As I mature I’m starting to get more like my late maternal grandmother, Mrs. Lola Jackson, by going to services for people I didn’t personally know and it is getting spooky folks. I was drawn to Albert Murray’s memorial service held at Jazz on Lincoln Center on Wednesday, September 10th because we shared several interests and I wanted to get to know more about his life. We both love living in Harlem, jazz and blues music, fine dining and have a Masters degree from NYU. The fact that he was a Southern born man that lived to be 97 years old and was married for 72 years to Mozelle Menefee, the love of his life until his death on August 18, 2013 made him even more interesting because I like Southern born men that live in NYC with staying power.
First off this was definitely a celebration of Albert Murray’s life, and it was the best memorial service I have ever attended. By the end of the program I felt like I knew Albert Murray too. Born in Nokomis, Alabama on May 12, 1916 and educated in Mobile, Alabama through a school system that expected any Negro child showing promise to go to college. Albert arrived at Tuskegee Institute in 1935 and received his Bachelor’s degree in 1939. He entered the U.S. Air Force in 1943, and retired as a major in 1962.
It was doing his military career that he earned a M.A. from New York University, and stuck up a life long friendship with noted writer Ralph Ellison, who also attended Tuskegee. Mr. Murray’s writing career truly began after he retired from the military, and his first book, The Omni-Americans: Black Experience & American Culture was published in 1970 and received critical acclaim.
He and the painter, Romare Bearden were also close friends, and Bearden’s 1971 six panel, 18 foot collage “The Block” was inspired by the view from Albert’s Harlem apartment. Murray’s 1976 publication of Stomping the Blues sealed his reputation as one of the preeminent chroniclers of the blues. His writing continues to help succeeding generations understand blues music and the people who made it. Besides the sadness of love gained and lost, Murray felt that blues was happy music that got people snapping their fingers, laughing and dancing; he got it.
Mr. Murray started publishing his works in 1970 and his last work was published in 2005. In 1985 he co authored Count Basie’s autobiography Good Morning Blues. He received greater attention in the 1980s and 1990s due to his influence on jazz critic Stanley Crouch, and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Along with Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray was the co founder of the program and the institution known as Jazz at Lincoln Center with the idea that jazz is a fine art, not just a pop art.
During the service, noted jazz musician Jimmy Heath read from his 1971 publication South to a Very Old Place. Wynton Marsalis read from his 1974 publication Train Whistle Guitar. Noted dancer & dance choreographer Judith Jamison read from his 2005 publication The Magic Keys. US Air Force Colonel Robert S. Spalding III read from his 2001 publication Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray that is a publication of correspondence between the two friends that span the decade of the 1950s.
His only child, a daughter named Michele Murray, a former Alvin Ailey dancer spoke briefly thanking every one for the outpouring of love towards her family. Close friends and associates spoke about his impact on their lives and work as well. Jazz and blues music was song and played by Lincoln Center’s Jazz Orchestra throughout the entire three hour program.
I left the service vowing to read more of his works over the coming year and to think about a way to pay tribute to his legacy because I feel like Mr. Murray was a part of the village that raised me too.