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Playing the theory of relativity: Sunny Murray in Europe 1968–72 

December 2018

On the first anniversary of Murray’s death, Pierre Crépon pays tribute to the pioneering free drummer by documenting his early years as a leader on the international scene

After playing with Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray created some of the most important music of his career between 1968–72. His radical drumming and personal composing flourished through regular meetings with musicians such as Alan Silva, Byard Lancaster, Kenneth Terroade and François Tusques. But while the dynamic for free jazz in Europe provided the conditions needed for Murray’s conceptions to come to maturation and be heard, it did not ensure the longterm impact of the music made during this era. Although enough material for a box set exists, much of the work of this musician at the forefront of a revolutionary moment in music history remains unreleased. Using archival recordings and uncirculated documents, we can revisit these pivotal years.

In a 1935 letter to Albert Einstein, physicist Erwin Schrödinger described the thought experiment for which his name is most widely remembered. Its popular summary has it being about a cat who is simultaneously in two states of existence: alive and dead. Although this reduction misrepresents Schrödinger's point, it has endured because something about this impossible dual state captures the popular imagination.

When Sunny Murray died on 7 December 2017 in Paris, it took a full week for a major New York paper to publish an obituary, as if it were unsure in which state of existence Murray was in, or if his death was really newsworthy. But Murray was one of the most important musicians in avant garde jazz. As the handful of obituaries stated, he had invented a new way of playing the drums without using the instrument for what it was principally designed for – playing time – while a member of pianist Cecil Taylor’s group. In the process he developed one of the music’s defining characteristics; he had also shone during his time with saxophonist Albert Ayler in the mid-1960s. But to judge from these obituaries, it was almost as if Murray the important musician had vanished after these contributions to the New York scene, just as his colleague, the bassist Henry Grimes, had at the end of that decade.

Sunny Murray. Boulevard Voltaire, Paris, 1971. Photo by Thierry Trombert.

Much of the music Murray made in the late 1960s and early 70s has lingered in two simultaneous states of existence. It used to be very real. But the music of a specific moment continues to exist only if its circulation is ensured. For emerging avant gardes, many incidental factors determine what is accepted into the canon. In Sunny Murray’s case, these crucial years in his career have become almost invisible, with much of the recorded evidence locked away in archives where the laws of the market ensure it is likely to remain.

Key events took place in Murray’s life after his work in other musicians’ bands. In 1968, the Newport Jazz Festival's travelling European delegation hired Murray to play on a programme alongside the three great jazz drummers Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. Murray was then 32, playing prestigious concert halls across the European continent and eliciting strong reactions typical of an era when debate was a key component of criticism.

In London, Murray was booed by a crowd of thousands, a unique sound which he would remember for the rest of his life. In Berlin, an impromptu duet with mainstream flutist Herbie Mann's avant garde recruit, electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock, was acclaimed by a famously difficult audience. In Paris, Murray extended the short drumming demonstration he was supposed to give, inviting on stage Dizzy Gillespie's tenor Paul Jeffrey and two then unknown saxophonists, the Jamaican Kenneth Terroade and South African Ronnie Beer. The raw music made by the drummer and a frontline of three freely improvising horns was something that had not been heard before.

Murray was welcomed in France as a leader. He stayed for a while. The best musicians of the capital rallied around him at concerts and at a cafe theatre near the Grand Mosque on the Left Bank. An experimental film captured the distorted echoes of an art opening attended by Dalí for which Murray and saxophonist Barney Wilen provided the music. With a band tightened by sustained work, Murray recorded an album for the local market. Called Big Chief, it took 40 years for this recording to reach the US through the efforts of the Eremite label, which Murray always held in high regard. The album’s cover art and title were a nod to the drummer’s half Choctaw ancestry, and it showcased more mature personal conceptions than his first leader recordings. A greater clarity and force emerged from his compositions, particularly from the heart-wrenching “Angel Son” dedicated to his infant son Wayne, who had died in a domestic accident in 1966. The record ended with a version of “This Nearly Was Mine”, an unexpected Murray favourite from the hit musical South Pacific, which clearly revealed the drummer’s ability to organise an ensemble capable of occupying the full range of sonic frequencies, using instruments ranging from the violin to the double bass.

The name Murray used for his bands at that time was The Acoustical Swing Unit. Its probable origin was to be found in the reading of Prussian scientist Herman von Helmholtz’s 19th century writings. More specifically, in Helmholtz’s discussion of the combination tone, a third tone produced by the merging vibrations of two loud sounds played close to each. In Murray’s music, it meant that the interval between strokes was no longer conditioned by the distribution of accents on beats, but by research into an acoustic phenomenon, producing impressions of a fluctuating pulse. From the rapid playing of the bass drum emerged a hum, and soon Murray’s trademark continuously vibrating cymbal sound, akin to rustling metal, came to life. The trap set had become a vibration generator. For bassist and close collaborator Alan Silva, “it was the end of swing as we know it. It became so fast it became slow. Sunny Murray is the first drummer who ever played the theory of relativity.”

Sunny Murray (left) and Bob Reid at Théâtre de la Gaîté-Montparnasse, Paris. 16 October, 1971. Photo by Thierry Trombert.

In 1968–69, Murray was in a New York studio recording for Columbia. The label's jazz star was Miles Davis, and it was associated with an aura of ‘making it’. The 1969 session progressed with difficulty, with numerous false starts, and requests from the voice coming from the control booth – of producer John Hammond – to move forward. But the music that made it to tape had little to do with the ‘blowing sessions’ often hastily associated with the free jazz of the era. The dense sound of bop's small combos with their tightly rehearsed heads was still an integral part of the music. Murray’s Columbia record Spiritual Infinity still hasn’t been released.

When Murray returned to France in 1969, it was by way of Algeria. The government of Colonel Houari Boumédiene – who had seized power four years earlier – hosted the First Pan-African Festival of Algiers. This huge enterprise gathered delegations from all over Africa, filling the streets with music and art commemorating political change in the so-called Third World. African-American artists possessing an aura of sociopolitical engagement had been invited: Nina Simone, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln. Murray was part of the group led by saxophonist Archie Shepp. They played in the streets, from the Grande Poste to the place Maurice Audin, and in the festival’s finale they shared the stage of the Atlas theatre with Tuareg musicians in the presence of Boumédiene himself.

Then he was back in Paris making many records in one week for the fledgling French label BYG, which had reached out to the musicians in Algeria:Homage To Africa, Sunshine and sessions led by Shepp, Dave Burrell and Clifford Thornton. This abundance of documentation might create the illusion of completeness, but the BYG recordings, made in haste to seize an opportunity, offered only a skewed reflection of the music that at once was and could be. Then it was the Actuel festival. Banned from the capital by authorities still too wary of youth gatherings after the events of May–June 1968, it finally landed in the mud of a village at the Belgian border. After Murray’s set, the rock band Ten Years After concluded the evening. The next day, film cameras shooting the festival documented the music of both Don Cherry and Pink Floyd.

At this time there was great asymmetry between the dynamic of free jazz in Europe and in its American birthplace. In 1970, New York City offered Murray no work. On 25 November, the body of Albert Ayler was found floating next to a Brooklyn pier. His most recent recordings had been crossover albums, and the previous summer he too had been in France, playing triumphant shows at Fondation Maeght, a contemporary art complex on the riviera. Maybe something else died too during those autumnal days. Murray was a remarkable storyteller, and he could always speak at length about Ayler, conjuring overwhelming emotions.

Crossing the Atlantic once again, Murray was now leading The Spiritual Ensemble. The unit’s pillars were Kenneth Terroade and Byard Lancaster, and its style was stripped bare: drums, horns, one or two basses, and additional accents provided by hand percussion. The Jamaican tenor is the conduit for one of music history’s fascinating connections: while a member of Murray’s band, Terroade visited his home country, where he took solos with Count Ossie’s Rastafarian Nyabinghi ensemble. A kinship between some of the unison lines of Ossie’s Mystic Revelation and the stripped down themes of The Spiritual Ensemble might very well be within the realm of the possible.

From left: Bob Reid, Sunny Murray and son, Kenneth Terroade, Byard Lancaster at Zoo de Vincennes, Paris, 1971. Photo by Thierry Trombert.

