Albert Murray (1916–2013), renowned jazz historian, critic, writer, social and cultural theorist, and cofounder (with Wynton Marsalis) of Jazz at Lincoln Center, would have turned 100 years old today. We remember him with an edited excerpt from Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (May 2016).
“In order to know what the statement is, you have to know what is involved in the processing”
Edited excerpt from an interview with Greg Thomas
Greg Thomas: Could you go a little deeper into the concepts of folk art, popular art, and fine art?
Albert Murray: The three levels of sophistication or technical mastery involved in the processing of raw experience into aesthetic statement. That’s a whole encyclopedia right there. Art is a means by which raw experience is stylized—goes through a process by which we mean stylized—into aesthetic statement. The style is the statement. In order to know what the statement is, you have to know what is involved in the processing. Involved in that would be degrees of the control of the medium that you’re working in. Some guy comes up with a poem—but they don’t know grammar, they can’t pronounce the words, they don’t know syntax—that’s going to be folk level, man. A good example would be, somebody says [sings in blues cadence]: You be my baby, and I’ll be your man. Not “If you will be my baby.” That’s folk level, we can tell. It’s pronounced on a folk level. It can be very moving, very authentic—but it’s limited. It’s an acquired taste for a more sophisticated person, like a cruder recipe. Now, you get a guy saying [singing]: Is you is or is you ain’t my baby? [1944 Louis Jordan song] That’s bad grammar, but it’s pop. You know that’s not folk. The guy’s kidding. “Are you or aren’t you my baby?” That won’t work. He wants to be very close to the earth. [singing] Is you is or is you ain’t my baby? The way you acting lately makes me doubt you is still my baby, baby. The way you say “baby,” that’s some country shit. But you could do that in a fifteen dollar or twenty-five dollar cover charge place. These other guys out there strumming, that’s another thing, they got a tin cup in the town square on Friday afternoon. Now, the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement would be: [hums Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed”] That’s the blues on another level. Technically more refined. More complex, more difficult to play. More complete control over the means of expression.
GT: Some of what [Constance] Rourke was counterstating was some of [T. S.] Eliot’s elitist conceptions or I guess maybe the stereotype of Matthew Arnold’s conception of culture. They also had a conception of, say, “fine art.” But it seems to me that Constance Rourke was trying to privilege and focus on the folk form and the popular form.
AM: It’s a dynamic that you want to get that adds up to Constance Rourke. What she discovered, as I understand it, was a principle for the definition of culture that was derived from the German philosopher Herder. It gave her insight into the fact that cultures develop. They come from the ground up, not from on-high down. Most people were lamenting that there was no high culture. You forget, these were barbarians—Europe in the Dark Ages. When you come out of that, they’ve got an art form. They’ve got the gothic cathedrals, they’ve got these goddamn vitraux, the stained-glass windows. They’ve got scholarship, although it’s on sacred texts and so forth. Then, when they get to the Renaissance period, they rediscover Rome and Greece. Then they have a broader context of what they’re doing. These guys had been all the way from savagery all the way up to Praxiteles to the Parthenon to Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—all these refinements. Then you had all these extensions of that because the Romans could reach over there and get it. The Greeks were still around, for them. Any great Roman family had a Greek master. And they went around acting like Greeks. Just like classy Americans acted British and would speak with a slightly British accent, like that Boston thing. Well, that’s the way that I understand it—that educated Romans spoke like Greeks. Which makes all the sense in the world, doesn’t it? One is able to look at it this way because of the dynamic that Constance Rourke revealed. Extension, elaboration, and refinement—it’s not just bootlegging something in.
GT: Process, continuum.
AM: You can see it in Mark Twain! He’s a half-assed newspaperman, he writes about what he knows about, he’s writing a fairly simple report, but the storytelling thing takes over at a certain point—and he’s into art! He made the steps. You can see it. Whitman!—you’ve gotta make it out of this and it’s gotta be like this. So when you’ve got Moby-Dick—there ain’t nothing over there like that. It’s a novel, it’s not The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s something else. It’s a big, thick American book about process. When I was in high school there was nothing like football movies, nothing like college movies. This sweatshirt comes from the 1930s, man! You find that very pragmatic level of how things are done at a given point. Life on the Mississippi—how it is to be a riverboat captain. The romance of it. It’s a very practical thing. What’s a riverboat captain? But it’s transmuted into poetry. What the hell do you get in the first 150 pages of The Seven League Boots? Life on the Mississippi! What you’d call the Life on the Mississippi dimension. Nothing can be more American than “How do they do what they do?”
Albert Murray (1916–2013), author of thirteen books including Stomping the Blues, was a renowned jazz historian, novelist, and social and cultural theorist. He cofounded Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987. His finest interviews and essays on music have been compiled into a volume, published this month: Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues.