Driving Mr. Murray
September 12, 2013 | by Tony Scherman
The author Albert Murray died, on August 18, after a long illness. He was ninety-seven. Among Murray’s eleven books are the essay collection The Omni-Americans, which infuriated the African-American intellectual establishment in the early seventies; the novel Train Whistle Guitar, likely headed for a classic’s long life; the essay South to a Very Old Place, not just as funny as anything written in last century’s second half, but a searching investigation of black-and-white relations; the jazz treatise Stomping the Blues, another probable classic and a life-changing text for musicians, and The Hero and The Blues, Murray’s bracing exposition of his aesthetic.
In the mid to late nineties, writer Tony Scherman spent a good deal of time with Murray; these memories are drawn from that period.
In 1996, having read most of Albert Murray’s published books, I decided to write about him. We spoke once or twice to arrange a meeting, and I drove in from the country to the middle-class Harlem apartment complex at 132nd Street and Lenox Avenue where Murray, his wife Mozelle, and their daughter, Michelle, had lived since 1962.
Ringing the doorbell, I got no response. Finally the chain was unfastened, the door swung open, and it was plain right away why it had taken Albert Murray so long to get to the door; he could hardly walk. Two spinal operations and severe arthritis had cruelly reduced his mobility. He inched along, entirely focused on the task at hand: reaching his destination. His condition must have been maddening, but in my three-hour visit, he never complained. Yet when his speech grew querulous and his patience short, I’m sure that such behavior came not merely from impatience with interlocutors who didn’t think as speedily as he did, but from being in permanent pain. I came to see his big, handsome grin as something designed to show that bad luck and trouble would never set him back.
At eighty, Al Murray was still a handsome man. Below a nose that was slightly broader than aquiline was a small, neatly trimmed mustache. He was tastefully and semiconservatively dressed, and while shaking his hand, I caught a whiff of first-class cologne. Murray’s smile was winning: appealingly crooked, crinkling the skin around his eyes, immediately creating an empathetic, welcoming air.
The apartment was small but congenial. The living room’s only floor-to-ceiling wall was entirely obscured by Murray’s library, oriented towards nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction, but rich in other genres. I had never met anyone else who seemed to have read, and reread, every book of consequence.
Interviewing Murray could drive one crazy, he held so doggedly to his opinions. I can’t recall his ever approaching anything like, “Hmm. Maybe you’re right after all.” He could get nasty: “Have you ever heard any Armstrong at all?” I could get every bit as pissed off—at times it was not very good communication. Yet Murray’s irritation never lasted; he always quickly returned to eager explication of the idea at hand.
He was happy to have me to materialize weekly. I was just the latest protégé; he needed us. So for two or three years, I spent many a Saturday afternoon at 45 Lenox Terrace. When I could longer make weekly visits, I dropped by sporadically throughout 2001.
A friend wanted to know how I would characterize my relationship with Murray. “Student?” he asked. “Protégé? Disciple?”
“Chauffeur,” I answered.
My mentor and I would leave his building, clamber into my car—a tough job for Murray even with the doorman’s or my help—and head downtown. Our first stop was usually the Duane Reade on Sixth Avenue in the mid-Forties, where I would hop out and pick up Murray’s weekly medicinal and health supplies. I could never understand why we drove eight miles for Metamucil when there must have been two or three Duane Reades in Murray’s vicinity.
We often went further downtown. Once we stopped at a posh office-chair outlet on West Fifteenth Street that someone had recommended. A salesman glided over.
“I’m looking for something that’ll let me write another two, three books,” said Mr. Murray with his winning smile. Predictably disarmed, the fellow wound up telling us that he was an ex-junkie whose roommate in detox had been Billy Higgins, Ornette Coleman’s first drummer.
“I heard you gentlemen talking about jazz,” he said, “so I figured you might be familiar with Billy.” The guy didn’t know he was stepping onto a minefield. Mr. Murray had no use, none at all, for Ornette Coleman. Whether he couldn’t or wouldn’t, the man did not swing. Played out of tune, too. I braced myself for a trashing of Higgins’s former employer, but none came. Smiling pleasantly, Mr. Murray listened to the salesman’s tales of kicking with Billy. And swinging his arms wide and generously, our new friend insisted that we ask him anything about the merchandise. Murray settled on a top-dollar chair after which, on the drive uptown, he launched into a discourse on high standards and the importance of elegance.
