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David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician (Part One). August 28, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in David Murray, Jazz, Music Industry.

I’ve now completed the final draft of my article about David Murray. I publish it here in three parts. If you’ve seen some of the drafts before you’ll notice some of the development and distilling that has gone on. I’ll let you know if it gets published. Let me know what you think.

David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician.

David Murray is one of the most lauded of saxophonists of the last thirty years, a prolific composer, concert performer and recording artist, and an eclectic collaborator within and outside the jazz tradition. He plays both the tenor saxophone and the less often deployed bass clarinet.

Originally from California, Murray made his name in jazz in the 1970s New York loft scene, but today is resident in Paris. His early music is seen as a classic case of ‘out’ improvisation, yet he draws on the full history of African American jazz, and today he most often plays with African or Caribbean musicians. He has a remarkably large thirty-year discography of well over 200 records built up through releases on small independent jazz record labels. Murray has been able to sustain a professional career by relating to the interests of a diverse audience in North America, Europe and Asia.

Shipton captures Murray’s developing approach in his distilled summary of the saxophonist’s career:

His extension of instrumental technique has been matched by a bewildering variety of ensembles … he has managed to bring many of the most exciting and challenging aspects of free jazz into a setting that is not daunting for general audiences, and by working with musicians in many parts of the world, has taken his approach to new listeners and new musicians, who find him an inspiring figure.
(2001: 885)

Murray’s career raises many interesting questions about the jazz musician’s relationship to innovation, and to the development of jazz since the 1970s. He is often positioned as a representative of progressivism in jazz against a neo-traditionalist pole most often assigned to Wynton Marsalis. The latter position is seen as an exploration of older jazz styles as a reaction to both the perceived shortcomings of the avant garde and jazz-funk streams of 1960s and 70s jazz (Gridley 1997: 337). By contrast the idea of progressivism is associated with two interconnecting post-1960s ‘styles’ – free jazz and postmodern jazz – with Murray being an exemplar of both in different accounts (see for instance Gridley 1997: 338; Shipton 2001: 873 – 887).

There have been times when both Murray and Marsalis have played their part in this polarisation, leading Murray to argue: ‘I’m not scared off by (Wynton Marsalis’s) bullshit. …This is the most non-creative period in the whole history of jazz. … They’ve stopped the clock and gone back again to the 60s, late 50s, to define jazz” (Murray quoted in Nicholson 2000).

The matter, however, is not as clear-cut as this polarisation suggests, and I will avoid any sterile recounting of the Marsalis versus Murray debate. While contrasts between Murray and Marsalis can provide insight, their music and value systems intersect in significant ways, particular through the cultural critic Stanley Crouch, who has been central to both men’s careers.

I want to understand the distinct cultural and political economic conditions which have allowed and enabled Murray to start and develop his exploration of the language of jazz and other music over thirty years. It is productive to identify four main stages in this period, each characterized by different economic relationships, different discursive practices, and different sounding music. The major part of this article focuses on a discussion of the first period in the 1970s when Murray starts his engagement with jazz, because it is here that the key ingredients of his career become manifest. These bring out important themes about the political economy in which Murray worked, and how African American and European cultural values relate to Murray’s own music and practices. The discussion also allows me to re-evaluate some of the wider discussions about jazz which have too often been reduced to the neo-traditionalists versus progressives polarization. Latterly, I explore the early to mid 1980s when Murray expanded his work to larger ensembles; the next period in which his work is critically appraised as moving towards the neo-traditional and becomes more widely available; and finally the last decade or so when his residence in Paris is reflected in an engagement with a wider ethnomusicology.

To do this I have undertaken a historiography focusing on 1975 to 1979, but contextualized by his later work and the cultural and political milieu in which he worked. I catalogued 150 of his key recordings, utilized recent interviews with the participants, and interpreted published sources including contemporaneous reporting, biographies, and critical comment. I draw on an analytical framework adapted from Scott DeVeaux’s notion of the ‘Progressive musician’, initially proposed in his study of Coleman Hawkins and his relationship to the early Be Bop musicians (1997).

David Murray and the idea of the progressive musician

I begin with a key research question which paraphrases DeVeaux’s own starting point:

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).

DeVeaux 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). He derives this idea from Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) analysis of paradigm shifts in science, and applies it to bebop as a paradigm shift in jazz. By extension I want to explore the 1970s New York new music scene as such a paradigm shift, and Murray as one of its key progressive musicians. In applying DeVeaux’s framework to Murray’s career we need to understand how jazz musicians make a living through live venues, record companies and the media, as well as deal with the shifting and contested notions of progress which are deployed in jazz culture.

DeVeaux locates the idea of progress in the rhetoric of African American leaders like Booker T Washington, about individual self-improvement and communal collaboration (45). Yet ‘progress’ is open to a far greater range of inflections, each deeply entwined with ideas of modernism. Craig Werner’s articulation of a ‘jazz impulse’ as a dialectical relationship between the past and future threading through the history of popular music, draws on Ralph Ellison in asserting that jazz musicians remake the past of individuality, community and tradition into multiple new possibilities (Ellison 1972; Werner 1999). While ideas of ‘remaking the past’ – redefining one’s sense of self, community and tradition – are central to the cultural processes through which Murray explores and redefines jazz, in attempting to define African American notions of progress, Werner and Ellison lose Kuhn’s sense of history as a series of revolutionary paradigm shifts.

Discussions of progressivism in jazz have too often reduced to arguing that jazz is, or is not, a form of black cultural expression (see for instance Murray 1976; Collier 1993) when jazz’s meanings and practices are clearly articulations of the interaction of African American and European senses of jazz as art, entertainment, and commerce, and its practitioners as artists, entertainers, or entrepreneurs. It is essential, then, to examine the disciplinary matrix in which a musician like Murray operated in terms of both the African American and European values and cultural practices which were at play .

