“Man, the very act of writing a story is always a matter of a certain amount of lying and signifying. Think of camera angles, microphones and the soundtrack of movies. You don’t just describe the people, places, the weather and least of all the actions exactly as they were. You reshape whatever has to be reshaped to make the point you try to get across to the reader.”
Albert Murray crafted this statement for his character Taft Edison, who is based on his good friend Ralph Ellison, in “The Magic Keys.” This is Murray’s final volume in the adventures of his protagonist Scooter, his alter ego, and concludes the author’s odyssey from Alabama to Harlem.
Murray, perhaps best known for weaving a blues esthetic through his novels and essays, died Aug. 18 at his home in Harlem. He was 97.
It’s hard to summarize Murray’s remarkable life without mentioning his connection with Ellison, whose “Invisible Man” is often hailed as the crowning achievement of the African-American literary canon. Their lives intersected while they were students at Tuskegee Institute, and they maintained a friendship that is often intimately disclosed in the volume of letters they exchanged across the years, many of them collected in “Trading Twelves” (2000).
Both were aspiring writers in the 1950s, and in one of the earliest letters between them, Ellison writes, “Who knows, we both may have books published in 1950.” Of course, Ellison did and Murray went back to the draft board to complete “Train Whistle Guitar,” his first novel, which was published in 1974.
But four years before Murray shook up the Black political realm with “The Omni-Americans,” a collection of essays that were, as Murray stated in the book’s introduction, “the counter-formulations posed … [of] expressions of a sensibility structured, no matter how imperfectly, by science as well as literature.” These would be important conjunctions throughout Murray’s career, and there was a take-no-prisoners tone that predictably disturbed the acolytes of James Baldwin, Paul Robeson and other Black writers on the left.
Murray excoriates Baldwin, particularly his depiction of Harlem where Baldwin was born and a community Murray would adopt by the early ’60s as his last residence. “Baldwin writes about Harlem, for example, with an evangelical sense of moral outrage, and his declarations on this subject are said to have stirred the conscience of the nation,” Murray asserted in “The Omni-Americans.” Baldwin, he continues, “writes as if he had never heard the comedians at the Apollo Theater … he confuses everything with Jewish tradition and writes about life in a Black ghetto.” Naturally, this set off a response almost as acerbic and biting as Murray’s conclusions.
Born in Nokomis, Ala., Murray spent his early youth in Mobile. He spent many years in the military, retiring as a major in the Air Force and, along with his college days at Tuskegee, studied at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, New York University and the University of Paris.
Much like Ellison, Richard Wright and Baldwin, Murray’s writing career was launched by his essays, criticism and fugitive pieces in magazines, newspapers and journals, none more significant than The New Leader magazine.
But it was the publication of “Stomping the Blues” (1976) that signaled his arrival as an insightful commentator on American music, especially the blues motif, which would resonate with conviction and rhythmic singularity in all of his books. Much of what he had to say about the blues—and for him it was never the downhearted variety but the hopeful optimism that he found inspirational—was explained in a series of articles that culminated in “South to a Very Old Place” (1971) and “The Hero and the Blues” (1973). His collaboration with Count Basie on his autobiography “Good Morning, Blues” (1985) is often cited as one of the best books on jazz and the blues, and it provided a resourceful conduit to a coterie of young musicians and writers, such as Stanley Crouch, Playthell Benjamin, Greg Thomas, Eugene Holley and, most notably, Wynton Marsalis.
Near the beginning of “The Magic Keys,” Scooter recalls his days in junior high school when his teacher reminded him that he “should never forget that I just might be one of the very special ones who would have to travel far and wide to find out what it is that I may have been put here on earth to make of myself.” Well, Scooter did all right, and so did Albert Murray.