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David Murray April 9, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in David Murray, Jazz.

David Murray has been one of the most lauded of saxophonists of the last thirty-five years. His recorded output and concert appearances are prolific. He claims he has recorded on over 260 records, and his touring schedule from current base in Paris criss-crosses the world’s continents.

He has worked with an impressively wide range of collaborators from within and outside the Jazz tradition. Today he is as likely to play and record with African, or Caribbean musicians, as he is with those who from one of the many US or European Jazz traditions. His playing is often seen as a classic case of ‘out’ improvisation, yet he draws substantially on the full history of Jazz in his recordings of compositions and themes. He has worked with a wide range of cult North American, European and Japanese independent jazz record labels, and is featured on major festival and concert circuit in many parts of the world. At the same time he is little known even inside the Jazz world.

His career raises many interesting questions about the Jazz musician’s relationship to innovation, and to the development of Jazz since the 1960s.

In this paper I want to explore where his musical imperatives derive from, and more importantly to connect Murray’s developing career and his musical explorations to the cultural philosophy and political economy of recording contracts and concert appearances that has sustained him financially. In doing so I seek to understand why Murray wants to explore the language of Jazz and other music, and how he is able to do so.

To do this I have analysed 120 of his key recordings and undertaken a historiography of his career. This is the first of a series of articles on Murray’s career.

Murray as a progressive musician

To achieve this I use Scott DeVeaux’s notion of the ‘Progressive musician’ that he proposes in his study of Coleman Hawkins and his relationship to the Be Bop musicians of the 1940s. I find DeVeaux’s approach to Jazz historiography exemplary. He argues for the study of Jazz history as an examination of its “‘disciplinary matrix’: the sum total of practices, values and commitments that define Jazz as a profession” (44). His analysis of Coleman is a blend of cultural practice and political economy.

Centrally I translate DeVeaux’s key research question from a study of the 1930s to the 1950s, into a study of the 1970s to 2000s.

“What does it mean for a young African-American man to pursue the career of professional Jazz musician in the last decades of the twentieth century? In particular, what did it mean for him to be progressive?” (paraphrasing DeVeaux, 45).

There are some interesting parallels between Hawkins and Murray.
• Hawkins set the standard for the tenor saxophone, and showed how it could be used for virtuoso performance; Murray explored its outer limits playing outside its conventional range.
• They both escaped what they saw as a restricted Jazz scene in New York to live in Paris and Northern Europe, playing with a diverse musicians and absorbing musical ideas from outside Jazz.
• They both played a pivotal role in constituting a new sense of what Jazz improvisation and group interaction was.

Unlike Murray, though, Hawkins achieved both critical and popular success. His recording of ‘Body and Soul’ was a commercial lucrative release, and a mainstay of black jukeboxes and white jazz aficionados’ record collections. It is also one of the most analysed of Jazz recordings.

Murray is very aware of Hawkins’ importance, and of his Body and Soul recording. The song is the most recorded piece by Murray [six times in my sample]. It was the first standard he recorded in 1978 when he produced a solo rendition, and while he played nearly 20 John Coltrane compositions, many tunes associated with other tenor players, and dozens of standards once or twice, he came back to the Body and Soul in 1983, and produced four versions of it in the early 1990s.

February 1978 solo live on Organic Saxophone [1978] Palm 31
September 1983 Quartet on Morning Song [1984] Black Saint
December 1990 Quartet as The Bob Thiele Collective on Sunrise Sunset [1992] Red Barron
May 1990 duo with pianist George Arvanitas on Tea for Two [1991]
April 1991 duo with pianist Aki Takase on Blue Monk [1991]
February 1993 Quartet with vocalist Taana Running on Body and Soul [1994]

In this later period Murray’s output is at its most eclectic, and by the middle of the decade he had moved to Paris, and began recording extensively with African and Caribbean musicians.

DeVeaux locates an idea of progress as central to African American culture of the later 19th century and well into the 20th. It is particularly important in the rhetoric of black self-help philosophy of African American leaders like Booker T Washington, where individual self improvement and communal collaboration were seen as the means through which the race could progress. Craig Werner has suggested that we can identify a Jazz impulse in African American society in which the past is remade into multiple possibilities. He cites Ralph Ellison’s notion of Jazz as a constant process of redefinition on three levels of individuality, community and tradition [Shadow and Act].

These are important ideas to understand Murray’s music and career, and his place in a wider culture and political economy.

