Theorizing Blues and Jazz

Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray were the most influential theorists and spokesmen of blues and jazz as musical cultures that functioned as embodied philosophies practiced by the African-American community. Baraka's Blues People (1963), Ellison's essays in Living With Music (2000), and Baldwin's essays in The Price of the Ticket (1989) all attest to the role of music and dance in African-American communities as each musical idiom developed and then crossed over into American popular music and then global culture. The most sophisticated analysis of a "blues aesthetic" (broadly conceived) was Albert Murray's Stomping The Blues (1976).

Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues (1976) exploded into an analytical vacuum of African-American expressive culture as it created a foundation for all American musical cultures. Murray looks at the blues as if it is a jewel: a chapter on the genre name itself, then on the blues as sung, the blues as played in jazz, the blues as danced, and the blues as ritual. He then theorized the permeable boundary of sacred and secular music in African-American music — on display, for example, in the musical overlap of soul and gospel or blues and spirituals — through the double-edged sword of the Saturday Night Function and the Sunday Morning Service (both are Murray's terms). On Saturday nights, everyday people require percussive, up-tempo, "dance-beat oriented" music to soundtrack their individual good times, romance, and social engagement. Blues and blues-based musical forms are the liturgical music (so to speak) for the Saturday Night Function. For the Sunday Morning Service, gospel is the liturgical music and its repetitions, tambourines, and invocations of God and the spirit call for a soundtrack with a different set of objectives: the penitent's connection to God, the cosmos, family, community, soul and conscience. Philosopher Kenneth Burke defined a given artistic form or philosophy as "the dancing of an attitude," and Stomping the Blues was Murray's book-length study of the blues as a community's embodied philosophy. Just as Burke once called literature "equipment for living" for all readers, Murray appropriated his phrase to call music "equipment for living" for blues people.

Murray lived until the age of 97 and he was the driving intellectual force behind the founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center (the program) and its orchestra, along with his artistic disciples, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch.