Albert Murray’s Lines of Cultural Development

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Gary Giddins, one of the most respected jazz critics of the past generation, recently told me that writer Albert Murray, 95, was “the music’s most original aesthetician.” In 1996, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates called Murray the “most outrageous theorist of American culture.” Books such as The Omni-Americans, The Hero and the Blues, Stomping the Blues, The Blue Devils of Nada, and From the Briarpatch File give credence to these claims. In several of my previous blog posts, I’ve discussed Murray’s work and thought. One of them, an essay derived from a speech, “Albert Murray Defines Art,” gives a glimpse of his depth of insight.

Another validation is the manner in which Murray tapped into a developmental framework to describe cultural production, a spiraling, interconnected folk-pop-fine art model. In and of itself, the folk-pop-fine designation isn’t revolutionary. Yet the way Murray frames these as an evolutionary dynamic of creative stylization makes it of interest in Integral terms.

Murray was inspired by a foundational text in American Studies, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931) by Constance Rourke. Her cultural analysis framed a composite of American archetypes such as the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the Negro. In a 1996 interview with Roberta S. Maguire, the editor of Conversations with Albert Murray, Murray reveals further foundations of his aesthetic.

The dynamics of cultural development and definition that emerge in Constance Rourke’s work she inherited from some ideas of Johann von Herder, who articulated an approach to defining a given culture. Herder put her on to the idea that cultures begin on what I would call the folk level and develop upwards, whereas when people like Van Wyck Brooks were talking about the pilgrimage of Henry James and the ordeal of Mark Twain, they were talking about the absence of high culture in America, lamenting the lack. So what came out of Herder was this other natural history of a fine art, of a high art, of a given culture. It’s all extension, elaboration, and refinement of the vernacular into a higher level.

In my thinking, culture can be separated into three levels, folk—pop—fine, and the last is where the masterpieces come; that’s the ultimate definition of a culture, where stylization comes in. (p. 146)

The common conception of “vernacular” is the native or indigenous language of a people or a place. In the last line of the first paragraph above, Murray is not only referring to this basic definition, but a particular conception of the vernacular within an American context, a framework authored by the late John A. Kouwenhoven, a Barnard College English professor and American cultural theorist. In The Beer Can By the Highway: Essays on What’s American about America, Kouwenhoven writes:

It is my conviction that the society we live in marks . . . a really new epoch, but that it is shaped not by technology and science alone but by a unique combination of forces, a compound of scientific technology and the spirit of democracy. . . . It was my contention that the early, unschooled attempts to create satisfying patterns out of these novel elements in our environment constituted a new kind of folk art. The folk arts we are familiar with are the product of groups cut off from the mainstream of contemporary life, and they are the surviving remnants of traditional forms and patters. These new “folk arts” are, on the contrary, the product of people directly involved with the dynamic forces of contemporary life, and their forms and patterns have no precedent, since the environmental elements to which they give shape are quite literally something new.

In order to distinguish them from the more familiar folk arts, I labeled these the vernacular arts—meaning by that the empirical attempts of ordinary people to shape the elements of their everyday environment in a democratic, technological age. Specifically, I meant the books, buildings, and artifacts of all sorts whose forms have been shaped as a direct response to the new elements which democracy and technology have introduced into our environment within the past hundred and fifty years. (pp. 131-132)

Essayist and novelist Ralph Ellison, a friend of Murray’s for a half century, wrote the foreword to the book by Kouwenhoven quoted above. In a 1977 interview, found in the collection Conversations with Ralph Ellison, he provides a short description of “vernacular” upon which our consideration of Murray’s cultural aesthetic should also be grounded. “By ‘vernacular,’ in the context of American culture, I mean that blending of traditional European forms and styles with native folk and popular idioms,” he said. “I see this as part of a general, eclectic process of culture through which, having started out by imitating British and European models we’ve improvised our own unique idioms and styles. American vernacular is an amalgamation of prior cultures, including a strong component of the African.” Murray, in a 1996 interview with writer Tony Scherman explained it as such: “Kouwenhoven’s concept is that American culture comes from the interaction of vernacular or folk tradition with learned or academic tradition.”

