BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Albert Murray, author of "The Blue Devils of Nada," what's the book about?
ALBERT MURRAY, AUTHOR, "THE BLUE DEVILS OF NADA": Well, the book is about the creative process. It's really about what we could call the vernacular imperative for American aesthetics. That is, how to process raw American experience into aesthetic statement or into a work of art using native devices. So it's a big thing, the interaction in the United States of the learned tradition imported by certain immigrants to a frontier situation in a context of free enterprise -- that is, not economic free enterprise but free to be enterprising, freedom to be enterprising, experimental frontier exploration. And how do you process that into aesthetic statement and give an image of American character and a basis for American identity? That's what that really is about.
LAMB: But there are some...
MURRAY: And like...
LAMB: There are some names, though, that are very familiar, like Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.
MURRAY: Well, they succeeded. I think they've succeeded in their fields of finding what Constance Rourke, who's a big touchstone with me -- in a book called "American Humor: A Study of the National Character" speaks of something that's very, very basic to this whole approach that I represent. She speaks of providing emblems for pioneer people who require resilience as a prime trait. To me, that adds up to swinging and that's equivalent to what a frontiersman does, what an explorer does. And it's the basis of -- of the open, experimental attitude that you get in American character and the inventiveness that we're noted for. No art form encapsulates or expresses that more comprehensively and more effectively and on a higher level of sophistication than jazz, which is the ultimate extension, elaboration and refinement of the blues.
LAMB: Where is your hometown originally?
MURRAY: Mobile, Alabama. I came up on the outskirts of Mobile in a section rife with juke joints, but not too far away was a very good county training school also. So I'm a product of, you know, a sort of cross-section of American experience.
LAMB: What year were you born?
MURRAY: 1916, during World War II.
LAMB: How many year ...
MURRAY: During World War I.
LAMB: How many years did you live there?
MURRAY: Mobile? Until 1935. I left Mobile when I went to college in 1935.
LAMB: What was it like growing up there?
MURRAY: Well, that I've dealt with in a book called "Train Whistle Guitar" in which I'm concerned about what seemed possible to me, what the world looked like to me, what I thought I would do as a human being in the world. And that's what I've written about in that particular novel, which turns out to be volume one of an ongoing saga or cycle called -- which I've called the "scooter cycle" or the "scooter saga".
And it was a matter of discovering what the world was like, and Mobile is a fascinating place, it was an exotic place. It had been under five flags. You know what I mean? It had been French, Spanish, Confederate, American, whatnot -- it was a seaport town. There were people from all over the world. You grew up knowing people, hearing foreign languages and things like that. So when I got to the third grade, that's when I discovered the Earth because I had my first geography book. And I started reading about people in various parts of the world and climbing up in the chinaberry tree in the front yard of our house -- shotgun house that we lived in, you could look across the railroad, you could look across Mobile River, you could look through the canebrakes. And I would go up and play at boxing the compass, you know, thinking about the world. When I got to the third grade, I had a map of the world. We got in the third grade room, there was a globe spinning on its axis, and the whole world was mine, and I feel it's been my oyster ever since. It's whatever I can make of it and make of myself in it, was what I was about.
LAMB: How long have you lived here in New York?
MURRAY: Since I retired from the Air Force in 1962, so that's 30-some years.
LAMB: And in recent months, you've gotten a lot of publicity. You were a feature story in The New Yorker. We did a Booknotes a couple weeks ago with Stanley Crouch. He says that, you know, you're one of his heroes. Newsweek magazine does a feature on you, your book gets reviewed. Is this as much publicity as you've ever gotten in your life?
MURRAY: Not really. My first book, I had a half-page picture on the front page of Chicago Tribune Book World. All of my books have been very, very reviewed, very well-reviewed, and people keep telling me that, you know, this is a lot of publicity. My first book was a Book of the Week. It was called "The Omni-Americans," and it was a Book of the Week in Newsweek, and there was a picture of me and Duke Ellington, and it was a very good review. The review says, "A different radical." It said, "A radically different approach to what America is, what civil rights should be about and what human objectives should be." There's an approach to that, and the book was a Book of the Month Club alternate. I don't know where all this stuff comes from. My wife can't understand where all these thick folders of reviews -- rave reviews I have. And each time a book comes out -- and this is the eighth and ninth books that were published this year.
LAMB: You've got a new novel out, too.
LAMB: What's the title of the novel?
MURRAY: "The Seven-League Boots."
LAMB: What's it about?
MURRAY: Well, let's see. Now "The Seven-League Boots," of course, comes from "Puss in Boots," right? It means you put on these magic boots and you get a longer stride, a more effective stride. But the epigraph in the book is a statement from the first paragraph of Kafka's "The Castle," which says, "The castle hill was dark, hidden in mist, nor was there any evidence that a castle was there." Now that should take it out of any narrow discussion of civil rights and back to the basic problems of existence. In other words, an American vernacular approach to the meaning of life, which is what we do. We take the vernacular particulars -- that is, the idiomatic particulars that impinge most intimately on our everyday life. And if we're an artist, we try to process that or stylize that into a statement of universal significance, because if it did, then it's valid, it's comprehensive and it's reliable, just as in statistics.
LAMB: From your life's experience, if a young person came to you from another land, visited with you in your home up here in Harlem, and said, "Mr. Murray, tell me about the United States," what would you tell him about the United States today?
MURRAY: Well, I would say the United States represents -- that is, the social contract upon which the United States is predicated is about the best idea that has come up for the human proposition that I know about or that I read about anywhere, and that's from the thousands of years of literature and of art and of music and whatnot. There's nothing that deals with -- there's no social contract as basis for a nation that is predicated on a more sophisticated, more comprehensive and more humane institute, to double up on the word, proposition than exists in the United States. So that it's an idea, but it has to do with human beings, and human beings can be magnificent, they can be noble and they can be awful, and you have them all in the United States. You always have a problem -- you know what I mean? -- because you have the problem.
The title of the new book is "The Blue Devils of Nada," and nada is nothingness, or entropy. And the whole business of the blues is that the blues represents entropy. So you can -- it's a matter of having the blues -- it's the blues, as such, as a matter of having the blues. What we do when we play the blues is precisely that: We play with the blues, we stomp the blues. We get rid of the blues. So that blues music is good-time music because it dispels the menacing elements in the environment or at least it holds them at bay, so we can get on with the human proposition. So you have, to begin with, entropy, nothingness or particles and waves. And the minute you say particles and waves, you've tricked yourself because you used a form. So you have, along with nothingness or nada, you have what James Joyce called "the ineluctable modality" that is human consciousness. It's always going to be a pattern somewhere, the ineluctable modality, or the inevitable pattern of consciousness.
LAMB: In the April 8th edition of The New Yorker this year, Henry Louis Gates talks a lot about you in the cover piece and he talks about two different human beings -- and I want to get your reflection here on Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X.
MURRAY: Malcolm X?
LAMB: Malcolm X, yes.
LAMB: He talks about how you look at both men. And I want to ask you what you thought of Thomas Jefferson, because he talks about, you know, Jefferson had slaves and Malcolm X is -- there's a comment in there about your attitude about Malcolm X and -- and whether or not he was a leader in the civil rights movement.
MURRAY: So which question do you want first?
LAMB: Start with Thomas Jefferson. What do you think of him?
MURRAY: The fact that Thomas Jefferson had slaves is something you could be very, very self-righteous about. But what is most significant about Thomas Jefferson is that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that's the basis of what I was just talking about. We're talking about, "All men are created equal," and, you know, "the consent of the governed," all those things -- so the basis for rejecting or struggling against slavery has been laid in the social contract by Thomas Jefferson. There was no such basis in Africa or any other place. So you're not talking about people who were free. They were owned by chiefs and whatnot, and so they were property be sold in Africa. But when you get into the context of the American proposition, you can look at -- tell yourself, "This is wrong."
There was no Underground Railroad in Africa, there was no abolitionist movement in Africa, but there was in the United States because they had bought that aspect of the human proposition underlying the social contract upon which America's based. So it was in violation of what was promised of a conception of human possibility that the whole nation was predicated upon. And they didn't get it straight until after the Civil War.
So you have the Declaration of Independence, where the philosophy really is expressed, right? It's "consent of the governed" and all that. You've got the preamble to the Constitution, you've got the Bill of Rights, right? Then you have the Emancipation Proclamation, which says, "If you're enslaved and you want to be free, that's not a crime." They came here to cri -- all this is coming out the original social contract. You know what I mean? OK? Then you get the Gettysburg Address, which put it on a postage stamp, as Faulkner would say -- put the whole thing on a postage stamp. Then you got the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment. All of this comes from Thomas Jefferson, really, as an extension, an aberration or refinement of a point of view about human beings that was put out there and became our heritage because of Thomas Jefferson. Without that, you can't have a civil rights movement, you couldn't have anything. You wouldn't have had the Civil War, you wouldn't have had any of that without this assumption.
Now, you know, you don't find that in the Bible. You don't find that promise to -- even the aristocrats after the -- you know, the Magna Carta, after the French Revolution, which, incidentally, came after the American Revolution -- is that you don't find any of those promises guaranteed to citizens. You know what I mean? The captive Africans who came to consciousness in the United States thought of that. I mean, that became their heritage as human beings and that's what they wanted. And when they went off on the Underground Railroad, that's what they were seeking. They were not trying to get back the tribal life in Africa. They said, "Hey, this is a human proposition that's worth being a part of."
When they got the back-to-Africa movements, if you've studied American history, they're not going to go over there to re-establish tribal life, they wanted to establish the United States of Africa. In fact, most people of African descent, when they think about it, even if they're Afrocentric, they really are thinking of Africa as a United States and all these different countries they think are states. Underneath it, you'll find that they really are thinking that they're states, you know. So if it's a bad part of Africa, that's Mississippi or that's Georgia. They say, "This is a good part of Africa, that's New England," or the Midwest or something like that. There's a lot of confusion on that, but to go back to that, I think that should answer your question about Thomas Jefferson. He gives you the basis for the struggle for your humanity and for human dignity, that he had some contradictions in his life, you know.
But somebody was calling me the other day, and they were talking about how many slaves Jefferson had or didn't have and how he treated his slaves or whatnot. And then somebody's now run a survey on how many slaves were held by black slave owners in the United States. And they never get criticized either because it was -- you know, any number of people got into that when it was legal, and it became illegal. The important thing was that the basis for it becoming illegal had already been established by Thomas Jefferson. So -- but this is childish and a Sunday school-type morality to pick out some flaw, what you consider a flaw in our experience and whatnot and overlook the most noble experiment that we know about in the whole business of the human proposition.
LAMB: Go from Thomas Jefferson to Malcolm X. What do you think of what -- what impact did he have on the world?
MURRAY: On me?
LAMB: No, no, on the world. I mean, what ...
MURRAY: On the world?
LAMB: How important has he been in the last 30, 40 years in this country?
MURRAY: Well, I think he helped to sandbag the objectors of the civil rights movement. I mean, they started out claiming their birthright as Americans, which is the only birthrights that they have. They have no birthrights anywhere in the world except in America. And what they're claiming is what was put down there in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. You might enter a different direction. He was satirizing, ridiculing the people who were putting their lives on the line. To claim their American birthright was a big joke to him. He was laughing at these guys, saying they were begging to get into a burning house or something that was falling down. And I don't know of any challenge that he made to the system, you know, like, "We need the vote. Maybe it's wrong for us not to vote and not to be registered, this is ridiculous."
That was the impression that I got from it, and that he thought of King and these people who really were going through the, you know, the ordeal, the confrontations and so forth, he was laughing -- at Selma, he was laughing at these guys. They looked stupid to him. And I didn't really think about it, I just dismissed that as something that was most unfortunate because it got people confused. And what had happened was that the civil rights movement had developed what I thought of as political jujitsu -- that is, how you could use the strength of somebody who was stronger than you against them. And so every time somebody would use the overwhelming power of the so-called establishment, every time somebody would use that in a raw fashion, it would backfire and the civil rights movement would move forward.
Whether it's police prods or police dogs or whatever, it would always backfire and the movement would go forward. Well, that's a very delicate and very sophisticated thing to try to bring off, so you get down to the gut level and you start saying, Oh, that's cowardly. That's not manly. We've got to show these guys that we -- you're going up against the most effective killing machine that we know about. You know, guys who are afraid to go to Harlem even at high noon after six weeks in Paris Island, they'll go anywhere in the world and destroy it. You don't want it -- you've got to have jujitsu, you've got to have some form of jujitsu to work on these men. You don't confront these people head-on, just as you don't confront the blues head-on. How do you beat the blues? By elegance. You don't beat the blues -- it's that insouciance, it's that "don't care if I" elegance that defeats the blues. Can't stand the blues -- I mean, the blues can't stand that. So it's the same thing. You can apply that politically and you get subtlety that beats. That's what had them. What was going on? They were seducing all the white kids out of the universities, and so forth. They wanted to be a part of this. You know what I mean? You had to have a way to separate that, and militancy was a good, easy way. It didn't require any ability or anything, just yell and frighten these guys out of it and fragment the whole thing.
LAMB: You say you left Mobile in what year?
LAMB: Where did you go?
LAMB: Tuskegee Institute?
MURRAY: Right. That's what it was then. Now it's Tuskegee University.
LAMB: How long were you there?
