Diedre Murray: Stringology
David Grundy

Diedre Murray, courtesy of Diedre Murray

Despite a growing number of notable players like Peggy Lee, Tomeka Reid and Lester St Louis, the cello remains a relatively rare instrument in jazz. When Diedre Murray came on the scene in the early 1970s, it was even rarer. Fred Katz played cello in Chico Hamilton’s groundbreaking group beginning in the late 1950s, while Calo Scott worked with Gerry Mulligan, and he later recorded with Ahmed Adbul-Malik and Gato Barbieri in the ‘60s. Bassists like Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter occasionally recorded on the smaller instrument, and Ray Brown recorded an entire album, Jazz Cello, in 1960. But, in focusing exclusively on the instrument, and applying it to the jazz avant-garde, Murray in New York and her near-contemporary Abdul Wadud in Cleveland stood essentially alone. Making her debut on organist Larry Young’s cult classic Lawrence of Newark (1973), Murray went on to play in two very different bands – those of virtuosic trumpeter Marvin ‘Hannibal’ Peterson and saxophonist-composer Henry Threadgill – while doing session work with everyone from to James Brown to Frank Foster. In Threadgill’s two-drummer Sextett, Murray and bassist Fred Hopkins were half of one of the all-time great rhythm sections; the two went on to lead their own groups, recording in duo and in quartet on the albums Prophecy (1990, released 1998), Firestorm (1992), and Stringology (1994).

By this stage, Murray was also gradually moving away being a gigging musician. As she remarked when we talked on Zoom in May 2021, “I have two totally difference careers.” Becoming involved in arts curation at venues like P.S. 122, Murray eventually put down her cello. (Her last recorded appearance came on The Roots’ album Things Fall Apart (1999)). Today she’s a respected theatre composer. She’s won Obie awards; re-arranged Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; and collaborated with everyone from Cornelius Eady to Regina Taylor, Lynn Nottage, Carl Hancox Rux, and Chesney Snow. In the 1990s, Murray received little coverage in the jazz press, dominated by male critics who neglected the importance of Black women in the advancement of creative music. By contrast, her work in theatre has earned her accolades and steady work: a sad indication of how much work there still is to do. She has a lot to say about jazz and its intersection with other art forms; about structural misogyny; about the hidden crevices of creative music in the United States; and about the musical landscape today.

Murray took to music after seeing the Betty Davis vehicle Deception on TV (Davis plays a musician in a love triangle with composer Claude Rains and cellist Paul Henreid). Aged eleven, she got her first instrument. The next week, she was improvising for her aunt’s dance company. “I didn’t even know how to tune my instrument!” she laughs. Music was always in the air. “I didn’t grow up in the Blues: the music I grew up on was salsa. That’s what you would hear out the windows in New York City when I was kid. Or soul jazz. I remember walking down the block and from the windows you could hear everybody playing Jimmy Smith records.”

Murray had a thorough schooling in the classical repertoire, thanks to a strong public school system and to private lessons with Kermit Moore, co-founder of the Society of Black Composers. But she preferred improvising to playing what was written on the page. “I always thought I had a better idea than music paper, you play Bach for six bars, and then you improvise on it. I hated playing exactly what was there.” She formed a “cute kid band” playing folk-pop music with her guitarist cousin, who was also her best friend, playing anywhere they could – in apartment hallways, busking on the subway and in the street, doing small paying gigs. Quincy Jones wanted to be their manager, but Murray’s family vetoed this, putting paid to the band.

By the time she was seventeen, Murray came to realize that her interests lay elsewhere. “The classical musicians were no fun. The jazz musicians were wilder!” And jazz came closer to the sounds she’d been discovering in her own improvisations. Aged eleven, Murray played along to her brother’s Albert Ayler records. “You might think, an eleven-year old doing that? This is crazy! But this was the ‘60s, and in the ‘60s people didn’t tell you that you couldn’t do this or that. I only found that out later.”

