Undercover: Swinging to the Blues in the Night (01/13/77)

Albert Murray‘s Stomping the Blues (McGraw-Hill, 264 pp., $17.50) is as striking a book about music as I have ever seen.

A little more than a third of it is taken up by Murray’s essay on the aesthetics and practice of the music that began with Buddy Bolden’s earliest New Orleans jazz bands, with Bessie Smith and other “classic” female blues singers and with Louis Armstrong, and moved forward with Duke Ellington, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, picking up Joe Turner and many more along the way; the rest consists of photos of such musicians, and of black people having a wonderful time listening and dancing to them. The selection of photos is superb but the quality of reproductions and the design of the book itself are even better: the musicians and their followers leap off the page as if they were immortal. Murray has often written of the blues in terms of an heroic tradition; here, Armstrong and Ellington in particular appear throughout the book looking like heroes—like men who have created the role and relish it.

Murray—an Alabama-born Afro-American critic and novelist who now lives in New York City—is as forceful a writer as one is likely to encounter these days. His prose moves at a very fast pace, combining the highest lit-crit erudition with the snap, the idiomatic clarity, the wicked humor and the liberating intolerance for conventional pieties of street talk. Over the years his work has emerged as, in his word, a “counterstatement” to the conventional portrayal of black life in America as degraded, pathological, too bad, fucked up, and otherwise down-so-long-it-looks-like-up-to-me. His first book, The Omni-Americans (Avon/Discus paperback), a stunning collection of essays and polemics, blasted away most of the assumptions underlying this one-dimensional view of the subject (and not incidentally revealed who benefited from those assumptions, as when Murray dismissed the Moynihan Report as “the folklore of white supremacy”). Murray argued that while sociologists white and black (including such writers as James Baldwin, Warren Miller and Claude Brown) wrote as if (1) all blacks in America were cripples, and that (2) the task facing the nation was to find some way (not that there seemed to be one) to allow black people in America to become “Americans,” any clearheaded look at the diversity and plurality of the real American world would establish that American black people were (1) probably more “American” than any other group, that (2) they had drawn on enormous (and, for all Americans, invaluable) resources of vitality, invention, creativity, humor, courage, elegance and style, plus a great talent for assimilation and a deep sense of (Afro-American) tradition in order to get that way, and that (3) they had gone a long way toward defining what it meant to be an American in the process.stompingWhen Murray applies his ideas to music (and music is at the source of his ideas), certain conclusions follow naturally; that, for example, the music of Duke Ellington should not be seen simply (or maybe even) as “black music,” or “Afro-American music,” but as American music; that “what U.S. Negro musicians express represents far more than the fact that American black folks been ‘buked and been scorned and nobody knows de trouble dey seen”; and that “as an art form, the blues idiom by its very nature goes beyond the objective of making human existence bearable… The most elementary and hence the least disposable objective of all serious artistic expression… is to make human existence meaningful.”

The quotes come from The Omni-Americans, but the argument is the starting point for Stomping the Blues. Murray is speaking of a strictly urban, professional, dance-based, mostly improvised music (a definition that ignores, or pointedly excludes, country blues, Chicago blues, R&B, soul, and the avant-garde jazz of such men as Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor); this music, he writes, is involved not with self-pity or resignation (“Most people listen to blues music for the simple fact that it always makes them feel good”) but with affirmation and the act of creation. It is not folk culture, some “spontaneous” expression of suffering and pain, but rather a self-conscious fine-art form, the product of choice, apprenticeship and genius: “Bessie Smith owes much more to Ma Rainey than to bad luck, and she also owes not a little to the good luck that began with being born with a voice the magnificence of which, like that of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Duke Ellington’s orchestrations, no amount of adversity has yet produced in anybody else.”almurbookThere are some problems with this refreshing and convincing approach. Murray sometimes reduces his discussion of this music to terms so formalistic, and mechanistic, that one might think that the emotional content of blues, or dance-based jazz, is virtually dispensable—that such music is solely a matter of learning, chops, convention and counterstatement to convention; that dance-based jazz ultimately consists of statements about itself rather than about the world.

More troublesome, though, are the questions raised by the music Murray ignores or excludes in his definition of blues music—by country blues, R&B and soul—because here, the questions of folk culture, professionalism, emotionalism, and the need for (or value of) formal virtuosity are far more ambiguous than they are in any consideration of dance-based jazz, not to mention a good deal more complex than Murray makes them out to be in those occasional moments when he does address such music, either by dismissing most folk blues as purely conventional and ritualized, or by dismissing soul because he can’t hear it. Which is to say, within the unfortunate limits of the space I have, that Stomping the Blues is anything but the last word on the blues. It is, though, the best word anyone has offered in a long time.

Rolling Stone, January 13, 1977

One thought on “Undercover: Swinging to the Blues in the Night (01/13/77)

  1. You might be interested to know that Library of America is publishing a collection of Murray’s essays and memoirs this year, including Stomping the Blues and The Omni-Americans.

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