MURRAY: Well, I was a student there for four years, and then I was away, I was a principal of a junior high school down in southwest Georgia. And I started going to grad school, and I came back in 1940, and I was teaching. I was hired to teach remedial English and supervise the night school at Tuskegee. And I stayed there until I was called up for service during World War II. And it turned out that the air base was at Tuskegee, so I ended up back there as a plans and operations training -- plans and training and operations officer at the Tuskegee Army airfield, as it was called at that time. And then after the war, I came to NYU. I had gone to Michigan, I had gone to Northwestern 1940, 1941. When I came to NYU in 1947, '48, when I got out of the service in 1946, I came back to the English department at Tuskegee. By the time I went into the service, I was a regular English teacher. I had started out that first year as a ...
LAMB: How many years did you spend in the air force?
MURRAY: Well, I retired from the Air Force. That's approximately 20 years.
LAMB: So you had a 20-year career?
MURRAY: Yeah. Well, you got credit for reserve time and so forth.
LAMB: Why did you come to Manhattan to live?
MURRAY: Because I was a writer, because I had already begun writing and I thought I'd do it. I was retired, and I really didn't have to -- already had some type of income, you see, so that I could try to write and see what it was going to do. But I went back to Tuskegee in '48 when I had my MA from NYU in literature, and then I went to the University of Paris in the Institut de Fine Etit in 1950 and so I had a literary thing over there. And came back -- then the Korean War broke out, so I was called back into the service. And, well, what happened then was that they were expanding the whole training business of the Air Force and they were expanding the ROTC. So since I was a college teacher and I was a plans and operations specialist, that was a perfect assignment for me, just to keep me right on a college campus somewhere, so I wouldn't have to worry about the reorientation of an Air Force officer to academic life. So I was reassigned to Tuskegee and that was a four-year assignment.
LAMB: How were you picked by Count Basie to write his autobiography?
MURRAY: How was I picked? I'll give you a little story. Willard Alexander, who was his promoter, wanted him to get around to doing a book he'd been promising to write for a long time. So he got in touch with Alec Wilder, who was a composer and a big jazz fan and so forth, and Alec Wilder said, "No, I can't touch it because I wouldn't want Albert Murray to read what I was trying to write about Count Basie. But I would like to read a book that he would help Count Basie write." So Willard Alexander, Basie's producer and promoter, got in touch with me, and I said, "Well, Alec Wilder is a friend of mine, he's a fan. You can't trust him. You have to read something of mine yourself."
So I sent him a copy of "Stomping the Blues" and Alec Wilder was crazy about a book of mine called "South to a Very Old Place." And so he read it and called me back and said, "Why don't you have lunch with Count Basie and see what happens?" Well, I had been involved with Count Basie, you know, as a fan of Count Basie, since the band first struck -- when I was in college in 1936, is when the band came on the scene. I was aware of the whole thing. And I would have done the book for nothing just out of sentimentality because in 1939, my soundtrack was a piece by Count Basie called "Doggin' Around." And I'm still writing "Doggin' Around" because I'm still writing about the rabbit in the briar patch.
So you got Count Basie on the one hand with "Doggin' Around", you got Duke Ellington on the other with "Cottontail," which is a rabbit in a briar patch, which is resilience, which is swinging, you see, which is omni-American. It's that type of thing. So Count Basie and I got together, and I started telling him about my approach to writing, which is based on organizing the material as the jazz musician organizes it. And it's based on trying to reach a language which swings like the music swings, and you get to that in prose through Hemingway, so you've got that four-four, and that's going to echo Walt Whitman and everything else that's vernacular. So you're fulfilling the vernacular imperative -- that is, to deal with experience which is idiomatically American, but deal with it with a technique that would give it universal appeal and affect. And, of course, jazz is our most exportable aesthetic commodity.
LAMB: How well did you know Duke Ellington?
MURRAY: Oh, very closely. We became very close after a number of years. I became a guy he would call to ask things, you know, talk to about books of ideas and so forth. I did programs with him -- radio programs when he came down to Tuskegee and I just hung around with him for a long time. And Billy Strayhorn, who was his arranger and staff adviser on literary matters, used to read things that I would write in the New Leader and various other places to him, so when I would come around again, he would recite these things to me. Duke would recite these things to me. He'd say, "That's pretty good. I like that." And so he became interested in me on that -- as a literary person who was interested in jazz.
LAMB: How well did you know Louis Armstrong?
MURRAY: I didn't know Louis. I just grew up on Armstrong because Louis armstrong was as intimate as, say, Satchel Paige. Of course, Satchel Paige was from Mobile, by the way. He went to Kansas City from Mobile, so I grew up in a baseball town and with all that stuff going, too. But Louis Armstrong was what you grew up knowing when I was in high school. We knew all of the records note by note. You know, we would play it, and we had a band at Mobile County Training School. I used to go when the band was rehearsing. They were getting all the records. They would make the transcriptions of the records. Armstrong was just a part of everything, as much a part of my growing up as the books that I was reading, you know.
