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David Murray: the making of a progressive jazz musician (Part Three). September 16, 2007

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

The further development of Murray’s career

If Murray’s work in the first five years of his career was defined by New York and European venues and record companies, to a large extent the next three stages of his work can be seen to be defined by his involvement with four other record companies, and associated live work. From 1980 to 1987 his output mainly came from the Italian Black Saint record label, and an even greater emphasis on composition and larger ensembles is apparent. In the seven years from 1988 his output was substantially different again; as leader he recorded for the Japanese DIW label, and Bob Thiele’s Red Baron label distributed by the major Columbia records. Murray’s live work in Europe was allied with an infrastructure of public funded performances and tours as jazz became to be seen as art music. Quartet formats returned to prominence, and church and African music interests came to the fore. By 1996, major changes had taken place in Murray’s professional and personal life. He signed to the Canadian Justin Time label, moved to Paris and started a substantial musical journey in forms outside the jazz tradition.

During 1975 to 1979 Murray had recorded mainly solo or in small groups; between 1980 and 1987, by contrast, as leader he recorded in large ensembles, although his collaborative work tended to be in duo formats. Murray premiered his Big Band in July 1978 at New York’s Public Theatre, and an Octet in 1979 at the October festival (Davis 1986: 43; Mwanga 2005-7). Kunle Mwanga was key to this development, and he organized major musical projects in concert halls and festivals for Murray through to 1989 (Mwanga 2007). These changes are most often understood by critics as a move away from the progressive avant garde and towards a neo-traditionalism. There are certainly changes in Murray’s playing style, with an increasing emphasis on explorations of the work of key tenor players that followed Hawkins, but more significant by far was his progressive exploration of the possibilities of the large ensemble for composition and improvisation building on Ellington (Mandel 1999: 56-66). Crouch continued to provide an intellectual interpretive paradigm for Murray’s music-making, and in sleeve notes he located Murray’s big band experiments as steeped in the legacy of the jazz tradition. In particular he notes the use of Parker’s counterpoint, Ellington’s harmonies as melodies, and Mingus’ hybridity, while avoiding being derivative or pretentious (Crouch 1980).

Butch Morris moved from instrumentalist in these ensembles to develop his interest in ensemble improvising through a conductor – which he called conduction – giving the recordings a distinctive and innovative sound, and Murray an important context in which he could compose and perform. Almost all the recordings Murray made as leader during this period were self-compositions, the majority dramatic re-arrangements of pieces recorded before, and each an exploration of a particular musical theme rooted in the music’s past. Notable are his investigations of the use of waltzes, Latin claves, 3/4 time and of a-temporal suspensions. The WSQ material moved from compositions dominated by Hemphill and Bluiett, to themed albums programmed around Duke Ellington, and R&B.

The dramatic change in WSQ music coincided with the band’s signing to major label Electra. A similar pattern emerges in Murray’s signing to DIW records in the late 1980s. The first four CDs were recorded at a quartet recording session in January 1988 and released in themed packages around saxophone ballads and gospel music. The themed albums set two clear templates that – along with investigations of R&B – were to dominate Murray’s output for the next 18 years. The recordings also reveal Murray’s interest in African themes and Coltrane’s canon that would become important themes from the turn of the century.

Although the quartet now became his main group format, collaborations with players with international reputations like Jack DeJohnette, James Blood Ulmer, and Kahil El’Zabar became common, and he continued his association with musicians he first played with on the West Coast including Bobby Battle and James Newton. Surprisingly given that he only recorded two dates with a pianist before 1985, he also established strong working relationships with John Hicks, Randy Weston, Dave Burrell, McCoy Tyner, Aki Takase, Donald Fox, DD Jackson and Jon Jang predominantly in a series of sax-piano duos. The WSQ went on to make a further 19 records, and the single instrument format was reproduced for Murray’s bass clarinet playing in the Clarinet Summit.

In many ways the variety was a continuation of the strategy of offering different ensemble sizes to different venues established by Mawanga in the 1970s, and Murray’s restless exploration of musical settings, playing styles, and music cultures. But it was also the product of record marketing strategies developed by Electra, DIW staffers and Bob Thiele at Red Baron to organize the ensemble’s formats and music, and their production, programming and packaging. DIW executive producer Kazunori Sugiyama gave Murray freedom to record what he wanted (Murray 1997), but at the same time CD releases were guided by distinctive concepts around particular genres within the African American popular music tradition, and featured strong design and graphical work and cover photographs from Murray’s then wife Ming Smith. This work never seemed mannered, however, and was constantly innovative, deeply rooted in Murray’s own interests and background.