Murray took a year out from education after high school, having contracted mononucleosis (she later attended Hunter College and graduated with a BA in ethnomusicology). It was during this time that her involvement in music deepened. She came onto the scene on the brink of the Loft Jazz era, rehearsing at percussionist Warren Smith’s Studio WIS, one of the first lofts. “The session people for King Curtis, the Duke Ellington Band, the Count Basie Band, Frank Zappa; people like (tuba player) Howard Johnson, Julius Watkins, the French Horn player, people from the Charlie Mingus band – these people all had their own bands and came off the road to rehearse. I knew them socially and they would be amused – a girl running around with a cello – but they encouraged me. If someone went on a lunchbreak, I could play the bassline; they recommended me for gigs. By the time I was 17 I would pick up little sessions playing in a string section for pop songs.”

One night, Murray and percussionist Napoleon Revels-Bey sat in at Slugs’ Saloon, the run-down Manhattan bar which presented everyone from beboppers to Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, and where trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot in 1972. Organist Larry Young – then known as Khalid Yasin – had pushed the instrument from soul jazz clichés to free jazz and early fusion, the latter as part of Tony Williams’ mind-bogglingly loud Lifetime. Murray had no idea who he was. But she was blown away by the music.

“He was playing with Pharaoh Sanders and he had like 15,000 drummers. It was Afrocentric energy music. That sound would go around and around and around. Larry would never stop playing; everyone else could sit and in and come and go from the bandstand. But I stayed on with him, because I didn’t know that I was supposed to get off the bandstand, so he whispered to me, ‘it’s OK, you can go home now’.” A few nights later, Young told Murray to come back and join the band.

“There were people like (trumpeter) Charles Mcghee, (guitarist) (James) Blood Ulmer, (keyboardist) Cedric Lawson, (bassist) Don Pate. Most of these people were about 5 to 10 years older than me at this point. We just played and played and played, every instrument going, Amen, Amen, while Larry’s just painting and painting and painting and painting. Pharaoh would play all night. You’re listening to that sound pressing on your body, but you’re also seeing how they form ideas, how a motivic idea gets deformed into this phantasmagorical tree of improvisation. I haven’t seen Pharoah in years. But as a young musician it was like, ‘man!’”

Well over six foot tall, Young himself was, as Murray recalls, “like a big teddy bear.” Dressing in kimonos, kaftan, and a gutra, he had his own slang, often referring to astrology and outer space. (Murray was given the nickname “Supernova Mama.”) While Young worked on his own motifs, there were no charts. “He didn’t have to control a band, like some bandleaders. He could just look at you and you’d solo or he’d cut you off. He trusted people to understand.” Young was, Murray suggests, updating the soul jazz rhythm section, replacing riffs and licks with “sonic paintings, soundscapes.” Not quite fusion, not quite free jazz, she sees Young’s approach dovetailing with Miles Davis’ bands of the time, with Lifetime, and with John and Alice Coltrane. “It wasn’t trying to be Western, and it wasn’t trying to be bebop. It was trying to do something else.”

Murray appeared under her birth name, Diedre Johnson, on the original LP of the group’s sole recording, Lawrence of Newark. The sessions took place at Eddie Korvin’s Blue Rock studios, a large space which also occasionally hosted the likes of Bob Dylan. The recording was, she recalls, something of a baptism of fire, but Murray’s voice comes through strong and clear, spilling out gnarly curlicues alongside Sanders’ ecstatic yells and Young’s noisy, shattering riffs. It’s a true lost classic of the era. While the record was sadly underpromoted, Murray’s own star was rising. She recalls encountering Duke Ellington on the way to a gig. “I literally fell to my knees and said, ‘Oh my God, Mr Ellington, oh my God,’ and he said, ‘get off your knees.’ He was so nice and gallant. So Duke said, ‘look, leave Larry and do my gig.’ And I said, ‘I love you, but I can’t do that,’ and he said, ‘OK, I understand, good luck.’ And then two months later he died.”

Tragically, Ellington was soon followed by Larry Young, aged just 37: “and then suddenly it was puff, bang, Larry was dead.” While Ellington left a vast legacy, Young left behind much still unsaid. Murry remarks: “It is obvious to me that he heard what was coming and was already there. Now let’s say he had lived for another, even twenty years. I think that he would have delved into all that, but he didn’t get a chance.”

