Albert Murray on Ralph Ellison Aesthetics

Albert Murray on Ralph Ellison Aesthetics


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 I came straight into the blues and its extension, jazz, whereas Ralph was into formal European

music that you get when you go to a conservatory. At that time Tuskegee had a conservatory

and it was head by William Dawson. Ralph was strictly majoring in music



Books by Albert Murray

South to a Very Old Place  /  Stomping the Blues  /  Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity  / Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie

Train Whistle Guitar: A Novel   / The Hero and the Blues  / Conversations with Albert Murray  / The Magic Keys

Seven League Boots / The Spyglass Tree  /  The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement

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Albert Murray on Ralph Ellison & the Aesthetics of Writing

By Kalamu ya Salaam


Popular literature is about topical issues. Serious literature is about ideas and mythology (i.e., explanations and beliefs that explain the how and why of one’s humanity). Pop ages poorly precisely because it is about the here and now. Serious writing is often not fully appreciated until years after its appearance.

In the realm of novels, most Black novelists have been relegated to the realm of pop/topicality. Richard Wright and James Baldwin are considered the apogee of the issues approach, and resultantly often criticized for being propagandists rather than pure (i.e., “serious”) novelists. Toni Morrison has managed to transcend the ghetto of topicality on the basis of the reach of her craft, yet even she is sometimes excluded from the ranks of the “great” novelists of the western canon. The only Black writer to be critically admired without reservation is Ralph Ellison who published but one novel during his lifetime, The Invisible Man, a book that the “regulators of serious literature” considered the zenith of Black fiction.

In 1999 two major events are in the offing: the posthumous publication of an unfinished novel by Ralph Ellison, and the publication of correspondence between Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison as edited by Murray. My bet is that second book will be the one to read.

Although Murray and Ellison were comrades in the struggle to elevate the thinking and literature of Black folk, Murray is the one who has made his mark as a critic, and as such, Murray is the one who asks challenging questions and poses imaginative paradigms for understanding and addressing literature. As the book of letters between he and Ellison reveals, we may think of Ellison as the towering giant, but Murray has all the elements of the mythical trickster who is overlooked even as he is overcoming.

Albert Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama in 1916. He grew up in Mobile and graduated from Tuskegee Institute, where he subsequently taught literature. He is a retired major in the U.S. Air Force. His books include The Omni-Americans and The Hero and the Blues, collections of essays; South to a Very Old Place, an autobiography; Stomping the Blues, a history of the blues; Train Whistle Guitar (a National Book Award Nominee), The Spyglass Tree and Seven League Boots, novels; and Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (as told to Albert Murray).

This interview was conducted by telephone.

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Kalamu ya Salaam: You are both a writer and what is popularly called “a public intellectual” but you come from what the young folks would call “the old skool…”

Albert Murray: To young folks, everything is old. The airplane, the atomic bomb, all of that is old to them. Everything is old if you’re just born, but what you must remember is that everybody is born out of date, behind the times. All these things are here and they don’t know about them, so their whole mission in growing up is to come to terms with things that are already here. What exists represents reality, not just “oldness” and reality means actuality, a response to your surroundings, your environment, your setting. The whole business of education is learning how to cope with the situation that you were born into and to reduce that to saying “that’s old” is puzzling to me. What have eighteen year old and twenty year old people done to modify society, what have they done to modify the way people live?

Kalamu ya Salaam: They have in terms of popular perception. For example, when you look at the award programs, you see young musicians breaking all kinds of records and you see them proclaimed as major forces who have changed the face of music.

Albert Murray: The popular perception is actually based on promotional copy. They are just interested in selling a product. They don’t care whether the work is good, bad, or indifferent; whether it is banal or truly exciting. What they want to do is sell it. They are not interested in accepting the challenge of music; they just want to make something that you can say is music and that will sell. If it sells they give them a prize, a golden disc or a platinum disc. But that’s a hysterical approach.

If you are not sufficiently historical in your perception of actuality then your daily life is going to be hysterical because you respond to everything that comes up as if it’s new and a lot of that stuff, all you had to do was check up on it and you would have known that it was going to happen.

Kalamu ya Salaam: You have just completed a book of correspondence with Ralph Ellison. This is a genre which is different from fiction or essay in that when the letters were written they were not intended for a public audience but rather were meant as a private conversation. What did it feel like as you went back over those letters and began looking at them from the standpoint of making a public statement?

Albert Murray: When Ralph passed, I was one of the participants in the memorial ceremony at the Academy of Arts and Letters. I decided to resurrect Ralph’s presence and give people some feeling for the person who was my very close friend. I went through some of the letters that I had and made a few excerpts. There was a very good response to that. The Ellison estate asked me how many of the letters I had saved and wondered if they could get copies of them. The actual letters themselves belong to me but I don’t have possession to the extent that I could publish the material.

Kalamu ya Salaam: The letters were your physical property but not your intellectual property.

Albert Murray: Right. The estate asked me to pull the letters together to add to the Ellison papers at the Library of Congress. In pulling them together I decided that they would make a fine little book. I was going to call it “Works in Progress: Ellison on Literary Craft and American Identity.” I prepared the manuscript and when Callahan, the executor, read the manuscript he said this is a fine volume but I miss your voice. What is it that you are saying that is turning Ralph on like this? I said, man, I don’t remember that. I haven’t seen those letters in forty years. He said, I will check Ralph’s papers to see if he had kept your letters. He dug up the letters and sent them to me. He said, I hope you agree that this would make a more interesting and more complete book if we made it an exchange of letters, and I hope you will go along with that. I said, well, let me read them. I don’t know. When I read them I thought I could go along with it. I then prepared another manuscript.

The letters reveal Ralph’s personality like it is revealed no where else because his letters to other people are formal and straightforward, but our letters covered a wide range of expression. Ralph talked about what he was doing, for example, he talks about finishing Invisible Man and what the problems were finishing it. He talks about a manuscript of a novel I had. We discussed literary things and social things. We discussed other writers and critics. I was thinking about a lot of those things. I wasn’t writing yet, though I was planning to write.

Kalamu ya Salaam: Do you think there is a difference between writing letters and talking on the phone in terms of the final product . . .?

Albert Murray: Not too much because we actually talked to each other in our letters. That’s what is somewhat different about his letters to me and his letters to other people. We talked through letters, it wasn’t just business.

I didn’t really know Ralph at Tuskegee. He was an upperclassman and he was a guy I liked, the way he dressed. He was very independent. Then I found out that he had read a number of the books that I was planning to read. When I checked the books out of the library I found he had read them. When we got together in New York during the war is when we became good friends.

Kalamu ya Salaam: This may seem obvious, but people born after say 1960 might not be aware of the library signature cards in the books.

Albert Murray: That’s right. They had a card that you signed and you could see who had read the book. Often, I would see that Ralph was the only guy who had read the book before me, other than sometimes one of the faculty members who might have been doing graduate work. We read the same copies of T. S. Eliot. We were reading all of that very literary stuff. Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, Return of the Native and all of that. I went to college to be a “college boy,” to get an education in those things. I was keeping up with Esquire magazine and what Hemmingway was writing, what Faulkner was writing. I also wanted to know what the novel had been before. And then there was that famous Eliot essay: “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” He was talking about the nature of tradition.

Tradition is that which continues. Tradition is not that which is old but that which survives. It’s a stream of human consciousness. Eliot was saying that if you write something, even if it’s but four lines, it should be informed, as far as possible, with the whole history of poetry. I understood that. I was telling my friend Wynton Marsalis when we were talking about jazz, if you have four bars, it should be informed by the whole history of jazz. That’s when you are doing your do. Otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time trying to reinvent the sonnet. But if you know what’s in there, what the tradition is, then you are the cutting edge—that’s what the avant garde means: the cutting edge that is going to continue tradition, but you’re going to redefine it because your sensibility is different. The combination that exists in your mind that you are operating out of is different from anybody else’s although it should be informed by everything that went ahead of you.

Kalamu ya Salaam: Do you think that your aesthetic and Ralph’s aesthetic were informed by your dual interest in literature and music?

Albert Murray: Definitely. Ralph majored in music but I came to the musical metaphor after I got out of college. My thing was to read all the books I had not had time to read when I was in college. The big thing that happened to me was the discovery of the great writer Thomas Mann. I noticed that the great German composers—and there were none greater at that time—those composers gave Mann a basis for organizing literary statement. Mann was talking about dialectic orchestration. He was talking about using leitmotif like Wagner did. I said, that’s a way of organizing literary statement. So, where’s mine?

That brought me back to the idiomatic experience that I was a part of and I was looking for a way to make my idiomatic experience a part of the fine art experience. How do you process that, extend, elaborate, and refine that so that it becomes universal in terms of its impact. So I said, “what is it?” and that’s when I hit upon the blues and jazz. I said oh yeah, they have a prelude and a fugue, I’ll have a vamp, and then a series of choruses, then I’ll have a break, etc. The first character that I wrote was a guitar player called Louisiana Charlie.

When I was writing him, when he would throw that guitar over his shoulder and hop a freight train, to me that was how I could do all these other resonances. As many resonances as possible; he was Orpheus. He’s got on overalls, he talks the down home talk but the dynamics, ah, that’s not a new story. You have to find out the old story and then do your variation on it. See? Orpheus went to hell and back, well sometimes he would go away to the penitentiary and then come back. Then I understood when Mann was talking about leitmotifs, I could talk about riffs.

