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David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician (Part Two). September 11, 2007

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

If you want, you can start with part one here.

If you’ve read that, read on:

Murray’s founding career 1975 to 1979: black arts movement, loft jazz, European festivals, and small independents

The standard Murray early biography goes something like this: Murray first plays music in church with his musical family, turning to R&B and rock and then jazz and the alto sax while a student in the Berkeley school system; hearing Sonny Rollins play solo inspires him to switch from alto to tenor, and then at Pomona College he studies with a former Ornette Colman sideman Bobby Bradford, and literature teacher Stanley Crouch; at the age of twenty Murray moves to New York during the city’s loft jazz era (adapted from Kelsey 2007).

In this story Murray is most often presented as initially an inheritor of an abstract/expressionist improvising style originated in the ’60s by such saxophonists as Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, David Murray eventually evolved into something of a mainstream tenorist, playing standards with conventional rhythm sections (Kelsey 2007).

Conforming to the dominant approach to jazz biography, Murray’s career is built upon a series of personal influences, and his musical eclecticism is implicitly rooted in his late sixties upbringing, his virtuosity in personal influence, and his interest in the avant garde and later use of gospel and R&B located in his developing environment. Most of these details of Murray’s early life, and collated from interviews, seem to be accurate. However, the tendency of commentators to make a connection to Ayler is perhaps overstated, and exacerbated by the prominence of one of Murray’s early compositions: ‘Flowers for Albert’. In interviews Murray has often distanced himself from this connection: ‘Everyone heard the tune and all of a sudden decided I sounded just like Albert Ayler. But I never turned Albert’s solo back to 16 RPM so I could transcribe them and play them note-for-note the way I did with … Gonsalves, or … Hawkins’ (Davis 1986: 47; see also Murray 2005).

There are some commonalities between Murray’s and Ayler’s approach and sound. Their recordings feature the intensity of African American music from gospel, through honking R&B, and ‘flattened’ blues, and both utilize free improvisation as the key strategy, and dissonance is a major product of this approach. Both latterly explored music outside the jazz tradition. However, Murray’s career reveals a far greater emphasis on ways of making music than on sound. In particular, his collaborative strategies and his interest in the relationship between different players in the ensemble. While European commentators tend to talk about this period in Murray’s career as one of ‘confrontational free-jazz’ improvisation (Scaruffi 2006), composition and arrangement – and especially an emphasis on contrast and counter point – are important parts of his approach.

More importantly, what Murray is clearly trying to do in the interviews is to distance himself from a European critical discourse which locates his early work as ‘abstract/expressionist’ and his influences as restricted to players nominated as ‘the avant garde’. The key to understanding the practices which created Murray’s approach and sound are to be found not in such a critical celebration of the avant garde, but in the assiduous way the young Murray mastered the techniques and virtuosity of tenor players from the jazz tradition. We can trace this commitment to mastering, and then reusing, the jazz tradition directly back to the influence of Murray’s teachers at Pomona, and the direct and indirect influence of members of the Black Arts Movement. Studying with Stanley Crouch and Bobby Bradford gave Murray access to ideas of the jazz progressivism and African American cultural tradition at the same time. He first came to New York to research a college paper on the development of tenor styles since 1959 (West 1977).

This interest in the jazz tradition was a characteristic that distinguished all the musicians associated with new music in New York in the 1970s, from the earlier generation of free players. The values and practices of these musicians are rooted in the Black Arts Movement and mediated through theories taught in black studies curricula An understanding of this movement provides a far more convincing explanation for the development of Murray’s style than the usual connection to Ayler. The community activism and black cultural renaissance that came out of the civil rights and black nationalist movements were incubated in urban arts and musicians collectives and liberal arts colleges, and reached maturity in the new political economy of the New York loft scene of the mid- to late- 1970s.

This first part of Murray’s career, then, must be explored through a discussion of the Black Arts Movement and Murray’s direct and indirect experience of its values and practices, enabled by an infrastructure of venues and record labels, and championed by commentators in the alternative press. 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 relative freedom and privilege at Pomona college in Claremont, California. Like other Liberal Arts institutions of the time Pomona hosted a black studies programmes, linked to community-based projects of the black arts movements (see Rooks 2006: 35-60).

The Black Arts Movement had its origins in a series of New York writers collectives and workshops whose members theorized ‘the proper relationship of the arts to black communities and liberation struggles, as the burgeoning black nationalism of the 1960s reverberated through the arts world’ (Looker 2004: 38). In contrast to the Harlem Renaissance theorists of the 1920s and 1930s the new black arts activists worked with distinctively African and African American forms of expression and tried to unite ethics and aesthetics, performance and activism, and the breadth of the expressive arts.

Murray’s work in the 1970s is explicitly linked with three of the main black arts groups. Perhaps the best known is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, but just as important was the Black Arts Group (BAG) in St Louis, and the Pan-African People’s Arkestra / Underground Musicians Association (UGMA) in Los Angeles (Shipton 2001: 826-7; Lewis 2002; Looker 2004). Shipton explicitly identifies Murray as a alumni of Horace Tapscott’s UGMA, and of the 17 musicians he recorded with during this period 13 were former members of AACM, UGMA or BAG. In particular the other three founders of the World Saxophone Quartet – Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, and Julius Hemphill – were key BAG members before coming to New York.