And he was there before Hemingway, he was there before Thomas Mann, he was there before Malraux and this stuff. I would fold it all into that, which is why I write what I hope is the literary equivalent to jazz.
LAMB: Those three men you write a lot about in "The Blue Devils of Nada," but you also write a lot about Ernest Hemingway.
LAMB: Why? How does that fit?
MURRAY: Well, it's omni-American. Hemingway created what you could call the grand style of our epoch. In other words, a grand style is not a big -- it doesn't mean grandiose, it means the style or the method of stylizing experience which seems most natural to a given culture at a given time. So people will talk about the long periods of Proustian, the convolutions of Henry James. When you took a manuscript into any editor, he puts on his glasses, he edits it with Hemingway glasses. He cuts out the extra adjectives, back down to where it swings and where it's highly evocative, so it's as if Count Basie and Hemingway were reading the same style sheet at the Kansas City Star. You know what I mean? So he's right there. It's a most American thing. It's most like I grew up talking. He learned how to write like that. And so you come back -- if you're going to put the blues idiom onto something that's already literary, Hemingway would be the guy.
LAMB: There's a paragraph here or a couple of sentences. I want to read it ...
LAMB: ... where you're talking in your book about Ernest Hemingway, and you say here, "A writer, he was convinced, could make himself a nice career by espousing a political cause and working for it, making a profession of believing in it. And if it won, he would be very well placed." Now here's the sentence that I want to ask you about. And you're writing this and you're talking about Ernest Hemingway: "All politics, he said" -- meaning Hemingway -- "is a matter of working hard without reward or with a living wage for a time in hope of booty later." Why did that get your attention?
MURRAY: Well, because I was always suspicious of propaganda, and people who wrote with political ends most obvious were likely to distort their view of life to fit in with the political program that they were espousing at the time. And my conception of literature is on the same level as other people's conception of religion. It is what you live in terms of what you define good and bad conduct or adequate and inadequate conduct, or productive or nonproductive conduct. And your political, your social programs should be geared to a conception of life which is adequate, comprehensive, nothing less than profound. It will be funny, it will be elegant, it will be all those things, because it will be truly human, and it will make possible the various dimensions of humanity, of human capability so that this represents something very serious to me.
Hemingway and Faulkner are all great American achievements in literature of the 20th century, and nobody else in any other country really goes beyond them. They may be bigger in volume, in a sense, but they're not greater, and that includes Thomas Mann, who is my number one 20th century -- Thomas Mann. It includes Andre Malraux and, of course, both Hemingway and Faulkner are right with them. Hemingway, to me, is the deepest of them all. You know about T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," right? People had a good time talking about "The Waste Land" and looking upon contemporary life as barren, and how do we restore the land to the golden age?
Well, that becomes childish when you read Hemingway, when you read "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity," you'll say -- nothingness. You're saying particles and waves, you're saying light-years, you see, whereas in Eliot, his "Wasteland" has implication that you could -- that the fisher king could be healed, you see.
In other words, you've got a wounded ruler, and his wound is reflected in the barrenness of the society. Now if we could restore his health, we restore the health of the nation, you see. Hemingway says you'd have to face the fact that there's nothing out there; it's only what you make. And so when I jump,make the leap to the blues, I say, "How many bars do you have? You don't know. How many of them can you make swing?" That's it. Otherwise, you've missed the sweat on the wine bottle; you've missed life.
You know, when Jake and Bill go fishing in "The Sun Also Rises" and they catch the fish, and they pull the fish out of the pond and they see the fish hit the sun, and then they go down to the stream, they put it in the skillet, and they fry it. And they go down to the stream and get this wine out of this icy stream and pull the wine out and pop the cork, and there's sweat on the wine bottle? If you missed that and how the sun is coming through it, you've missed the whole thing of life. In the end, it's the aesthetic quality of your life which matters. The moral underpinnings are what makes that possible for you. Hemingway suggests all that to me and I take it into the -- try to process the blues idiom details thinking of that. And I come up with what I hope is a most comprehensive theory for American literature.
I don't regard myself as an African-American writer -- I'm an all-American writer, and I want your son and your cousins and so forth to want to be like the heroes that I write about. You know, I try to establish a basis for a national image, for national identity, and you know I've defined our culture as mulatto. You know, it's all interwoven, and it's most ironic that a nation which has achieved such magnificent innovations in communication and transportation could be stuck with the type of provincialism because people are different, because they should lead the world in terms of tolerance, if you want to use that word, in terms of sophistication -- that is, the appreciation of things which are different, that there are always two different ways of approaching. You've got xenophobia or you have exotica. You could get a healthy mix of both. You could be a little worried because they're different, but you could also be fascinated because they're different. You make a synthesis, and it's yours and it's universal.