So, what Murray calls the “vernacular imperative” is a key part of the process through which the folk becomes pop and fine art. In his Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement, Murray writes (in specific reference to Duke Ellington):

“Yes, you earn your own way into the national pantheon by fulfilling in an exemplary manner the basic national imperatives as they apply to your own particular line of endeavor. That is the sine qua non and in the arts this becomes the vernacular imperative to process (which is to say stylize) the raw native materials, experiences, and the idiomatic particulars of everyday life into aesthetic . . . statements of universal relevance and appeal.” (p. 77, emphasis in original)

How do we, as human beings, do this? In part, through the irreducible element of play as the center of culture and the creative process, and through which, as contends the French writer and aesthetician André Malraux in Voices of Silence and other works, art channels, transforms and renders raw experience into style. And why is stylization such a key part of Murray’s aesthetic, of which we’re giving a brief introduction? In an essay titled “Improvisation and the Creative Process,” found in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, Murray explains:

To stylize is to conventionalize. It is to create a pattern which becomes a way of seeing things and doing things. Convention can function both as the container and the thing contained. It provides the structure as well as the content of human consciousness. It is the quality of human consciousness that is the most profound concern of art. What art provides is the most fundamental human equipment for existence. It provides images, representative anecdotes, emblems that condition us to confront what we must confront, and it disposes us to do what we must do, not only to fulfill ourselves but also to survive as human beings in a given place, time, circumstance, and predicament.

So play becomes convention and convention is a pattern of procedure. The convention of playful option-taking is what I call ‘the blues idiom’ and jazz music. I define the jazz musician as one who approaches or creates or plays all music as if improvising the ‘break’ on the traditional twelve-bar blues tune. (p. 112)

I’ll get to the significance of the “break” in Murray’s aesthetic in a future article, but for now let’s stay on the folk-pop-fine art track.

In the aforementioned From the Briarpatch File, Murray summarizes as follows:

The process of stylization, or, as André Malraux would say, the creative act, proceeds on one of three levels of technological sophistication. As a result there is folk art, there is popular art fare, and there is fine art, which represent three different levels of extension, elaboration, and refinement of the basic and indeed definitive rituals of the social or cultural configuration that is its context.

Folk art is a product of the no less serious or humorous, no less authentic but least informed and crudest aesthetic sensibility of a given social or cultural entity that is capable of producing a more widely appealing popular art that is technically more accomplished and better informed although it may also employ peasant-level naïveté and crudeness along with ever so chic devises consciously derived from fine art. Incidentally, folk art should not be confused with primitive art, as many critics and historians did for many years. For to the extent that the stylization of primitive, aboriginal, or downright primordial artifacts are viewed as art, they are not folk art but fine art because they are the product not of the lowest but rather of the most highly developed skills of stylization produced by the culture of their origin. Indeed fine art is precisely the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement of the fundamental rituals underlying the lifestyle survival techniques of the people, whether tribe or nation, by whom it is created. (pp. 38-39)

Murray’s aesthetic model, as we have seen, is, in part, influenced by the work of Herder, Constance Rourke, John A. Kouwenhoven, and André Malraux. But it was his experience of blues and jazz that was his prime exemplification of the model. Blues is the folk foundation of jazz, which itself went through a period of being the very popular music in the United States. But, as you can likely tell, as increasing developmental depth is a principle component of the Integral call, “fine art” is Murray’s highest level of cultural/stylistic achievement in his three-stage model.

This fact is clearly seen in the following passages from The Blue Devils of Nada, where Murray discusses Louis Armstrong in the 1930s:

By this time such was the pervasive influences of devices derived from Armstrong’s instrumental and vocal innovations, not only on other jazz musicians but also on the popular music of standard songwriters, that the decade of the 1930s was already being called the Swing Era. In fact, the impact was so strong that the general public still seems to be unable to distinguish between Swing Era bands who played music that qualifies as fine art, and excellent jazz-influenced conventional ballroom bands, a confusion not made less difficult by the fact that in following Armstrong’s lead, so many jazz bands came to include so much pop fare in their repertory. But of course, in all matters of fine art the distinguishing factors are range, precision, profundity, and the idiomatic subtlety of the rendition. (pp. 67-68)

Works Cited

Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (originally published in 1931, new trade edition published in 1994, Random House)

Conversations with Albert Murray ed. by Roberta S. Maguire (University Press of Mississippi, 1997)

John A. Kouwenhoven, The Beer Can By the Highway: Essays on What’s American about America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961)

Conversations with Ralph Ellison ed. by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh (University Press of Mississippi, 1995)

Albert Murray, Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement (Pantheon Books, 1996)

The Jazz Cadence of American Culture ed. by Robert G. O’Meally (Columbia University Press, 1998)

Albert Murray, From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity (Pantheon Books, 2001)

Greg Thomas

About Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas has over 25 years of experience as a writer, producer, broadcaster and educator, and has been featured in publications as various as The Root, All About Jazz, Salon, London's Guardian Observer, the Village Voice, Africana, American Legacy, Savoy, New York's Daily News as well as the scholarly journal Callaloo. He was the Editor-in-Chief of Harlem World magazine from 2003-2006.

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