There were common threads to the practices and values of these black arts musicians that run through Murray’s work: a strong emphasis on the development of an individual sound and on ‘creative difference within collectivity’ (Lewis 2002); 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 developed a creative milieu in which experimentation was highly valued (Looker 2004). As Looker and Lewis both outline, although the initial emphasis was on community and local activism, many of the musicians in these major cities became disillusioned by the instability and limited viability of the performance venues and recording infrastructure, and moved first to Europe, and then to New York where an alternative scene was developing in disused industrial buildings in Manhattan.

Murray became a notable participant in both the ‘loft scene’ and the European jazz festival circuit, and his first recordings are evidence of his place in this milieu. His 18 releases as leader were from 11 small independent labels, and all but three were recordings of live concerts split evenly between New York and European venues. He also recorded five times as a sideman on as many different labels and as a part of the collective World Saxophone Quartet. Taking four recordings as exemplars – the various artists collection NYC Wildflowers: The New York Loft Sessions (1976); the World Saxophone Quartet’s Point Of No Return (1977); the solo performance Conceptual Saxophone and quintet The London Concert (both 1978) – and setting them in the broader context of his other recordings and concerts, it is possible to explore the distinctive nature of Murray’s musical practice during this time.

The Wildflowers series of five records were recorded by Alan Douglas over seven evenings at Sam Rivers’ RivBea loft space in Manhattan in 1976 and released on his small label. This loft – along with the Ladies’ Fort where Murray also recorded – was seen as the key venue of the scene (Palmer 1976a; Palmer 1977; Palmer 1977b), and played host to an alternative to the Newport in New York jazz festival (Ledbetter 1975). The lofts echoed the 1940s after-hours jam sessions frequented by Hawkins, but these were musician-controlled spaces where they worked, lived and slept, and performances were dominated by cooperative ensemble playing and multimedia experiences rather than cutting-contests. Taking their model from the post-industrial spaces occupied by visual and performing artists (Zukin 1982), Ornette Coleman’s Artists House (Litweiler 1992: 120) and Rashid Ali’s Ali’s Alley (Crouch 1977), the loft scene extended to other reused spaces in Greenwich Village and SoHo areas of Manhattan and drew the key musicians of the black arts collectives to New York where they mixed with the earlier generation of free players who had followed the innovations of Coltrane, Coleman and Ayler (Looker 2004: 213-244). They provided alternative performance spaces to the post-bebop jazz clubs, offering music that blurred the boundaries between jazz and ‘avant-guarde serious’ new music (Rockwell 1974).

Murray lived in the very heart of this scene renting accommodation with his mentor, Stanley Crouch, just above The Tin Palace at Second and Bowery. It was here, and in his own loft space – the Sunrise Studio – where Crouch became a major events promoter and concert programmer, while simultaneously valorising their work in the alternative press (Boynton 1995). Crouch also played drums in Murray’s Low Class Conspiracy band, appearing on four of Murray’s early live recordings, and contributing compositions to Murray’s repertoire .

The Wildflowers recordings reveal black arts musicians experimenting together in different ensemble configurations. Murray appears on three of the LPs – once with his own quartet, and twice as part of Sunny Murray’s Untouchable Factor quintet – and in each his contribution is significantly removed from the energy music he is usually characterized as playing at this time. His own quartet recording has no solos, and the saxophone and trumpet front line is integrated into Fred Hopkins’ bowed bass meditative tone supported by Crouch’s high hat slashes. David Murray dominates the two Sunny Murray-led quintet tracks, but plays with the same muted emotional colour.

The values of experimentation and collective endeavour are encapsulated even more strongly in the work of the World Saxophone Quartet. Although the loft scene offered few significant material rewards, the WSQ was perhaps the most innovative ensemble of the scene, and its most commercially successful. A group of strong individuals, they work as a collective using a novel combination of instruments for a jazz group. Clearly owing something to the unusual ensemble structures and down playing of the rhythm section in BAG, it also had its origins in Hemphill’s involvement in Anthony Braxton’s saxophone-only ensembles.

Originally named the Real New York Saxophone Quartet (West 1977) the group swiftly established itself as a mainstay of European jazz festivals, and their first recording was a live date at the Moers New Jazz Festival in Germany. Point Of No Return was released on the small independent Moers label which released recordings of the festival concerts. By the mid-1970s the thriving European circuit of jazz festivals offered space for new music. Programmes typically mixed innovative European improvisors rooted in arts modernism, with American instrumentalists whose traditions were noticeably different. Paradoxically, then, even though the WSQ was rooted in the black arts movement, and the African American jazz tradition, their unusual ensemble form was more readily accepted in Europe. Some only hear a completely ‘free’ music, mainly because it is hard to locate the point at which composition ends and improvisation begins. However, while there may not be traditional themes and solos, the music is arranged around contrast and counter-point of each player. There is certainly a fiercer energy about the playing, and while Murray has less control over the compositions (Hemphill dominated here) he takes a dominant role in the performances and offers one solo recital. For Gary Giddins, Murray and the WSQ are exemplars of loft jazz which ‘seemed to spring from the avant garde of the 1960s, while embracing everything that came before it … interpreting the battle cry of free jazz as the freedom to play anyway they liked; their music was at once innovative and historicist’ (Giddins 2007).