That to me is what an American intellectual or American writer, the image of man that he should be writing toward, should be struggling for. And I think that the framework of the blues as an intellectual context has a type of improvisation, a type of perpetual creativity -- the open-mindedness, the affirmation in facing adversity. So in other words, if you wake up and you say, "I woke up this morning, blues all around my bed," really look at life as a low-down dirty shame -- now if you're going to cut your throat or you're going to be able to stomp at the Savoy by 9:30 that night? Most Americans operate as if they're going to stomp at the Savoy by 9:30. They don't take the route that Camus said, you know, that, "The first question is: Is life worth living?" To be or not to be? When you decide that, then what are you going to do? You're going to make it possible to enjoy -- to swing as many of those bars as you have.
LAMB: What is Harlem like today?
MURRAY: Well, I think people are very confused or run into certain types of confusion when they talk about Harlem. In its heyday, Harlem was a segregated community. It developed its own, you know, idiomatic character. It was fascinating. It was much more exotic. It called for a more exotic experience than it called for xenophobia, you see -- that is, the hatred of strangers, a fear of strangers. With the expansion of acceptance of the mulatto status of American culture, the mulatto nature of it, you don't have the same type of concentration of that particular idiom that you had at that time. They had to be there, you see? So that it's not like it used to be is not necessarily a matter of decline; it's a matter of expanding.
Those people, they don't want to live there. They want to live in Scarsdale, they want to live in St. Albans, they want to live on Park Avenue and whatnot. I live in Harlem because that was where I'd found a place when I came in 1962. But if I had had the money, I probably would have lived in Greenwich Village to be closer to writers, you know. But it's a very good apartment, you know, like Park West Village. Lenox Terraceis where I live. But I would have lived on Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue if I could afford it. I have no particular reason to live in Harlem except it's the best real estate buy I've come across because I didn't really come to New York to be in Harlem. I came to New York to be near the Strand Bookstore, the Gotham Bookmart, Greenwich Village, the writers, Random House, all of that. That's what it was for me -- 52nd Street, the jazz clubs and so forth. That moved out of Harlem down to 52nd. Those guys who are playing on 52nd Street were not homesick for Harlem. The guys in Harlem were trying to get down to 52nd Street, you see? So that you get a lot of sentimentality about things that people really didn't go through, didn't experience. I didn't live in Harlem at the -- I used to come up here and all, but that's whole topic in itself.
LAMB: How would you define your political views today?
MURRAY: My political views?
LAMB: Are you a Republican, a Democrat?
MURRAY: Well, basically I'm a Democrat, I mean, but I don't criticize people for being Republicans. But I criticize them for being reactionary or too conservative and so forth. But the people that I know -- you know, like friends of mine who happen to be Republicans, traditionally Republicans, I don't see anything wrong with them at all. I think they're very sophisticated. They have power, they exercise power; they've gotten good jobs in the Republican administration. They're certainly not against themselves. They're there for the same objectives that I am. they just figure that you
have to have another political base to work from.
LAMB: Who's your favorite, or who do you admire the most in your lifetime, in politics?
MURRAY: In politics?
LAMB: Political leader. A president, a political leader, somebody that you admire?
MURRAY: Roosevelt, of course. I mean, Roosevelt , I'm Roosevelt's generation. I came to adulthood under Roosevelt and Johnson. I have a section in "South to a Very Old Place" which I wrote about Johnson and what a Southerner like me would think of him. And I got a letter from Jack Valenti after a visit down to Johnson's ranch. And Johnson had read this section of "South to a Very Old Place." They'd taken him into his library, put him in his favorite overstuffed chair, pulled down my book and read it to him, where there's an old guy sitting on a fig tree talking about Lyndon Johnson.
And Johnson said, "I knew those people down there would know what I was trying to do." That's what the guy actually said -- you know, all this liberal stuff, fine. We don't know how else we can trust that, but when a guy from down here says he's for civil rights, you can believe him because he's burned a lot of bridges behind him so he's going to really follow through. He's not going to back up because some other Southerners are going to browbeat him. So they had a kind of trust in him that made him very acceptable.
LAMB: When Henry Louis Gates wrote about you, they had this picture in The New Yorker. Where did they take that?
MURRAY: Some English photographer took that. I think he was trying to compete with Louis Avedon or somebody to see how he could do, but to me, it looks like Miles Davis about to announce his next number.
