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The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement.

Albert Murray. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.238 pp. $23.00.

Reviewed by

Carolyn M. Jones Louisiana State University

In The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement, Albert Murray once again returns to the critical stage for a masterful performance. Murray is one of American literature's most enduring writers and critics. In his criticism, his novels, and his autobiographical works, Murray examines European, American, and African cultural forms and personalities and how these have forged a new culture in the American landscape and a new form of the hero in the blues hero. His persistent themes have been "down home" heritage as foundation and, in many ways, critic of American aesthetics, the blues as indigenous form, and improvisation as the highest achievement of the artist and the basis of survival and of freedom for African Americans. In The Blue Devils of Nada, using artistic, literary, and critical cultural forms from ancient Greek tragedy, to modernism, to sports, to philosophy, to visual art, to music, Murray examines the work of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Romare Bearden, and Ernest Hemingway. His improvisation writes a new song: a song on American "character, outlook, attitude, native value system, and lifestyle."

America, Murray has argued, is a mulatto, composite culture, shaped by the conjunctions of influences from the Yankee to the Native to the Black. This fact is, he maintains, the essence of our national creativity, but also the source of our greatest tensions. Murray's work articulates a notion of culture that can acknowledge the existence and interdependence of this multiplicity of voices that makes up "the American" and that can create a form of expression through which free and mutual selves can interact and respect, if not either resolve or transcend, the tensions in our culture. He argues that this form already exists, that it is an indigenous form, and he calls it the blues idiom.

The blues idiom, enacted by the blues hero, emerges from Southern roots that teach one to function in terms of rootlessness and to face squarely an historical reality of pain and suffering: "To protest the existence of dragons (or even hooded or unhooded Grand Dragons for that matter) is not only sentimental but naive." The blues idiom also includes connecting the knowledge gained in one's personal experience to history and to the canon of the West. The blues musician, through the play which is interplay between the individual and the tradition as well as between persons and groups, is able to move beyond the binaries that are the dragon's, the dominant ideological stance, to slay the dragon and, thereby, to gain "the ultimate boon to which the dragon denies you access."

The current social-scientific and political approaches to the dragon are too formulaic to defeat it, for they, first, define black people as social problems and, second, reduce and oversimplify human experience and response. Murray prefers the metaphorical to the scientific. Black artists regard themselves as "flesh and blood human being[s], as person[s] of capability with many possibilities . . . not as . . . social problems in urgent need of white liberal compassion." The social-scientific idiom pretends to capture all of experience, seeing human response as predictable. Human beings, Murray argues, are not machines; they "can never be reduced to zero. Not as long as they [are] potentially capable of defining [themselves] in terms of [their] own aspirations." The social sciences disregard play, imagination, and creativity.

While the social sciences disregard play, imagination, and creativity, Murray, emphasizing them, argues for the importance of metaphor. The poetic metaphor, because its "net" is more loosely woven, can trap and stylize large areas of experience. Style is essential for Murray; it is form individualized and made elegant. Individual experience and regional particularities can be stylized into universal significance. The blues idiom is the most powerful metaphorical structure, offering a way to make a response to the human condition that is meaningful, significant, and individually stylized. As a performative construction of identity and community, blues improvisation also creates the capacity to function in situations of confrontation. The blues idiom offers a creative, disruptive counterstatement to the ideology of the dragon in the terms of the common culture. It offers "not attempts to go beyond the form, but rather . . . efforts to take [the form] as far as it would go." This extension, which is improvisation, is to riff from the tradition the method that can make the solution fit the indigenous style; it is to make the tradition your own. The fully orchestrated blues statement offers a model for life that, for Murray, can deal with tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce naturally and simultaneously. The blues statement "expresses a sense of life that is affirmative." To improvise is to establish one's style: "the dancing of an attitude."

This dancing of an attitude is what each artist Murray discusses is able to do. Each is able to improvise on the cultural forms and influences around him. Murray, first, takes a step back from his own work on Count Basie to examine the autobiographical form as historical documentation, a theme that continues in the work as Murray gives us biographical sketches on each artist. He also examines the role of the academic co-writer in the creation of autobiography. Murray's academic assumptions and structures must come into creative tension with Basie himself, who brings Murray into rhythm with the "Basie beat" to make a collaborative "class act."

