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Author friend and mentor to musicians, artists

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NEW YORK -- Albert Murray, the influential novelist and critic who celebrated black culture, scorned black separatism and was once praised by Duke Ellington as the "unsquarest man I know," died Sunday. He was 97.

Murray died at home in his sleep, according to Lewis Jones, a family friend and Murray's guardian.

Few authors so forcefully bridged the worlds of words and music. Like his old friend and intellectual ally Ralph Ellison, Murray believed that blues and jazz were not primitive sounds, but sophisticated art, finding kinships among Ellington and Louis Armstrong and novelists such as Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway.

He argued his case in a series of autobiographical novels, a nonfiction narrative (South to a Very Old Place), an acclaimed history of music (Stomping the Blues) and several books of criticism. Murray helped Wynton Marsalis stage the acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts. Millions of television viewers came to know him as a featured commentator in Ken Burns' documentary series Jazz.

Murray was many men: friend of Ellington and artist Romare Bearden; foe of Marxists, Freudians, academics, black nationalists and white segregationists; and mentor and inspiration to Ernest J. Gaines, Stanley Crouch, James Alan McPherson and others.

In a statement issued Monday on behalf of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis, who cited Stomping the Blues as a profound influence, said that "Albert's conceptions are the intellectual foundation of our institution. He spoke eloquently on the significance of American vernacular to the fine art of jazz."

Murray often wrote, and spoke, in a jazzy, mock-professorial style,. He declared that blacks should not be regarded as transplanted Africans, but quintessential Americans, practiced in the art of "I-ma-gi-na-tive ex-al-ta-tion."

Interviewed by The Associated Press in 1998, the raspy-voiced Murray defined the blues as "the extension, improvisation and ritualization of the stylization of the beliefs and the feelings and emotions of the lifestyle of a particular culture."

"People want to say the blues is an ailment," Murray said. "Any fool can tell you the blues is good-time music. It's entertainment. It ain't for no church. 'Kill the white folks,' that's not what the blues is about. You see the blues with that stuff, it means some Marxist got hold of that."

Born in 1916, Murray grew up in Magazine Point, Ala. At age 11, he learned that the couple raising him were not his parents; his mother had given him up for adoption out of shame for conceiving him out of wedlock. His real parents were educated and middle-class, his adopted ones common folk.

Murray came to see himself as the adventurer-hero of his own life, a "prince among paupers." He left his hometown to study at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where Ellison was an upperclassman. Murray graduated in 1939, served in the Air Force during the Second World War and received a master's degree from New York University after returning to the U.S.

He finally broke through in the late 1960s, at the peak of the Black Arts Movement.

Murray was married to Mozelle Menefee Murray, whom he met at Tuskegee in 1941. They had a daughter, Michele, who performed with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe. Albert Murray wrote the program notes, about which Ailey joked, "Now I understand better what I've been trying to do all these years."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2013 C3

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