LAMB: Did you get much reaction out of this New Yorker piece about you?
MURRAY: Yes, but not as much as the -- well, I guess so, but not any more than the Newsweek piece.
LAMB: One of the things that Henry Louis Gates writes about is your friendship with Stanley Crouch, and Stanley Crouch was on this program and he's now a "60 Minutes" commentator, and he's gotten a lot of visibility. When you get together and talk, what do you talk about?
MURRAY: Well, that goes back a long ways. I mean, he's too busy to get together and talk now. I mean, he's doing his own thing. But he was brought to see me by a friend of his named Larry Neal, who was a poet and who had done an anthology with Leroi Jones or Amiri Baraka, and Crouch came up, and he looked at my books and so forth, and Neal was a guy who was very much interested in trying to approach things on a high -- on a very sophisticated intellectual level, not just a matter of slinging slogans around. And Crouch is very fascinated with books and so forth, and he had certain attitudes towards certain writers and I've challenged those attitudes, like Hemingway, Faulkner and what-not. And he thought that Faulkner was prejudiced, you know, and other things like that. I don't think he had read Thomas Mann or I don't know how much he had read of Malraux or his aesthetic theories and things like that, but he just enjoyed talking to me, and so he'd call me from time to time. And Crouch will call you from anywhere. I mean, he'll call you from California -- when he was in California -- then when he came to New York, he got in touch with me.
LAMB: What was your friendship with Ralph Waldo Ellison like?
MURRAY: Well, he was an upperclassman when I was a freshman and, as I pointed out to Skip, I saw him working in a library, and I knew he was in the school of music, but what really drew me -- made me pay attention to him was that the books that I was looking for in the library, when I got the books, he had read them, you see. And I said, "Well, there's an upperclassman worth some respect," because I was checking these guys out.
I didn't know how many were serious, how many were shucking, how many was just being Joe College or what-not. And I was looking for serious people who had really tried to come to terms with that stuff that I had started in the chinaberry tree, you know, in the third grade, and he seemed to represent that. And the years later, well, I asked my buddy -- I had a buddy there who was smarter than anybody that I met at Tuskegee. The smartest guy I met at Tuskegee was a guy named Gerald Hamilton and he's in two novels and he's in "South to a Very Old Place." But he was the guy that had the biggest influence on my reading because he had read everything. We didn't have those books in the library at Mobile County Training School. I read what was there, but we didn't have the type of books that he had in Detroit. You see what I mean?
And he had made use of the difference between being a Northern boy and a Southern boy. He used it -- he went to the art museums and all that sort of thing. So he was a guy that had a big influence on me. And I asked him about Ellison, and he said, "Yeah, he's a pretty good guy," because he'd go over to the music school and hang out, and maybe play French horn or something. He could do anything, my buddy Gerald Hamilton. And so he briefed me on Ellison -- "He probably reads that stuff, you know."
So later on, I got to know Ellison in New York, and by this time, here was a guy from the South, from the Deep South -- because he's from Oklahoma, not the Deep South -- from the Deep South, who was as interested in books as he was, so we had to exchange ideas and so forth because we could communicate. And I think that he could communicate with me, although he knew many more people in New York at that time because he had been in New York since 1937. And we were getting together about 1947, actually, because I had met, during the war when I was in New York -- '42 or something like that -- a couple of times during the war. But when I came to graduate school in the fall of '47, he was working on "Invisible Man" and he had just published the first excerpt from it in Horizon magazine.
It was on the stands that September and I read -- and we got together, and then we started reading "Invisible Man." I mean, you know, I had gone through the Faulkner and all this, I knew the South, and I knew the other things that the Partisan Review Literary Club was reading because I was into all that -- Edmund Wilson, all of the, you know, Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom, all that -- I had gone through at Tuskegee because I was teaching the stuff, you know, and by this time, he knew Kenneth Burke, and he and Stanley Edgar Hyman were doing -- going through the work of Kenneth Burke with Kenneth Burke, you know? I was into Thomas Mann and Hemingway and Faulkner. And Ralph had had -- we had a number of things that we actually shared, and we had that idiomatic base. But I was actually more interested in the musical implications of that than he was because by this time, he was no longer regarding himself as a musician. He was more interested in political aspects of it.
LAMB: Have you ever played an instrument?
MURRAY: Well, I used to play around with rhythm instruments and bass fiddle, stuff like that.
LAMB: Did you marry?
MURRAY: Did I what?
LAMB: Marry. Married.
MURRAY: Am I married?
MURRAY: I have the prettiest wife in the world, and I've been married -- I will have been married to her 55 years on the 31st of May.