Indeed, in his final years Young could barely get a gig. As Murray notes: “Jazz started losing its commercial viability very early. I think musicians remembered the viability of the music from the ‘40s. So there was a lot of: ‘What’s going to happen to us? How can we make money?’ I remember seeing Mingus on the Ed Sullivan show protesting, ‘save our music,’ with the whole big band.” [Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, and Roy Haynes appeared as representatives of ‘The Jazz and People’s Movement’ on Sullivan’s last show playing a storming version of Mingus ‘Haitian Fight Song’ in 1970.] “People started trying a whole bunch of things to keep that going.”

Murray adapted easier than most. Initially, she was part of a scene of New York musicians associated with groups like that of Rahsaan Roland Kirks: “people who didn’t quite fit into mainstream jazz or free jazz” and who frequented clubs like Sweet Basil, Slugs’, and the Village Vanguard. But the climate changed with the emergence of Loft Jazz at venues like Studio WIS, Ornette Coleman’s Artist House, Sam and Bea Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, Rashied Ali’s Ali’s Alley, Joe Lee Wilson’s Ladies’ Fort, and with the influx of musicians from the Midwest and the West Coast.

“People came from the old jazz centers that had died off, like in Philadelphia. Butch Morris, David Murray, and all those people came from the West Coast. The AACM people came from Chicago. New York jazz was getting kind of tired. The AACM revitalized it. It was a whole other way of structuring being an artist. They had events. They socialized with each other. They helped each other in their survival. One thing that attracted me to the AACMers was the theatrical aspect. I’ll never forget seeing the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] for the first time. People literally went mad listening. It was such a new concept. They took themselves seriously but each one of them would become almost like a character in a play. Later I just went to the next stage and did actual theatre!”

Further external influences came from Texas-born trumpeter Marvin ‘Hannibal’ Peterson (now Hannibal Lokumbe). A star soloist in Gil Evans’ big band, Hannibal was preparing his orchestral suite Children of the Fire, “dedicated to the children of Vietnam.” The day after seeing the Evans band in a loft, Murray bumped into Hannibal on the street: he invited her to play on the record. Murray appeared in Hannibal’s smaller groups throughout the 1970s, touring Europe with musicians like George Adams, Cecil McBee, and South African drummer Makaya Ntshoko. “After Miles everybody wanted to be cool,” Murray remembers. “Hannibal was hot. More like Armstrong, very big, very bold. You really got that visceral sound against your body when you played with him. He also did something I really liked: he would play larger pieces, orchestral pieces, and then got on the good foot, a more crossover style.” Hannibal played Coltrane-style duets with drummers, blew blues and spirituals; Murray’s playing was more out, while retaining a folkish twang, a tough lyricism. On “Episode Zero” from Live at Lausanne, she unleashes energetic, octave-switching figures while Hannibal blows wistful countermelodies, as if they could play like this forever.

Murray first met Henry Threadgill when his group Air shared a bill with Hannibal. A few years later, he invited her to join his Sextett. They collaborated for over a decade, from the great Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket (1983) to Making a Move (1995). “Playing with Henry made you think deeper about the possibilities of what’s in music: complexity and systems.” Everyone dressed in black, as Murray jokes, but Threadgill’s music also displayed a theatrical humor: outlandish track titles, circus melodies, unexpected juxtapositions.

Murray and Fred Hopkins were “a kind of fulcrum in the middle of a raucous rhythm section.” Privately practicing Threadgill’s music along with Bach cello suites, they became fascinated with the possibilities of string playing and formed two bands of their own, a duo and a quartet. “It was the world of what strings do best: elongation, harmonic stuff, and what I call the psychology of the string sound – sounds like crying, laughing, sighing. We’d play tunes, but it was really about the extended techniques we could put on them.”

“Dedicated to Wilbur Little,” the closing track to their album Firestorm, exemplifies this approach. Murray plays the melody over Hopkins’ arco counter-figurations: an ecstatic yet restrained chorale. Murray’s slides and slurs exemplify the cry of the string while her horn-like phrasing, carefully weighing each note, judging each pause, is a masterclass in emotional timing and depth. The music rises and falls like an engraved sigh. Yet these albums failed to draw much attention, and Murray increasingly turned to curation and composition.