The economic importance of European festivals and record labels, the balancing of musical innovation and history, and the tensions between European and African American notions of modernism, are even more apparent in the final two recordings I have selected. Conceptual Saxophone’s five tracks are one third of two concerts Murray played in Paris on the 6th and 7th February 1978 and were released on the British independent Cadillac label. The remaining two parts were released on similar French and Italian labels. Cadillac also released The London Concert double album of Murray’s quintet recorded seven months later. This was an intense period of recording for Murray in Europe. Seven days before the Paris concert he had recorded live in Rouen , and later in the same month he was in a Milan studio , followed by the live concert recordings in London in August and at the Jazzfestival in Willisau, Switzerland in September. In December Murray was in the studio with the World Saxophone Quartet, again in Milan. Unsurprisingly, then, the musicians on these recordings do not represent a single coherent unit, but draw on a number of Murray’s New York associates and musicians playing on the European scene.

Unusually, given Murray’s commitment to playing with others, in Paris he plays alone for over 120 minutes; linking back to the inspiring Sonny Rollins solo performance at the Berkeley Jazz festival. The record featured an exploration of Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday’, two Murray once recorded compositions, along with two Murray classics in ‘Home’ and ‘Flowers for Albert’. The sleeve notes locate Murray’s work for a European jazz fan, discussing his early career in New York. His playing is notably more energized in these recordings compared with Wildflowers. Of course this could entirely be due to the demands of a solo performance. However, there are other factors to consider.

Jon Panish argues that African American commentaries ‘almost always seek and establish connections, like jazz itself, by setting individual desires and achievements, hardships, and genius in the context of the group … the majority of white texts focus instead on discontinuities between the individual and any sort of group’ (Panish 1997: 20). Likewise the European mediation of jazz tends to emphasize the soloist over the ensemble. It is notable that all of Murray’s recorded live solo performances were in Europe , and Murray has suggested that European audiences expected an obviously ‘free’ style characterized by ‘energy techniques’ (Davis 1986: 46). But during this period his recordings support his claim that ‘you’ll notice me gradually laying off of the overblown notes. … I try to use the top of my register to embellish what I’ve already done on the bottom. I try to put all my energy into achieving pure, crystal clear notes’ (46).

By contrast The London Concert features a quintet with a reeds-brass front line (using Butch Morris) with a traditional trio rhythm section. The fuller CD release features a balance of Murray standards and three numbers not much recorded later, along with a composition by Brian Smith. Throughout, the musicians’ playing is characterized by a musical dissonance, created out of practices of collective experimentation, a rejection of form and substitution in the bebop tradition, but with a strong emphasis on exploration of the instrument as a machine that produced sound. At the same time his techniques on this recording owes significant debt to his engagement with the jazz tradition. The voicing of the individual players is rooted in sounds available through the recorded history of jazz, and Murray draws on the ecstatic performance styles of the black church far more than European-style abstraction. There are strong echoes of Hawkins’ ‘brilliant use of pacing, structure, and rhythmic relief’ (Williams 1970: 80) in Murray’s aim to ‘ spell out the triads on the first chorus. The second chorus gets more dense, and by the third or fourth chorus I’m playing what I really hear on it … because if you listen to Bird and Trane and all the greats, that’s how they did it’ (Mandel 1999: 52-53).

These albums represent not only Murray’s contact with listeners in Europe, but also the engagement of Murray and his manager, Kunle Mwanga, with the political economy of the infrastructure of European jazz. Mwanga was dealing with a series of regionally-based festival organizers, concert promoters, and record company owners. The British Cadillac label – typical of a series of new independent record companies – was owned by musician Mike Westbrook and promoter John Jack. Mwanga sold the Paris concert tapes outright to labels across Europe, and a deal was struck for a recording fee at the London concert on top of the appearance fee. Such labels typically pressed 500 or 1000 copies of a record, and distributed them directly to small, specialist shops. Jack built the label and concert promotions out of an experience of running new jazz events at the old Ronnie Scott’s club (Jack 2007; Mwanga 2007). Mwanga played a pivotal role in Murray’s career in this period both in his live appearances and recorded material, acting as manger, and credited as recording supervisor or co-producer of his records. He produced Murray’s Quartet appearance in Berkeley and his Big Band at the Public Theatre in 1978, and in 1985’s New York Kool Jazz festival (Mwanga 2005-7).



1. Avant Music News » Blog Archive » David Murray Profile, Continued - September 18, 2007

[…] two and three of David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician are […]

2. sanjay - June 19, 2009

Murray is also a conservative in some regard not as chronic as Marsalis, he looks back also to older forms but extends them with more originality. A fine body of work over the years WSQ, Octet and other bands.

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