Friday, April 21, 2017

Me and Old Duke

Albert Murray (1916–2013)
From Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs

“Duke Ellington, with the mirror reflecting his always present piano, his conservative ties, his 20 suits, his 15 shirts, his suede shoes and his smiling self,” Paramount Theater, New York City, c. Sept. 1946, photograph by William P. Gottlieb. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
At the end of the last century, Albert Murray—who was then in his eighties—looked back on a remarkable career and, during an interview, recalled his “three most sophisticated friends”: writer Ralph Ellison, artist Romare Bearden, and jazz legend Duke Ellington. Ellison, Bearden, and Murray “were all about the same age, within two years of each other, whereas Duke was the age of my father. But he had the sophistication of a genius who could make his connections fast and who could explain them.”

If there is a central figure in Murray’s non-fiction writing, it is indeed Duke Ellington. In the introduction to his best-selling The Omni-Americans Murray cites Ellington as “a hero of this book,” in which he writes:
Perhaps the most magnificent synthesis, historical continuity and esthetic extension of all of the best elements of the New Negro period are to be found in the music of the Duke Ellington orchestra. No other institution in the United States represents a more deliberate and more persistent effort to come to terms with black heritage as it relates to the ever shifting complexities of contemporary life. Nor has Ellington simply clung to traditional folk forms. Culture hero that he is, he has not only confronted every esthetic challenge of his times, but has grown ever greater in the process. (Someday, Ellington may well come to be regarded as the Frederick Douglass of most black artists. He is already regarded as such by most musicians.)
In his later book Stomping the Blues Murray similarly argues that Ellington is the “the most representative American composer” and compares him to “Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner in literature.” And Ellington’s influence can even be seen in Murray’s four novels: “My attempt to suggest an image of the hero as improviser is Scooter, the first-person narrator . . . , in which I try to make the literary equivalent of an Ellington orchestration,” he wrote in 1989.

As a teenager and then as a young man, Murray had been enthralled with Ellington’s music. After listening to his hit songs for two decades, he finally got the chance to meet him. Between 1943 and 1948 Ellington and his orchestra played a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall, which Murray calls “that citadel of white European identity.” Each of the annual concerts was a sold-out success and spawned still-available and much-cherished recordings. One of Murray’s army buddies, who was related to band member Harry Carney, arranged a backstage meeting with Ellington after the fourth concert in January 1946. The two men hit it off, and within a few years Murray would find himself sitting in on recording sessions. In turn, Ellington himself became a fan, praising Murray as “a man whose learning did not interfere with understanding. An authority on soul from the days of old, he is right on right back to back and commands respect. He doesn’t have to look it up. He already knows. If you want to know, look him up. He is the unsquarest person I know.”

In 1999, on the occasion of Ellington’s centennial, Murray was asked by The Village Voice to contribute a short piece, and he wrote the following account chronicling his transformation from one of Duke’s greatest fans to one of his idol’s friends.

Notes: In his opening sentence, Murray refers obliquely to Kenneth Burke’s 1938 essay “Literature as Equipment for Living.” The book Ellington and Stanley Dance were “trying to put together” became the 1973 autobiography Music Is My Mistress. American diplomat Ralph Bunche was a key member of the U.N. team in the early postwar years. He received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the late 1940s on the Arab-Israeli truce in Palestine.

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