I came straight into the blues and its extension, jazz, whereas Ralph was into formal European music that you get when you go to a conservatory. At that time Tuskegee had a conservatory and it was head by William Dawson. Ralph was strictly majoring in music, but I associated him with having those books rather than his trumpet. I saw him directing the band in the grandstand during football games. I called him the student concertmaster. He was a special student at Tuskegee. He stood out. I never saw him play in any of the jazz bands however.

By the time Ralph and I really got together after he was out of school, I was more involved with jazz and jazz musicians than he was. Because he was from Oklahoma, Ralph knew about the Blue Devils and guys like Jimmy Rushing— they kept in touch for a long time—but Ralph was not keeping up with the music. So when it got to be bop time I was making the rounds but Ralph wasn’t. I would go to school at NYU for graduate classes at night and after classes I would go up to 52nd Street. Ralph was home working on Invisible Man. Ralph was a little skeptical of bop. He kept an eye on it. He appreciated the general aesthetic revolution, but he didn’t go to hear it as much as I did.

I was interested in the dynamics of the creative process. Although I didn’t want to be a musician as such, I wanted to be as close as possible to how the stuff was put together and how the musician thought. So much of what musicians such as Ellington thought fit right into what I wanted to do with the language. The more I knew about the music, the more I could extend that aesthetic into verbalization.

Everything I write tries to make the language swing like jazz. The Invisible Man is more discursive than any of my books. Ralph liked all the stuff I liked, but he was really strong on Dostoyevsky. I was strong on Tolstoy. I was very much into Mann. Mann was not one of Ralph’s guys. We were together on Faulkner. I think Ralph accepted the challenge of Faulkner. Ralph was so impressed with the heroic dimension that Faulkner gave to his Negro characters, Ralph thought that he would have to do that too. My own personal thing was to say: the brown-skinned American never sounded better than in Duke Ellington and never looked better in print than in Albert Murray’s writing. That was my challenge. That is what all my aesthetic emphasis adds up to. I have never thought of myself as a victim. I have always thought of myself as someone of high potential that I had to live up to.

In fact, my central image is a rabbit in a briar patch, which explains everything I have written. You’re in a jam session situation where you are improvising all the time; at the same time you can improvise better if you have a rich background. I want my knowledge to sing and swing, to evoke, to put you there. Music makes what you want to move. I want my novels to make you want to walk that way, want to be that way, want to react to experiences in that way. That’s a legitimate aesthetic objective. Art is a process through which raw experience is rendered into aesthetic statement.

Source: WordUp

posted 21 May 2010

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music website > writing website > daily blog > twitter > facebook >

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Trading Twelves

The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

Edited by John Callahan

“I had chosen to re-create the world, but, like a self-doubting god, was uncertain whether I could make the pieces fit smoothly together. Well, its done now and I want to get on to the next one.” In this passage from a 1951 letter to his literary colleague and all-around good buddy Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison is referring to his masterpiece Invisible Man; it is both this fly-on-the-wall intimacy, as well as the now-ironic mention of Ellison’s “next,” never to be completed novel that help to make this book such a pleasure to read. Ellison was an accomplished and dapper upperclassman and Murray a respectful but equally ambitious freshman when they first encountered each other in 1935 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They were not to become close friends until 1947, when Murray was studying for his masters degree in New York City.

The letters begin in 1949 and end in 1960, when easy long-distance phone calls brought the need for longhand correspondence (but not their everlasting friendship) to an end. While the 1952 publication of Invisible Man rocketed Ellison to literary stardom, his letters always treat Murray, who taught at Tuskegee and labored on his own unpublished first novel until the 1970s, as his genuine equal, both as a writer and as a cultural thinker. The letters recapitulate their travels around the world (European fellowships for Ellison and cushy postwar Air Force assignments for Murray, who was a colonel in the reserve); their quirky black hipster idiom; Ellison’s ambivalence toward Tuskegee and his responses to literary fame, including a brief description of an encounter with William Faulkner at the old Random House offices. There are also funny, thoughtful exchanges on jazz figures, biting comments on literary foes and ample details of the literary and domestic lives of these two gifted and iconoclastic American writers.—Publishers Weekly

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Related  files: The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough   The Works of William Sanders Scarborough  Practice and Perception of Black Classicism 

Celebrating Alexander Crummell   Classicism within Black Consciousness   Ten Vital Principles for Black Education   Black Nationalism in America  

Albert Murray on Ralph Ellison Aesthetics   What America Would Be Like Without Negroes  The Omni Americans Excerpts

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