218

“Why are you putting me with those guys?” an incredulous Albert Murray exclaimed to me, a confused young black intellectual who also happened to love jazz. With fear and trembling, but with the exuberance of youth, I had called Mr. Murray back in the early nineties to ask him to participate in a book project. ...

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24. Life and Literature Lessons Learned

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pp. 219-220

In The Omni-Americans, one of the most important books about America ever written, Albert Murray writes of great African Americans like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass, who were legends in their own lifetime, in what he called “that golden era of national synthesis”—the mid-nineteenth century. ...

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25. A Giant in Heart and Mind

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pp. 221-222

Albert Murray and I met in the early 1990s when I was Wynton Marsalis’s guest at a Lincoln Center Jazz rehearsal. I had just helped Wynton put Romare Bearden images on CD covers, since I was a representative for the artist’s estate at the time with ACA Gallery in New York. I knew that Albert Murray owned a number of Romare Bearden works ...

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26. My Travels through Cosmos Murray

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pp. 223-226

I was introduced to the work of Mr. Albert Lee Murray through the music and liner notes of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch during my college years at Howard University in Washington, DC, in the early eighties. ...

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27. Afternoons with Murray: Heart and Soul in the Key of Swing

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pp. 227-229

Once you have had the pleasure of meeting Al Murray, if you have any smarts at all and are lucky enough to be invited, you sign on for life. Grateful for my good fortune, I have, for the past decade, taken the #2 subway up to 135th Street to spend Saturday or Sunday afternoons with Murray in the book-filled living room of his Lenox Terrace apartment. ...

Works Cited

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pp. 231-235


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pp. 237-240


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pp. 241-249

E-ISBN-13: 9780817384883
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817355937

Page Count: 249
Publication Year: 2010