Murray then turns to Louis Armstrong, whose music, he argues, "matched the innovative sensibilities in modern art and literature" and whose trumpet symbolizes the "spirit of exploration and readjustment" necessary in unstable times. Armstrong's innovations match and express those of the twentieth century. Ellington's work, to which Murray turns next, represents, Murray says, "far and away the most definitive musical stylization of life in the United States." With his emphasis on the fundamentals, Ellington developed a "vocabulary, grammar, and syntax" that expressed his own and a culture's personality. Romare Bearden supplies, for Murray, the visual equivalent to Ellington. Bearden is able both to utilize and to break from subject in his artistic representations.

Finally, Murray turns to Ernest Hemingway, from whose "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" the term nada in Murray's title is taken. Hemingway seems, at first, an odd choice with which to end the work, but the reasons for this choice emerge as Murray illustrates the interrelationship and interdependence of persons and of cultural forms in America. Murray admires Hemingway as a man of art and action. Like Ellington, Hemingway was devoted to the fundamentals, and that devotion allowed him to comment on the political issues of his time through art - particularly, through his "sense of form." Hemingway's form and prose, which are short, vigorous, and positive, Murray says, are like the "steady but infinitely elastic and inclusive 4/4 rhythm of the now classic Kansas City blues score" formed, partly, by Basie. Hemingway, like Ellington, Bearden, Basie, and Armstrong, stands as an example of a pragmatic and heroic way of negotiating and refining experience through confrontation, discipline, and self-realization. What the Hemingway chapter reinforces, I think, is that, for Murray, improvisation is a way beyond the "anxiety of influence." Hemingway, as an example in the text, reaffirms the idea that the artist is able to incorporate a variety of influences into an individual style when faced with his or her particular challenge. More importantly, Hemingway is also an example of how black and white Americans improvise off each other, either consciously or unconsciously, in a common culture. To be blues-oriented is to be American: to combine the wisdom of poetry with pragmatic insight. Murray reminds us, however, that art and the blues are for "nada" - no personal glory or reward - but are for confronting everything important - "all the problems that are directly involved in the affirmation and justification of human life as such."

Albert Murray's The Blue Devils of Nada is brilliant and beautiful. It demonstrates its thesis: that the blues hero can stylize a variety of influences into his own voice. Murray riffs biography, history, art history, and criticism, along with film and literary criticism and philosophy, into his own masterpiece. This work is Murray at his most elegant - and elegance, style, is the point. The arts, for Murray, are "the vernacular imperative to process (which is to say to stylize) the raw native materials, experiences, and the idiomatic particulars of everyday life into aesthetic (which is to say elegant) statements of universal relevance and appeal." The folk is stylized into the fine; each individual plays the instrument of self in his or her own way; and nothing is lost. That elegance, however, is tough. The book's juxtapositions and deep examinations challenge the reader to move beyond his or her established conceptions and interpretations. Murray's voice carries an urgency and an edge. He insists on commitment, on the reader's becoming part of the second line, both in the "high spirits and earthy cavorting" of the New Orleans street parade and in the seriousness of the dedication of the young musician, admiring a style, who apprentices himself to a master, mentor, and "true father." From serious play comes functional mythology in aesthetic form - like the blues.

Art, Murray insists, :is a vital response to our common dilemma as Americans. It creates possibilities, expressive and applicable forms. It is one of the ways that we create human values and define what is good and what is not. To take on this task is the responsibility of the artist and the way to engage, creatively and transgressively, as well as responsibly, the realities of life. "You cannot," Murray said once, "slay the dragon with a formula." For nada, for nothing, except the sheer joy of exercising your creative powers at the moment of dire challenge to and deepest need of yourself and your world, improvise: Dance your attitude, defeat the dragon, and take the boon home. Albert Murray does.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jones, Carolyn M.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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