I have in mind a notion of jazz history with two dimensions: a synchronic one that focuses on the interaction between a set of African American-derived, and a set of European-derived senses of progress at a particular moment; and a diachronic one that focuses on the meaningful interaction between socio-musical practices which operated at different times. This allows me to embrace both the immediate practices of Murray’s milieu, but also the way these practices relate to a past of, and future for, jazz and the critical commentary which frames the way Murray’s music and career is interpreted. As I will show, the critical commentary has tended to fetishize certain aspects of Murray’s performance – seeing them narrowly as articulations of creative and political freedom – and ignoring alternative notions of progress used by the musicians themselves.

When Murray performed in the US and Europe from the 1970s onwards, then, on the one hand he was participating in a paradigm shift in what constituted jazz, while on the other these changes were set in the context of discursive practices which constituted earlier paradigm shifts. In the narrative of the neo-traditionalists the musicians of this period neglect the values that make up what Martin Williams’ (1970) termed the ‘jazz tradition’. As I will show this period was in fact characterized by a deep engagement with the idea of an African American tradition as a basis to build progressivism in jazz, that could also resolve tensions between European and African American ideas of progress

Some sense of what I mean by the differences between European and African American ideas of progress can be gleaned from the critical commentaries of earlier moments in jazz’s history. At the same time that the term the ‘Jazz Age’ (Shaw 1987) indexes the impact of African American music on 1920’s mainstream American popular entertainment, black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance wrestled with the place of modernism in African American artistic production. For Houston Baker European modernism rejects ‘outmoded forms’, while black American modernism is: ‘(the) necessary task of employing … extant forms in ways that move clearly up, masterfully and re-soundingly away from slavery’ (1987: 101). Alain Locke certainly saw jazz as ‘the characteristic musical speech of the modern age’ (1936: 90). However, whilst there was a strand which celebrated jazz and blues most Harlem Renaissance intellectuals looked to Europe for their models of progress (Vincent 1995: 145 to 172). At the same time the European avant garde had a contradictorily relationship with black culture: celebrating its vibrancy and yet constructing black bodies and practices as ‘primitive’. Sieglinde Lemke (1998) has gone as far as arguing that modernism and primitivism constituted each other.

In Europe at this time jazz was understood through a dominant discourse of ‘primitivism’, and black performers – including Armstrong and Ellington – were most often featured in Britain as novelty music hall acts (Parsonage 2005). Both musicians and jazz fans sought to establish different ways to articulate their identities. Ellington personified Locke’s ‘New Negro’ (Locke 1925; Floyd 1990) with his progressive cultural agenda, interest in black history and urban culture, and dislike for labels like ‘jazz’ that restricted his work (Tucker 1990). Fans like British bandleader, journalist and Ellington-advocate Spike Hughes celebrated Ellington’s ‘hot’ jazz performances, but hated his role in the Cotton Club’s entertainment, the band’s ‘turn’ at the London Palladium, and his later longer compositions (1933a/R1993; 1933b/R1993). In truth, though, professional musicians were dependent upon these institutions whatever their values.

DeVeaux gives significant emphasis to the political economy of Coleman Hawkins’ career, and deals with notions of progress among late 1940s African American musicians, but he does not examine the values of the white bebop fans who constituted the music’s most vocal advocates. Andrew Ross (1989) locates the white ‘hipster’ in a sophisticated confluence of ideas about race, ethnicity, commerce, art and culture which draw upon, use and define the African American meanings of jazz. Similar semiotic struggles are apparent in the British engagement with jazz throughout the twentieth century (Godbolt 1986; Godbolt 1989; McKay 2005; Parsonage 2005). The meanings of bebop, then, are negotiated between socially powerful white commentators and fans, opportunities for ‘black musicians to seize their discourse from the white-dominated culture industry and to create something less likely to be appropriated’ (Elworth 1995).

These same themes are apparent in the European interpretation of free jazz in the 1960s. Jacques Attali, for instance, conflates what he sees as the tyranny of the political economy of repetition with the ‘organized and often consensual theft of black American music’ which he sees as provoking ‘the emergence of free jazz, a profound attempt to win creative autonomy, to effect a cultural-economic reappropriation of music by the people for whom it had meaning’ (Attali 1985: 138). By selective examples he further conflates the musical experiments of the 1960s avant garde with the musicians who came to form the New York new music scene in the 1970s, and defines free jazz as ‘a meeting of black popular music and a more abstract theoretical explorations of European music,[which] eliminated the distinction between popular music and learned music, broke down the repetitive hierarchy’ (140). Gary Giddins, a white American critic more attuned to the generation of musicians with whom Murray first worked, has suggested that ‘the 1960s avant garde, in clearing the slate of preconceived notions, paradoxically opened jazz to a more generous involvement with its past’ (2007). And, as Lorenzo Thomas (1995) shows, the Black Arts Movement practitioners who followed expressed their desires for economic and aesthetic independence through an exploration of black vernacular cultural forms of all sorts, and an antagonism to the way that white liberal criticism dominated interpretations of jazz in particular.

These, then, are the discursive contexts in which Murray diachronic engaged when he came to make music, and as we will see they inform the ‘practices, values and commitments’ that defined Murray’s career as a jazz musician.

Part two is here.



1. Avant Music News » Blog Archive » David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician - September 1, 2007

[…] one of a long article on David Murray is […]

2. David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician (Part Two). « Wall of Sound - September 11, 2007

[…] David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician (Part Two). September 11, 2007 Posted by wallofsound in David Murray, Music Industry, Jazz. trackback If you want, you can start with part one here. […]

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