There is an essay I want to write about my friend Albert Murray, who died at 97 on August 18, 2013, and this isn’t it. The essay I have in mind will require re-reading Murray’s books about race, jazz, the blues, literature, and American identity, the books that led me to seek him out two decades ago. It will require me to think hard about those works and the man who wrote them, to recall my conversations with him, to explain what he meant to me and what I think he meant to the world . . . but in the meantime, here are thoughts (most of them good) about his memorial service on September 10 in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center:
If you have to depart this life — and we all have to — this is the way to do it. Behind the stage of the 463-seat Allen Room is an enormous window that looks out onto Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the Manhattan skyline, which Murray loved. On each side of the window, on a large screen, a rotation of black and white photographs showed Murray and his wife, daughter, and friends at different points in their lives, finally freezing on one of Murray in his later years, wearing a fedora and his signature grin — an image that brought to mind his throaty laugh.
Now came the sound of horns. Marching in from stage left, playing a New Orleans–style dirge, was the seventeen-piece Lincoln Center jazz band, led by Murray’s disciple Wynton Marsalis. From there, the celebration — and that is what this service was — began. More musical numbers, including an achingly beautiful bass clarinet solo by Joe Temperley, alternated with personal remembrances and with readings from Murray’s work by people including Judith Jamison and Jimmy Heath. (Marsalis’s reading from the novel Train Whistle Guitar made me think that if the trumpeter hadn’t settled for becoming the face of contemporary jazz, he’d have made a pretty decent actor.)
The only parts of the service that gave me trouble, and for reasons that rest entirely with me, were the personal tributes, most by people I’d never heard of. They were funny and poignant, they evoked Murray in all his loquaciousness, warmth, and irascibility, they made me miss him and feel happy that I’d known him, and they made me . . . okay, here it comes . . . jealous. Because Albert Murray was both a great man and something less than a household name, a small part of me always felt — ridiculously — as if I’d discovered him. (Click HERE for my tribute to him at City College back in ’97.) So who were these guys at the memorial service, talking about my friend? All right, so they had known him even longer, read his work even earlier, than I had; fine, so they had worked with him closely on some of his major projects, such as founding Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I hadn’t. What’s your point?
And then, unexpectedly, my inner adult piped up. Mr. Murray had a great many friends because he was very generous with his time, and it was owing to that quality that I got to know him at all. His generosity was in part what I was at the service to celebrate; as one person there put it, his willingness to give of himself probably cost him three or four more books. Maybe the way to repay him is to reflect just a little of his influence in works of our own.