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Riffs

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan
Modern Library, 237 pp., $24.95

1.

When eighty-four-year-old Albert Murray came to an Upper West Side bookstore last August to read from Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, he expressed his gratitude to John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor and editor. He said that no one had done more than Callahan to see that Ellison’s work was in print. Murray meant The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, Flying Home and Other Stories, and Juneteenth, a novel, a narrative sequence, a book-length excerpt of the long, mysterious, obsessive work that Ellison still had not let go of at the time of his death in 1994.1 Thanks to Callahan, there are more Ellison titles now than existed during his lifetime.

Callahan also deserves praise for Trading Twelves, an exchange of eighty-nine letters between Ellison and Albert Murray during the 1950s, written from what Callahan calls “both men’s determination to bring their vernacular Negro American point of view to bear” on the wider intellectual and cultural life of the US. Praise must fall to Murray, too, with whom Callahan edited this volume, because the relaxed, congenial sound of Ellison in his letters was made possible by his trust in his fellow former avid reader in the Tuskegee library and, when their exchange of letters begins, fellow hopeful novelist.

In these letters their shared passion for jazz, that saving grace, gave them license to say or string together all kinds of bop wisdom. In his introduction, Callahan compares Ellison to “a horn man improvising long, meditative, lyrical solos” while Murray “swings along on piano in offhand syncopation.” This is very much how the two in these letters—and elsewhere—talk about themselves and about each other. Trading twelves, Callahan explains, refers to the jazz jam session, the exchange of riffs, of twelve bars of music, between two instruments.

Yet while Ellison’s and Murray’s tone in their letters is relaxed, confidently complicit, the letters are not without self-consciousness. The last thing the world needs is another book, and both write knowing serious writers must back up the nerve they have in asking for the world’s attention by offering something that is more than merely worthwhile. Sometimes their letters are almost bravely grandiose because of the feeling that there is no turning back, even with families to support.

Even after Ellison has published Invisible Man and Murray his first short story, there is still a sense in their letters that they are testing out on each other the language with which they want to explain to their audiences how to read what can be called Ellison’s blues essentialism and Murray’s extreme bop extension of it. The letters are also intriguing in what they capture of the postwar period of graduate school opportunities made possible by the GI Bill, when travel to Europe was again possible, and in what they say about themselves and their conception of the black writer as civil rights struggles took hold in public consciousness.

Here is Ralph Ellison, in 1955, to Albert Murray, about having seen a jazz character, a “great drummer” and a “fool” in the “colored sense,” who was a former pupil of an unpopular music instructor back at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where all three had gone to school:

…I went into a store on Madison Avenue the other day and saw a slightly built, balding mose [black guy] in there stepping around like he had springs in his legs and a bunch of frantic jumping beans in his butt (pronounced ass), and who was using his voice in a precise, clipped way that sounded as though he had worked on its original down home sound with great attention for a long, long time—a true work of art. I dug this stud and was amazed. I was sitting across the store and waiting to be served when he got up and came across to the desk to pay for his purchase and leave his address—when the salesman made the mistake of asking him if he wasn’t the Joe (pardon me, Jo) Jones.

Well man, that definite article triggered him! His eyes flashed, his jaw unlimbered and in a second I thought ole Jo was going to break into a dance. His voice opened up like a drill going through thin metal and before you could say Jackie Robinson he had recalled every time he had been in this store, the style of shoes he bought and why he’d bought them and was going into a tap dancing description of his drumming school, politics, poon-tang in Pogo Pogo and atomic fission—when I remembered what you had told me of his opinion of Alton Davenport and uttered the name. Man, his voice skidded like a jet banking up there where the air ain’t air and he started stuttering. “Did you say Davenport?” he said. “And Birmingham, Tuskegee, and points south,” I said. And he was off again.

Murray replies,

Good to hear you in there riffing like that…. Remember what he told that fay [white guy] drummer that time. This poor square cat was clunking and plunking up there on 52nd and one night he looked out there’s old Jo sitting there not even looking. Whereupon this cat falls to and commences to fair-thee-well all but cook supper on them skins as only a grayboy feels he’s got to do. Sweated himself into a double krupa trying to make old Jo take notice, then at the end of the set he came over and asked if he dug him. “You’re distorting me, man,” old Jo lectured him right then and there, his teeth set into that razor-edged footlights not-smile, his eyes crowfooted, his nose narrow, his voice nasal, “This way, man, this way. Lighten up, lighten up and loosen up. Watch your elbows, man. Watch your shoulders. What you mad about? It’s music, man, music, music. From here man, here, here, here. It’s heart and soul, pardner. Man, you’re distorting the hell out of me.” Man, that cat didn’t use nothing but brushes the rest of the night.