To trace the “practices, values and commitments” that DeVeaux highlights I intend to divide Murray’s career broadly into four parts:

1. The 1970s characterised by Murray’s move from the West Coast world of college and Black Arts movements to New York’s loft scene and European festivals.
2. Starting in 1980 and focused on his output for the Italian Black Saint label, and his development of composition, his work with big bands and his engagement with the Jazz tradition to 1987
3. 1988 to 1995 and his output on DIW, Colombia, and Red Baron
4. Finally the last ten years, his recordings for Justin Time, his residence in Paris and his engagement with ethnomusicology

1. Black Arts Movement, Loft Jazz, European Festivals, and Small Independents

The standard Murray biography goes something like this.

Murray’s mother played piano and his father guitar. In his youth, Murray played music in church with his family. He was introduced to jazz while a student in the Berkeley school system, playing alto sax in a school band. When he was 13, he played in a local R&B and Rock groups. Hearing Sonny Rollins inspired Murray to switch from alto to tenor. He attended Pomona College, where he studied with a former trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Around this time, he was influenced by the writer Stanley Crouch. Murray moved to New York at the age of 20, during the city’s Loft Jazz era.

Those musical roots of gospel, R&B, and art Jazz were key to Murray’s whole development. By comparison with Hawkins who started as a journeyman dance musician in the 1920s, came to fame as a featured soloist in Swing bands of the 1930s, and achieved influence through his involvement with the New York Be Bop movement in the 1940s, Murray enjoyed a musical education of considerable freedom and privilege. By the 1970s Liberal Arts colleges like Pomona were playing host to significant black arts movements, with parallel community-based which grew out of the black power movement.

The best known is AACM in Chicago, but an important equivalent was to be found in BAG (Black Arts Group) in St Louis and other major cities. There were common threads to these black arts musicians: a strong emphasis on Afro-centricism in dress, imagery, inter-textuality of names; collaboration with visual and performing artists; a commitment to independent venues and record distribution; and often a stress on social and educational, as well as musical goals.

Often funded by art grants, and playing to progressive multi-cultural audiences, these groups created creative milieu in which experimentation was highly valued. Although initially locally-based in the US, there was a particular European enthusiasm for this collective Avant Guard, expressed through the programming in festivals and concerts and the release of recordings on small independent record labels.

Following in Hawkins’ footprints many of the leading members of these arts groups moved first to Europe, and then to New York where an alternative scene was developing in disused industrial buildings in Manhattan. This loft scene which drew Murray together with other key musicians from the Black Arts collectives from other major cities. Here they mixed with the earlier generation of free players who had followed the innovations of Coltrane, Coleman and Ayler.

Murray’s first recordings are strongly rooted in this Milieu. Almost all recorded live, in New York and Europe for small independent labels on single release contracts.

Studio Rivbea New York May 1976
The Ladies’ Fort New York June 1976
St. Marks Church New York 1976
International New Jazz Festival Moers June 1977
Bimhuis Amsterdam August 1977
Lower Manhattan Ocean Club New York December 1977
Unnamed Rouen January 1978
Theatre Mouffetard Paris February 1978

Blue Rock Studio, NYC June 1976

18 releases; 11 labels

Black Saint
hat ART
India Navigation
Red Record

Five releases on five labels as a sideman including first World Saxophone Quartet

Reality Unit Concepts
Moers Music
Black Saint

The music is created out of practices of collective experimentation, a rejection of form in the Be Bop tradition, but with a strong emphasis on exploration of the instrument as a machine that produced sound.

Shout Song Wildflowers: The New York Loft Sessions 1976 Douglas 10
[recorded May 1976 at Studio Rivbea, NYC]
Quartet: David Murray (ts), Olu Dara (tp), Fred Hopkins (b), Stanley Crouch (d) Composed by: David Murray

The group is typical of Murray’s output featuring a piano-less quartet, and distinctly different roles from the usual idea of rhythm section and soloists.

The Wallflower series of CDs were set of recordings made at Sam Rivers’ loft space in Manhattan in 1976. They capture the music being made in these post-industrial spaces, where since the late 1950s musicians or arts collectives hired large, cheap spaces in old warehouses and factories and organised gigs where musicians could play together and experiment. The echoes of the after-hours jam sessions that Hawkins frequented in the 1940s, and where different generations of musicians played together is strong. But the lofts were controlled by musicians, who often worked, lived and slept there, and the cutting-contests of swing and Be Bop were replaced by large ensemble playing and multimedia performances. This was a key component of the infrastructure that brought creative musicians together and sustained their experiments economically.

We should also note the involvement of Stanley Crouch in the band. I pick up Crouch’s relationship between Murray at several points, but I should note here that Crouch had taught Murray at Pomona, and played drums with many times on the West coast. He moved to New York in the mid 1970s to pursue his interest in black cultural politics and journalism, and became a member of his Low Class Conspiracy band, and an advocate for Murray. He played drums on four of Murray’s early live recordings, and contributed compositions to Murray’s repertoire.