The Spiritual Ensemble regularly played Paris’s legendary Latin Quarter club The Chat Qui Pêche and appeared at festivals, but no commercial recordings were ever issued under their name. But some sidelong documentation of them does exist, thanks to Murray’s notorious unpredictability. French pianist François Tusques’s 1971 Intercommunal Music, originally scheduled to be a small group session, became an eight-piece affair when the drummer showed up with the full current incarnation of his Ensemble, fresh from a gig at the Chat. The title of the record references Huey Newton’s doctrine, and it is dedicated to a young Black Panther Party militant. The full space of the gatefold sleeve is taken up with an uncaptioned black and white shot of men walking the central alley of a shanty town on the outskirts of Paris. A closer look reveals the presence of uniformed members of the riot police. The session is both chaotic and stellar, the pianist’s themes having to fight to emerge from the instrumental maelstrom, perhaps most memorably on the track “The Bourgeoisie Will Perish Drowned In The Icy Waters Of Egoistical Calculation”. The motif from this Communist Manifesto titled piece rises from the most abyssal parts of the keyboard, forcefully conjuring the image of engulfing waters sweeping away the old world. It is said that Murray’s drum kit was not correctly miked for this session, the vibrations it produced only being picked up by the microphones of his colleagues. Yet something special happened in the studio that day.

In his book Paris Jazz Seen, poet Hart Leroy Bibbs describes how his participation in Murray’s first big French concert in 1968 involved some words that respectable newspapers do not print. The words were directed at the man holding the keys of the gig, who was not enthralled by the idea of allowing an unchecked text be recited on state radio so soon after the May 68 events. By 1972, it seemed that episodes such as this one had taken their toll on members of the French jazz business.

Many American musicians were by now residing in Paris, and the local scene was strong enough to enable them to work in very large formations. Alan Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra were a prime example – up to 30 musicians who could play uncompromising free jazz in front of thousands, something unthinkable back in the US. Murray's 1972 Hey! Now! Hey!, a musical, as Murray termed it, was his attempt at a large formation, encompassing everything from dixieland to R&B and avant garde. The production involved a 20 piece orchestra, dancers and singers otherwise employed by Hair. But the ‘new thing’ in jazz was not so new any more and the shows took place far from central Paris. They didn’t have much pulling power and left behind almost no traces, except for an uncatalogued tape in the archives of French state radio. It seemed as if Murray's good run had come to a halt.

Murray moved back to the US, preceded by his wife and children after his marriage hit the rocks. En route, he passed through the Montreux Festival and Scandinavia, playing with John Tchicai and Dexter Gordon. A few years later, Murray reflected on his work of this era, which he saw as defined by its extreme intensity. That had also been the case with the music of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, but maybe this intensity had outlasted the era that had welcomed it. A chapter had been written and there would be many others to come.

Sunny Murray died aged 81 at the Sainte-Périne public hospital in Paris, where he received good care according to his partner of 30 years, Isabelle Soumilliard. Among the objects in Murray’s Paris room was a plaque received in 1966 from the jazz magazine Downbeat. It read “drummer deserving wider recognition”. There was also a worn out poster of a picture from Edward S Curtis's Native American ethnographic work, accompanied by the text: “There will come a time when we will take refuge in the mountains to escape the burning fires on the plains, and there we will plan our return to that charred ground.”

What Erwin Schrödinger actually meant when he brought his famous cat to semi-life was that, in quantum mechanics, giving too much importance to external observation leads to absurdity. Nature does not allow dual states. In the case of the great Sunny Murray, external observation also ultimately does not matter. Once strange vibrations emanating from a cymbal and a kick drum combined, they encountered the world around them and the world found itself rearranged.

This article is based on research in the era's jazz press, uncirculated recordings and interviews with Murray both unpublished or unavailable in their uncut English versions. Thanks to Anthony Barnett, Marc Chaloin, Eddy Determeyer, Simone and Bobby Few, Lewis Porter, Thierry Trombert, Bert Vuijsje and Jason Weiss. Special thanks to Isabelle Soumilliard.


Nice summarization of Sunny Murray’s career. The man was an uncompromising artist and visionary drummer playing waves of energy that elevated a bassists energy and freedom. Played with him often
Thanks Pierre.

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