Murray co-produced some of Threadgill’s albums, and “had a career that most people don’t know about in commercial music as a record producer. That whole folk-rock thing from when I was a kid never left me: what I call ‘getting on a good foot,’ something uncomplex that’s fun to hear and play. So I did some R&B while I was playing with Henry. I had my black clothes on when I played with Henry and then I put on a little sun dress and went and hung out with the R&B people.” Murray entered the world of curation by chance. “I live in Queens, and I submitted my music to a place called the Jamaica Arts Center in my neighborhood. The woman said, ‘I don’t want to give you a playing gig. I think you’re a curator.’  I took it, and I started getting a lot of gigs as curator. I worked at P.S. 122 in New York, created touring festivals, had my own space in a church.”

Murray sometimes wrote charts for Threadgill’s Society Situation Dance Band – check her astounding solo around eight minutes into the 1988 Hamburg show currently available on YouTube – and began composing in earnest in her groups with Hopkins. “I noticed that if you got commissions it was less work than or a better situation to being in a club. So, I started writing grants for me and Fred, which required me to write more and more. One day, a theater company called me up and said, ‘you’ve been recommended, we would like you to do a theater piece.’ So, in 1998 I wrote piece called Running Man.”

Written to a libretto by Cornelius Eady and directed by Diane Paulus, the piece resisted strict classification. “I would probably classify it as a chamber opera,” Murray remarked. “But I just wrote what I heard.” Murray’s score won an Obie award. “It paid so much money!” Murray laughs. “I said to myself, why don’t I try this, rather than running around Europe touring?” Subsequent projects include a collaboration with Carl Hancock Rux on jazz operetta The Blackamoor Angel (2007), the arrangements for the Laura Nyro celebration Eli’s Coming (2001) – another Obie winner – and re-arranging Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from a 4-1/2 hour opera to a 2-1/2 hour Broadway show in 2012. Primarily a live endeavour, such work remains largely unrecorded due to the heightened cost of recording theatre music.

Fred Hopkins died in 1999 and Murray hung up her cello at the turn of the millennium. Having played music from the age of eleven, she was starting to feel the strain. “I was getting little injuries, muscle and back injuries, because I was playing with really loud people. It’s like being an athlete. You have to stop. I still feel that pinch, and that’s from years ago.”

These injuries were also the indirect result of a need to demonstrate that Murray was as technically strong and virtuosic as the male musicians around her. “I used to want to play wild and high just so that I could be heard. And I’d like to do unexpected things so that people would pay attention.” Flashes, her 1993 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, Pauline Oliveros and choreographer Blondell Cummings, was the first time she’d shared the bandstand exclusively with other women. “I lived in a world of all men. I had two older brothers. It was like being a tomboy. It was the same with the musicians: I was like their sister.”

“I could write a book on being on the road with men,” Murray continues. “The band leaders that I played with were all very protective. When I first went on tour with Hannibal, one of the bass players asked me if I would wash his clothes. Hannibal overheard him and cursed him out, and there was no more of that.” The social contexts surrounding the music required careful negotiations. “I would tell people if they misbehaved, I was going to call my big brother and my husband. I didn’t want to be in a situation where people were doing all kinds of crazy stuff and I was alone and unsafe. After the gig was over, I would drink a Coca Cola and go to my room. But a record deal happens, talking on the street, meeting people at the party afterwards. So, I was cut out of some of the business opportunities.”

“The politics for women is so different now”, she reflected. “But there are still only certain instruments that people accept as ‘feminine,’ that women can play. The rhythm section, which is still background. You still don’t get female instrumentalists as revered as Coltrane, Miles Davis: people so dominant their idea changes the music. Geri Allen was getting there. It’s so tragic she died young. I used to have lots of conversations with Geri about owning her own space. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. Do what you want to do.”

Murray also reflects on the changes she saw in the music’s commercial viability. “Once Wynton Marsalis came on the scene, the music I’d been playing got relegated to fine art. It was not obscure music. When I was playing it, it wasn’t considered high art. But now it was only small groups of people listening.” Back in the ‘70s, “Hannibal always had his eye on larger forms of music. He was always talking about playing in concert halls and getting out of clubs – getting more respect for the music. But of course, as we see now, this was part of a much larger trend that was going on in music anyway, where jazz is losing its fundamental popularity with the general public.”