1976 Wildflowers Four
1976 Live at Peace Church
1977 Penthouse Jazz
1977 Holy Siege on Intrigue

Crouch tunes recorded by Murray:
Noteworthy Lady on Sur-Real Saxophone
Monica in Monk’s Window on Organic Saxophone

The treads of the black arts movement, New York Loft Jazz and European sustenance, and the commitment to a new aesthetic of music making, though, is best exemplified by the work of the World Saxophone Quartet, co-founded by Murray with sax plays of a generation older: Lake, Bluiett, and Hemphill (all of whom had all been members of BAG). Lake has suggested that the saxophone quartet unit grew out of “a situation in St Louis where we played solos or duos or trios with different combinations of instruments”, and the disbanding of the notion of a rhythm section. But it also clearly had its origins in Hemphill’s involvement in Anthony Braxton’s saxophone-only ensembles. Again, as their first live recording shows, free improvisation is the key strategy and dissonance a major product. However, the unit’s main pre-occupation is the sound of individual instruments – particularly the sounds and intensity of African American music from gospel, through honking R&B, and ‘flattened’ blues – and the relationship between different players, especially an emphasis on contrast, counter point. Although commentators tend to talk about this period in Murray’s career as one of “confrontational free-jazz” improvisation, composition and arrangement are important parts of his approach (Scaruffi).

The second WSQ record, along with Murray’s Interboogiology, also appeared on the Italian Black Saint record label. Murray’s relationship with the label was to define his next seven years of musical exploration. Jazz historian Piero Scaruffi has suggested that this latter record initiates a new period in Murray’s work, with an emphasis on composition. On Interboogiology he is still working in his then preferred format of a piano-less quartet, but the strong written themes and arrangements that had been apparent in many of his recordings become more central. He’d next develop this approach with larger ensembles.

Click here for Part Two



1. dubber - April 10, 2007

Just out of curiosity, how much of Murray’s often-cited early biography (church, piano, mother, etc.) actually turns up as a thread of influence in his later work? Is this ‘nurtured’ musical environment a constant in any respect — or is it irrelevant to his output as he adapts to these different environments?

More interestingly, to what extent do you think that’s deliberate?

2. wallofsound - April 10, 2007

Gospel certainly became a major preoccupation of Murray’s in later phases of his recording career. He covers dozens of gospel tracks including three versions of Amazing Grace in the 1990s. This turn was deliberate as well. Murray always cites these facts of his early musical life in interviews, stressing their importance.

More significantly, though, in the 1970s he constructs his alternative to Coltrane’s then dominant tenor sound directly on forms of gospel testifying. Right from the beginning his exploration of free jazz is an investigation of black musical sound. Although he is often seen as an inheritor of Albert Ayler’s approach, I think this is misleading. Any similarity comes from their shared interest in gospel intensity and emotional expression, rather than of technique.

Murray plays the wrong notes, but the right sounds.

The piano issue is an interesting one as well. He only played with one pianist (Don Pullen) in the first phase of his career, but later produced a string of sax-piano duets. I’m not trying to suggest any sort of Oedipus complex by the way, but he clearly begins to see this duo format as a way to explore many of the themes that than interested him. His piano players are interesting. They are most often interested in black musical forms, and his most frequent collaborator in the form, Dave Burrell, combined avant guard playing with a scholarly interest in early black piano styles (particularly stride).

3. Lucky - April 11, 2007

Just found you via Dest. Out – what a great work you’ve done to sort out Murray’s extensive discography! Since hearing his ‘Ming’ album on Black Saint I’m totally in love with his early work as a composer. I’ve heard some of his later DIW-recordings, but the big difference for me lies in sound, and of course the group members – can a group beat the early line-ups featuring Threadgill, Dara etc.? Certainly not. And Murray was a hell of a bandleader, very much in comparison to the groups lead by Jack DeJohnette at that time (my amateurish opinion, of course!).

Thanks for all your wonderful info!!!

4. wallofsound - April 11, 2007

Glad you found this useful, Lucky. Hopefully you have also now seen part two. Part three will follow in a few days. When I get the time I’ll put up a full discography.

I don’t know if you are aware that Murray played in two of DeJohnette’s Special Edition recordings (Album Album [ECM 1280] and Special Edition [ECM 1152] and that they did a great duet together (In Our Style [DIW 819]).

5. Lucky - April 17, 2007

yep – exactly this 2 special edition releases i had in mind – WONDERFUL music! i haven’t heard the duet, though.
there was much going on at that time – end 70s/early 80s, and dejohnette and murray have been composed magnificent works – just like muhal richard abrams btw., who also released many works on black saint.

to read through your extensive writing will take me some time – thanks for your work!


6. Jim Sheehan - April 27, 2007

I’m delighted to see someone attempting such an ambitious analysis of this great American artist. I really appreciate your effort.

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