Two of my good friends, Jeanie Thompson (poet and Executive Director of the Alabama Writers Forum) and Jay Lamar (author and Director of the Caroline Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities at Auburn University) are headed to Lincoln Center in New York City this week to attend a symposium celebrating the publication of the book Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation (University of Alabama Press, June 1, 2010). Jay Lamar is also one of the contributors to the book of essays about (and one by) Albert Murray.
Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation is the first book of scholarly and personal essays on the work of a writer who was instrumental in the founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The symposium, hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center, will be held tomorrow, June 17, in the Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman Studio at Frederick P. Rose Hall in Lincoln Center. Both Thompson and Lamar are excited about seeing nonegenarian Dr. Albert L. Murray who recently celebrated his 94th birthday.
In January 2008 a day long symposium was held at the Caroline Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanites at Auburn University in celebration of the life and art of Alabama native and Tuskegee Graduate Albert Murray. The symposium was entitled Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation and was the inspiration for the current book, a series of essays by Dr. Barbara A. Baker PhD, Louis A Rabb, Roberta S Maguire, Lauren Walsh, John F Callahan, Carol Friedman, Albert Murray, Greg Thomas, Anne-Katrin Gramberg, Caroline Gebhard, Donald Noble, Maurice Pogue, Bert Hitchcock, Jay Lamar, and Sidney Offit.
Albert Murray’s contribution to African-American literature has established the value and importance of the "blues idiom as the basis for approaching life as an African American." He is the author of over a dozen scholarly books and novels, including Stomping the Blues and Train Whistle Guitar. The news release for the 2008 symposium called Murray a "singular voice" in American culture, music, and art.
Murray was born May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Alabama, and received his BS from Tuskegee Institute in 1939. In 1943 he joined the Air Force and retired as a major in 1962. While in the service, Murray earned his MA from New York, University (1948) and taught literature and composition to civilians and soldiers both in the United States and abroad.
Murray’s first book The Omni-Americans (1970) contains reviews, essays, and commentaries that engage and challenge the predominant frameworks within which matters of race and culture were then being discussed. Critiquing what he called "the folklore of white supremacy and the fake lore of black pathology," the book argues that all Americans are multicolored and that social scientific attempts to explain black life in America are fundamentally mistaken. His next book, South to a Very Old Place (1971), extends that argument with a series of memoirs, interviews, and reports that document the positive nurturing aspects of the African-American community in the South.
In 1972, Albert Murray was invited to give the Paul Anthony Brick Lectures on Ethics at the University of Missouri. These lecturers were published as The Hero and the Blues (1973). In this work, Murray develops his concept of literature in the blues idiom, a theory he eloquently practiced in the novel Train Whistle Guitar (1974), which won the Lillian Smith Award for Southern Fiction. The hero of Train Whistle Guitar received from his family and neighbors in the segregated South the cultural equipment necessary for leading a successful life. A successful life is defined as a sense of fundamental individual worth combined with community responsibility. This relationship is akin to the relationship between the improvising jazz soloist and the supporting band.
During his prestigious career, Murray has held positions as an instructor at Tuskegee Institute, 1940-43, 1946-51, director of College Little Theatre; lecturer at Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, 1968; O'Connor Professor of Literature, Colgate University, 1970, O'Connor Lecturer, 1973, professor of humanities, 1982; visiting professor of literature, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1971; Paul Anthony Brick lecturer, University of Missouri, 1972; writer in residence, Emory University, Atlanta, 1978; adjunct associate professor of creative writing, Barnard College, 1981-83; Woodrow Wilson fellow, Drew University, 1983; and Dupont visiting professor, Washington and Lee University, 1993.
In addition to the Lillian Smith Award for Fiction, Murray has won the following awards for his writing: Deems Taylor award for music criticism (ASCAP), 1976; Lincoln Center Directors Emeriti award, 1991; Literature Achievement award (National Book Critics Circle), 1997; Harper Lee award for Literary Excellence (Alabama Writer's Forum), 1998. Litt.D., Colgate University, 1975; Doctor of humane letters, Spring Hill College, 1996.
In 2003 he received the Distinguished Artist Award from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
Happy belated birthday to one of my heroes, Dr. Albert Murray.
----Penne J. Laubenthal
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