Their style is defined by humor and their humor by amplified uproar, determined vitality, robust ironies. Yet these letters also reveal a quiet reverence for the artistry to be found in black culture, the belief that true art teaches control, not abandon, a faith in music as a “depository” of living American traditions, and their search for a literary equivalent.

Throughout the letters there are interesting remarks on literary figures Ellison knew, such as Bellow, Mailer, and R.P. Blackmur, and Faulkner in his suede shoes; and entertaining portraits of artists like Ray Charles and the white choreographer Maya Deren, whose films made her a conservationist of black dance in Harlem. Both Ellison and Murray know a lot about hi-fi equipment and cameras. And as guys they talk cars, boxing. But Trading Twelves assumes a great deal of familiarity with the works of both Ellison and Murray. The story the letters tell is narrow. As apprentices, Murray and Ellison don’t talk shop, they talk literature. They are not so much interested in personalities or in private lives, not even in their own, at least not in the letters presented here. Though the letters aren’t personal, they are intimate. Hardly a letter goes by without mention of what they are reading, and perhaps the reason some of the now-obscure works that excite them—Abraham Kardiner’s The Mark of Oppression, for example—are left underidentified is that the intellectual friendship these letters testify to is their main concern as literary history.

The two men confess plans, anxieties, and encourage each other. “I’m glad to see you getting into print. This is a very necessary part of writing, until the work is printed it’s still tied to your own subjectivity. Put it into print and the spell is broken and self-criticism is born.” Trading Twelves is touching in what the letters record of the arduous schedule of young writers who could not have known how long it would take each to be as nonprolific as they turned out to be.2

Ellison is thirty-five years of age when the letters begin and Murray is thirty-three. Murray had been aware of Ellison since 1935, when Ellison was an upperclassman at the Tuskegee Institute and he a freshman. To Alabama-born Murray, the upperclassman who had come to Tuskegee from Oklahoma to study music already had a reputation. Murray found Ellison’s name on the cards for the books that he himself had checked out of the school library in his passion for supplementary reading. But the two didn’t actually meet until 1942, in New York. Murray says that although he knew that by then Ellison had published some fiction and articles, he didn’t then know that music was no longer his main interest.

Murray ran into Ellison for the second time in Harlem, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 135th Street. Murray, who had already studied and rejected Marxism, had assumed that Ellison shared Richard Wright’s interest in it. But after he mentioned to Ellison his “musette bag of poetry by Auden, Spender, and C. Day Lewis,” treasures from the Gotham Book Mart, how much more Ellison had in common with him than with Wright became clear, including their hope to answer in their writings what Murray calls “the challenge of William Faulkner’s complex literary image of the South.”

Murray had already been teaching at Tuskegee when he and Ellison became friends. He had been a second lieutenant in what was then the US Army Air Corps, stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. Tuskegee and the Air Force, to which Murray was transferred as a reservist (first lieutenant) when it absorbed the Air Corps, were to have long claims on him. The early letters were written while Murray was still teaching at Tuskegee, and Ellison was in New York, spending a lot of time with the narrator of his novel, inside the conceit of first-person invisibility and his narrator’s secretive project of speaking “on the lower frequencies” for “you.” It is easy to imagine how necessary being in touch with another sympathetic black writer was for Ellison.

Just how wary of others or superstitious about saying too much Ellison perhaps was back then, either by temperament or from his experience of literary Manhattan, is evident in an early letter, before his novel was published, about his having been asked, by someone whom he describes as “an exponent of the Herskovits myth-of-the-Negro-past-school of anthropology,” to lecture at NYU on the sociological background of southwestern jazz:

With my fear of having my poor little brain picked I probably won’t say much of anything. So let that be a warning to you; if you have any ideas write them before you talk to these white boys, ‘cause they’re all eager beavers aspiring to win their spurs in [Partisan Review], Accent or anywhere else that will print a by-line. So write it before you talk it—if you plan to write it, and don’t say too much even then.

  1. 1

    One of Callahan’s footnotes promises a scholarly edition of Juneteenth soon.

  2. 2

    Albert Murray has published nine books, and the night he read from Trading Twelves he mentioned three other works in progress, including the last novel in his “Scooter” trilogy. Ellison has long been one of his subjects. See, for instance, his memoir South to a Very Old Place (1971). Several of the photographs included in the book are by Ellison who, when he first came to New York in 1937, was thinking about being a photographer as well as being either a sculptor or a musician. Van Vechten’s portrait photography, in Ellison’s opinion, was “photo-castration of a few so-called poets.”

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