“In a way, people like the AACM moved the music forward, they have to do this, but it also takes the music away from a social base or a popular base. It’s interesting that Hannibal, who’s from Texas, had this idea that we should be celebrated for being great artists, so we should be in a concert hall and not in the club. I say that we should be both places. This idea that we should be respected, I totally agree with that. I just think that in America especially, we have a separate high art and a separate commercial art: we don’t do commercial high art well. Stevie Wonder is one of the greatest artists that ever lived. But no one would think about him in a higher context, which I think he actually belongs in.”

At the same time, she contends: “I think that people overlook this – twenty years of jazz is kind of worth a hundred years of Western classical music. Each one of those great composers is a total school unto themselves. If you’re playing with Larry Young, there’s a whole school to itself. You would study them like you would study a whole school of classical music. Everything is just going faster.” Perhaps, she muses, the explosion of new sounds following the Second World War reached a point of saturation and complexity that was simply too much for the majority of listeners. Her own particular trajectory, she suggests, reflects a generational experience of listening to and making music that has fundamentally changed today.

“I remember when ‘Atomic Dog’ came out. I was walking the street in Harlem and the record stores were playing it, people in their car were playing it. It was like being in a live music set. We don’t have that shared commonality of culture anymore. People don’t really listen to the radio anymore. You don’t have DJs to show you stuff, you have to find it yourself. It takes a lot of time. You might watch a Marvel movie instead.”

Murray herself maintains an exploratory approach to listening. She’ll spend an entire year studying a single composer, “listening to everything they did to learn how they thought.” As well as ragtime, Chopin, and John Adams, she mentions Michel Legrand, Astor Piazzolla, and ... Matt Monro. This is only a surprise if one tries to pigeonhole Murray’s work. As she puts it of Tomeka Reid: “What I like about her is that she makes her own environment. I think you have to be like that.”

Murray has been working on a number of projects which had to be put on hold during the pandemic, including a collaboration with dancer-choreographer Dianne McIntyre. In 2019, she worked with Regina Taylor on Oo-Bla-Dee, a show focusing on female jazz musicians, part of a growing corrective to a history of misogyny. A collaboration with actor-songwriter-beatboxer Chesney Snow entitled Soil Beneath: An Empirical Decay was initially scheduled for late 2020. The hip-hop connection makes sense. “Actually,” she recalls, “my last record as a performer was with The Roots. When I was at PS 122, I organized a festival for Multistate Arts Festival and we put them on when they were teenagers. A few years later they called me and said, ‘hey, you want to be on our record?’ We just played, Questlove laid down a beat, and Black Thought would just start talking. They ended up using it as something between songs [as ‘Diedre vs. Dice’ on Things Fall Apart (1999)]. I liked R&B and I’d worked with James Brown. James Brown is Proto hip-hop anyway. I wonder if The Roots lived in 1940s, what they would be playing: probably jazz. I think that all music has morphed and changed. Like Kamasi Washington, playing jazz and with hip hop people. And even Beyoncé: it’s much more like theater than just a singer with a band. Everything is multidisciplined right now.”

Murray is in a better position than most to make such evaluations. As a session musician throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, “I did all kinds of stuff. I worked with [saxophonist] Frank Foster. He put me in the in the [Loud Minority] big band trombone section and I played the trombone parts! I worked with Elliott Sharp. I did gigs with James Brown. Inside the band there were a lot of people from Studio WIS. Even some of the classical people were in that mix. It was like this big bubbling cauldron of a whole bunch of musicians working together. This is how I ended up where I am now, because of that constant cross pollination of music.”

Such connections suggest much about Murray’s own way of approaching music of all kinds: a buzzing, hybrid hub of cross-connections, sessions, gigs, styles, stories. Murray remembers what – and who – has been lost to changing commercial imperatives. Larry Young’s fate is one of the saddest examples. Loft jazz, too, couldn’t last: the gap between high and commercial art widened. But Murray’s closing emphasis is firmly on the future.

“As much as I love the things that happened in the past,” she said, “I think we have to keep going forward. We must go forward. Because musicians are alive today, we can’t all be in the past. We have to learn from the past and go forward.” Murray has always taken the given – the stories we’re told about music, the boundaries we’re supposed to draw – and ran with it. With James Brown, “I stopped playing the charts. I just started improvising. I couldn’t help myself!” Murray refuses to be tied to any one script. In whatever context, she continues to take the music forward.


© 2021 David Grundy

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