“The Hippest Intellectual of the 20th Century”

Joel Dinerstein describes the theories of Albert Murray, who passed away last month at the age of 97:

Albert Murray confidently theorized the two formative aesthetic elements of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the gifts” of the slaves to American culture. First and foremost, the affirmative impulse in the groove that pulsates and rejuvenates the spirit, from ragtime to hip-hop. “Everybody profits by the affirmative outlook the slaves had on life [to survive],” he said.

Second, the quality of improvisation—the room for individuality—in each musical form, often called “the break” in jazz. This was the main thrust of artistic analysis in The Hero and the Blues: When the band drops out, the musician faces the void just as a writer faces a blank piece of paper, except in public and in real time. Right then the musician has to spontaneously compose something worthy of getting himself, the band, and the audience over to the other side. He looked up to see if I understood and then jumped through time and space back into Harlem in the 1930s to drive home his point: “every day is like either … cut your throat or be down at the Savoy [Ballroom] by 9:30.” In other words, the importance of music and dance to African Americans, and by extension to everyone willing to participate, is that musicians and dancers collaborate in this rejuvenatory ritual. Together, everyone stomps their blues away.

Two extensive profiles of Murray are here (subscription required) and here.