Given Murray’s famous disdain for pop music, I was delighted to come across a January 1960 letter from Murray, then stationed in the Air Force in Los Angeles, to his almost lifelong intellectual colleague Ralph Ellison.
I went to two RAY CHARLES dance dates … Wonderful time … Man, that goddamned Ray ass Charles absorbs everything and uses everything. Absorbs it and assimilates it with all that sanctified stew meat smelling, mattress stirring, fucked up guilt touchy violence, jailhouse dodging, second hand American dream shit, and sometimes it comes out like a sermon by one them spellbinding stem winders in your work-in-progress [Ellison’s never-to-be-finished second novel] and other times he’s extending Basie’s stuff better than Basie himself.
So much for the moldy-fig charge.
I often met Murray after Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts. We sought each other out in the emptying house and I’d take his elbow and help him up the aisle, then the outdoor steps to my car. I sometimes grew mildly resentful of the role (forgetting that I had volunteered for it), imagining other concertgoers considering me Murray’s lackey. In retrospect, if I were, I was getting plenty back.
As we’d head uptown, not all of our talk was serious. Murray might sing the praises of Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, or other Alabama Landsmänner.
“What’s next on your writing agenda?” I might ask.
“Scooter’s next. Next series of episodes.”
Scooter is the autobiographical hero of Murray’s four novels.
“But then it’ll be a tetralogy.”
He cracked up. “Why do you get into these academic things? I don’t give a fuck what you call it, man! Anthony Powell had twelve volumes! I’m just writing a story. You ever read any Anthony Powell?”
I remarked once that it must feel great for him and Mrs. Murray to have been together so long; there was all that trust and mutual awareness. He said that no, it wasn’t great. “Because you’re always worrying about who’s going to go first and leave you alone.”
I asked him how he felt when he woke up in the morning.
“Glad that I’m alive.”
“You say that pretty jauntily.”
“Why not? Look at all those people I knew that are dead!”
Shortly after my oldest daughter was born, in September 1997, Murray and I were talking on the phone.
“What’s her name?”
“Luzana Cholly!” (A character in the novel Train Whistle Guitar.)
God, what an ego! I thought. The whole world is an extension of himself. Oh well. The ego was just part of the package.
Neither of us realized it at the time, but my daughter’s birth was the beginning of the end of our relationship. He grew irritable when I stopped showing up every Saturday. He was a father; didn’t he remember how much time a baby swallows up?
We hadn’t seen each other for a long time when I stopped by to loan him Don DeLillo’s Underworld and a big new book on the founding documents. Some time afterwards, we spoke on the phone and he asked me over. “I’m holding those books of yours.” I never went. Out of an impulse I couldn’t identify, I considered our friendship a closed book.
I don’t remember who told me that Murray was seriously ill, due to the merciless advance of his old foe, arthritis, and now with dementia. It took me a long time to visit him. Finally I drove to 45 Lenox Terrace, rode the elevator to the eighth floor, rang the buzzer, and waited.
He lay on his back on a hospital bed in one of those white gowns with no back. I approached the bed and bent down. His face was deeply lined. The thick creases looked rubbery. He smiled nonstop, but the smile looked like a grimace, so that his face resembled a tragicomic mask.
He spoke in an incoherent babble. But a moment occurred when I was almost certain that that there was a functioning mind behind the chatter; I thought I heard him say “culture,” which, I insisted to myself, meant he remembered who I was. I showed him the magazine interview we had done in 1996, when we’d met. He looked intently at the big color photographs. Did he know the man in them? I just couldn’t tell.
There was a bouquet on the living-room table from a Murray protégé infinitely better known, and more faithful, than I: Wynton Marsalis. I stood up to say my goodbyes. It was 2010. I sometimes “checked” on him through mutual friends, friends who visited Murray regularly. But I never went back.
Tony Scherman always considered Albert Murray his only-ever mentor. Scherman had written only about what Mr. Murray would have called “vernacular” music—pop, jazz, blues, etc.—for a long time (fifteen years?) when he butted up against Mr. Murray in 1996. Whereupon he broadened his horizon to an extent he would never have thought possible. I—I mean he—began writing about literature, art, issues in history, and American culture (which for Mr. Murray was “incontestably mulatto”—he, more than anyone else, exploded blacks’ and whites’ rigid mutual separation.) Hanging out with Mr. Murray was the equivalent of grades K through grad. School. Anyway, I haven’t been studying pop music much. Just the universe—the one I first explored with the Man.