MURRAY: I have one child who's -- I have one offspring who's not a child, who was, in her younger days, was an Alvin Ailey dancer. She went to Juilliard and then… out to go with Alvin Ailey, and she was a dancer for a while. So we've been interested in the arts, things like that. My wife is a retired public school teacher.
LAMB: Are you still writing?
MURRAY: I think so.
LAMB: You have another book you're working on?
MURRAY: Well, I think that I'm not through with Scooter. And...
LAMB: Scooter was your main character in your trilogy.
MURRAY: He was -- right. I mean, his little saying, his little motto is, you know, "My name is Jack the rabbit and my home is in the briar patch." The whole idea is resilience. The briar patch, but who has a better coat than a rabbit? It's not scratch -- you got to have the resilience, the elegance in your movement, the hipness of your outlook that will get you through the briar patch, you see? And the whole idea, of course, if you're going to be a rabbit is not to get stuck to a tar baby because they get into some dark topic that you don't know about, you know, and you're going to ask some stupid questions and then get mad because you can't get the answers and end up stuck in darkness, you know.
My novel is about what I want to be the ideal American character. I want to -- everybody wants to be -- just like when you put your horn, put a trumpet to your mouth, you want to be Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie or my young friend Wynton Marsalis -- put you in front of a band -- I keep telling everybody this, you know. You might look like a Viking; put you in front of a band, you wish you were Duke Ellington or Count Basie. And I want main characters to be that way, too, just as I was Odysseus, I was Siegfried, I was Beowulf, I was Roland -- I was all these people. They want -- I want them to be Scooter. That's the only objective for an ambitious writer: to take those idiomatic particulars and make something universal out of it that is true for mankind at large. That's the only thing worth struggling for because writing is not easy.
LAMB: Where do we -- if we saw you writing, what would the circumstances be? Where do you write? How do you write?
MURRAY: Well, I write at home. I have a little wing off my living room which was really designed as a breakfast nook that leads out to the terrace. I have a desk there that I designed. And then in this corner over here I have the sound equipment for my -- you know, Macintosh CD player and a Bang & Olafson record player and a real good sound system, and the speakers are out there, part of the room. And I have books on those shelves and books along the other shelves. I mean, it's like a studio. And I'm looking downtown in my library because I'm between Lenox, which is Sixth Avenue uptown, and Fifth, so I'm right in the center of Manhattan. So I'm right back up in "The Spyglass Tree," which is the title of my second novel, where you have that perspective on Manhattan, and I try to make the most of it.
LAMB: How do you write? Do you write on typewriter, computer or...
MURRAY: I write with a pencil. I mean, I write with a ballpoint pen and then I dictate it. I have a computer operator, a friend who's a research assistant and computer operator and librarian, and I dictate it till I get the -- I write on legal paper. And then I look at it, and then I sit beside the computer operator and dictate it from the legal paper and look at it and revise it as I see it, because I want you to hear it as well as see it. I want you to hear it when you see it, and that helps me to do that. And I'm so busy writing I don't have time to learn the computer. I never find that break. The time when I take the break to master the keyboard, I would rather see what I've written than to do it, but I used to peck out some drafts. I wrote all of "The Hero and The Blues" on a typewriter, on my Royal portable, you know.
LAMB: Do you listen to music while you're writing?
LAMB: You listen to the music while you're writing?
MURRAY: Not necessarily. No, I listen to music a lot, but generally it's in my head, and my books are geared to music. If you read a novel, I could play a soundtrack. I have a whole tape of soundtrack that goes with everything, you see. It's my Proustian Madeleine. You know when Proust tastes the tea, sticks the Madeleine, the cookie -- the little thing into the tea and tastes it, and it brings back all that "remembrance of things past" on such a lost time. When I play certain pieces of music, the people come alive and I can hear them talking, and I can do what I want to do with them, so I can get back to it.
And when I read at colleges and so forth, I generally read the soundtrack and then read some of the -- I mean, play the soundtrack and then read some of the material that goes with it. For example, "South to a Very Old Place" starts by catching the A train and going to Harlem, you're going south. It says, "You can take the A train uptown from midtown Manhattan and be there in less than 10 minutes." There is a stop at 59th Street beneath the traffic circle which commemorates Christopher Columbus, who once set out on destinations east and compass bearings west. But after that, as often as not, there are only six more express minutes to go. Then you're coming out of the 125th Street station, and you're that many more miles north of Mobile, Alabama, but you're back among home folks no matter what part of the old country you come from.
LAMB: Albert Murray, our guest. His book is called "The Blue Devils of Nada," and we thank you for joining us.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.