Famed author and native Mobilian Albert Murray, a man whose prose employed jazz and blues rhythms and whose correspondence with other artists such as Romare Bearden and Ralph Ellison was essential to American cultural history, died Aug. 18 while sleeping in his Manhattan apartment. The man of letters and celebrated “black intellectual’s maverick patriarch” was 97.
Murray’s idiosyncratic style came in handy when he challenged ideas of black separatism in the 1960s, arguing that African-American culture and American culture at large were inseparable.
“The United States is not a nation of black and white people,” Murray wrote. “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” America, he maintained, “even in its most rigidly segregated precincts,” was ‘incontestably mulatto,” a “nation of multicolored people,” or Omni-Americans: “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian — and part Negro.”
Born Albert Lee Murray in tiny Nokomis, Ala., May 12, 1919, he was given to adoptive parents who moved to Magazine Point, on the northern edge of Mobile. At Mobile County Training School, Murray earned letters in three sports and was voted best all-around student.
Murray enrolled at then-Tuskegee Institute and dove into the literary giants of his day. He also struck up a friendship with another student who would join that pantheon, future “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison.
In 1941, Murray married college sweetheart Mozelle Menefee. She survives him as does daughter Michéle Murray, who went on to dance with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
He left graduate school at the University of Michigan to take a teaching position at Tuskegee. In 1943, he joined the Army Air Corps.
After World War II, Murray moved to New York City and earned a master’s degree at New York University on the G.I. Bill. In 1951, he rejoined the Air Force.
His military service took him around the globe, chiefly as an instructor in geopolitics. Assignments shuffled him to North Africa, Northwestern University, the University of Paris, the University of Chicago and even back to Tuskegee.
Retiring as a major in 1962, he dove into a new literary career, first penning “The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture.” Writer Walker Percy said it might be “the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture.”
In the New Yorker, author Robert Coles once wrote that Murray possessed “the poet’s language, the novelist’s sensibility, the essayist’s clarity, the jazzman’s imagination, and the gospel singer’s depth of feeling.”
The praise earned Murray esteem. He held visiting professorships at the University of Massachusetts, Barnard, Columbia, Emory, Colgate and other schools.
Murray began to churn out work to make up for lost time. Among the most acclaimed of the nine books he produced were “Stomping the Blues” (1976), “Train, Whistle Guitar” (1974) and “South to a Very Old Place” (1971), the latter of which traces his journey back to the land of his youth.
In addition to the word, music captivated his interests. As a strident champion of jazz and blues, he influenced a generation of critics such as Stanley Crouch and in turn fed the Young Lions movement of American jazz in the last decades of the 20th century. He went on to help found Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In 2003, Murray received a Distinguished Artist Award from the Alabama State Arts Council and was named one of Manhattan’s “cultural icons over the age of 90” in his last years.