Given that Bob Thiele is best known for his support of John Coltrane during his most experimental period at Impulse, the Red Baron releases seem surprisingly to be led by their concept, rather than the music, and more determined by Thiele than Murray. Murray seems to have taken the biggest exception to Jazzasaurus Rex issued in the same year as the Jurassic Park film (Murray 1997). Nevertheless the records sold well enough for Columbia to add distribution of Murray’s DIW CDs to its support for Red baron product, and their Portrait label signed him for one release – Ming’s Samba – which continued his innovations with time signatures and jazz’s past.

These changes marked a new direction for Murray at just the time his relationship with Stanley Crouch deteriorated. Crouch’s influence on Murray had been all enveloping (Davis 1986: 45), but by the early 1990s, Murray was often critical of Crouch, and particularly of his involvement with Wynton Marsalis. Crouch’s cultural criticism had moved on a path from involvement in black nationalism under the influence of Amiri Baraka, through advocacy for the New York new music scene of the 1970s, to equally passionate support for Marsalis, under the influence of Albert Murray, and involvement in the jazz programme at the Lincoln Centre. This intellectual journey is not as great as it may seem, however. Both Baraka and Albert Murray place the blues at the centre of the jazz aesthetic as an expressions of raw African American experience (Jones 1966; Murray 1976). The difference lies in the way that each has deployed their ideas. John Gennari suggests Baraka uses ‘music to grind the axe of political critique … [while Murray’s] point is to underlie how the blues functions as a cultural universal’ (Gennari 2006: 350).

So while Baraka celebrated David Murray’s work as ‘redefining the spiritual aesthetic of a whole people’ (Baraka and Baraka 1987: 260), he did so to make an unfavourable contrast with those black new music practitioners who explored European composition. While in Baraka’s analysis the jazz imperative is a progressive force of liberation, in Albert Murray’s it leads to a canonization of jazz musicians and the proposition that African Americans and their culture are the true representative Americans (Murray 1970). For Crouch this jazz tradition was the equivalent to the Italian Renaissance culture (Crouch 1990: 244-65).

By 1989 Crouch was writing the sleeve notes for Marsalis’s albums, and presenting him as ‘the virtual personification of a post-1980s jazz renaissance’ based on a rejection of all post 1970 music (Gennari 2006: 342). Marsalis gained wide publicity as leader of a group of ‘young jazz lions’ due to his technical brilliance, his sartorial style that captured a rising interest in the iconography of 1950s jazz in a design-conscious culture, and his involvement in educational programmes which built on the idea of jazz as America’s classical music. To advocates of a progressive jazz this all smacked of backward-looking conservatism.

Murray has cited these disputes as one of the reasons that in 1996 he relocated to Paris, but the move was also the result of his relationship with his third wife Valerie Malot, the French ethnomusicologist and promoter. The move coincided with a new contract with French Canadian jazz independent Justin Time label for both his own groups and the WSQ. The initial releases showcased Murray’s increasing interest in other musics of the African diaspora which built on the Afro-centricism of the black arts musicians like Bluiett, and was apparent earlier in Murray’s work from the contributions of Kahil El’Zabar’s African percussion. The artwork and track names on his 1980s CDs reflected the personal impact of his African tours. He also seems to have been profoundly influenced by South African Blue Note bassist Johnny Dyani, with whom he recorded many times. WSQ’s 1990 and 1995 recordings with African drums seem to reflect the impact of his trip to the slave coast of Senegal, as well as the notion that innovation is to be found in collaboration and an exploration of new possibilities.

Murray and Malot jointly formed 3D family which looks after all Murray’s tours and recording activities, as well as those of a range of Paris-based African and Caribbean musicians. The dream of greater creative and economic independence is manifest in his current live and recording work, and his interests in different aspects of Afro-diasporic music is pursued through 19 CDs. As earlier in his career, his contract is not exclusive. In the last ten years he has also recorded over 15 CDs with other labels, covering a wide range of ensemble configurations and musical styles. These include work with players from the European avant garde. In 2007 he revisited the approach of the 1980s Black Saint recordings with a revitalized quartet.


Reading through interviews with Murray one is always struck by how interested he is to talk about the business of jazz. Often more so than the music of jazz. He seems as acutely aware of the economics of the jazz tradition as he is the music. Hawkins was always somewhat at the mercy of recording companies and promoters, and seemed happier in the creative space of the jam session than in the commercial context that produced his living. By contrast Murray seems determined to try and create a commercial context in which he can explore his musical muse.

His work seems to move in and out of a set of musical practices that we broadly call jazz. Interestingly, though, he seems to have almost entirely by-passed the mainstream of major record labels, showing strong attachments to independent labels that offer him a high degree of musical freedom. At the same time he works with professional promoters and with public arts agencies, offering different personal interests up to different audiences.

Murray’s work offers a reinterpretation of the progressive musician which tries to escape the singular definitions of both African American neo-traditionalism and the European avant garde, but one that is rooted in the values of the black arts movement where he first established himself.



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