Drummer Sunny Murray died on 7 December 2017 in Paris. He was 81 years old and had lived in the city since the mid-1990s. Obituary by Phil Freeman
Born in Idabel, Oklahoma in 1936, Murray grew up in Philadelphia and moved to New York at 19. He didn’t even have his own drum kit at first, but claimed to have taken possession of one left behind after a police raid on an after-hours club. Murray played in bebop and hard bop groups, sitting in with players like Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean and James Moody. But everything changed in 1959 when he became Cecil Taylor’s neighbour.
The two men began practicing “for about a year, just the two of us together, every day, six, seven, eight hours a day, everything from “Love For Sale” to “Zip”,” Murray told writer Dan Warburton in a 2000 interview. “[Taylor] was trying to make his mind up which way he wanted his music to go, it seemed to me. It was a period of change for us both…we needed each other in a sense, because Dennis [Charles], who was his drummer at the time, had taken his expression of Cecil’s music up to a point, and I listened to the records they’d made, and I thought ‘Wow, Den, just a little bit more there, and you’d be right on it!’”
Taylor and Murray worked together from 1960 to about 1963; in 1962, they went on a Scandinavian tour, during which the live album Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come was recorded. It was during that trip that Murray met his next crucial creative partner, saxophonist Albert Ayler. In 1964, when Ayler had made it to New York, he sought out Murray. “Of course I turned him on to everybody, we did a couple of gigs, and then we met this guy Bernard Stollman,” Murray told Warburton. Stollman released Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, Bells, Prophecy, and Spirits Rejoice on his ESP-Disk' label in the space of two years. Murray made his debut as a leader, 1965’s Sonny’s Time Now, for Amiri Baraka’s Jihad label, with Ayler, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassists Henry Grimes and Lewis Worrell, and Baraka reading on “Black Art.” His first self-titled album was recorded in 1966, for ESP-Disk'.
In those early years, from 1960–65, Murray’s ability to break down bar lines and go from bebop timekeeping to creating an amorphous, pulsing rhythm (with just snare, kick and a couple of cymbals – he never liked toms, and avoided using them whenever possible) was crucial to the development of free jazz. His work behind the kit was as important as Ayler’s on saxophone or Taylor’s on piano. He could play with overwhelming force, or dance softly on the cymbals in order to create a constant splashing sound like a waterfall; he spoke at times of wanting to evoke natural sounds like thunder and volcanoes. He sometimes moaned as he played, giving the music an even greater rawness and humanity.
In his book Black Music, Baraka wrote of Murray that he “lunges and floats over the drums and cymbals striking, near-striking, brushing, missing, caressing all the sound surfaces, while accompanying himself with a deep wailing that cuts deep into the flesh…The drums surprise and hide and are subtle, or suddenly thunderous…The drum ‘line’ swoops, is loud, is soft and sometimes seems to disappear, as well. But it is a total drum music Murray makes, not just ear-deafening ‘accompaniment’.”
Each of the great free jazz drummers – Murray, Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille and Milford Graves – took a unique approach to the challenges posed by the music. Murray’s was to drive the band (or his partner, as he frequently recorded in duo situations) not through strict rhythm, but through a series of linked explosions, which arrived unexpectedly and yet felt thoroughly logical and natural. As Robert Wyatt put it in the 2008 documentary Sunny’s Time Now “it’s a wonderful thing, the way he plays. It’s like films of the sea where you can see the tide coming in. There’s a kind of surging to it, but it’s not metronomic and it struck me as really, really organic. And it had a momentum to it. It was jazz because it had that momentum, and the pulse, but it wasn’t identifiable in terms of the normal geometric patterns of jazz. And I found it really moving – like a cross between the wind and someone actually breathing, as if nature was a living, breathing thing through him.”
In 1969 Murray was part of the great free jazz migration to Paris; the three albums he recorded for the BYG Actuel label, Sunshine, An Even Break (Never Give A Sucker) and Hommage To Africa, are among his greatest works as a leader. His compositions had a shimmering quality and an emotional range far beyond superficial rage; even when the horns (he favoured paired saxophones) were wailing like sirens and he was smashing the cymbals, there was a looseness and humanity. Hommage To Africa, possibly his masterpiece, is dominated by a meditative suite featuring flutes, hand percussion and singing. Murray also played on Dave Burrell’s Echo, Archie Shepp’s Yasmina, A Black Woman, Black Gipsy and Live At The Pan-African Festival, and Clifford Thornton’s Ketchaoua during this period, as well as a second self-titled album for Shandar, documenting a live performance on France’s ORTF radio.
In the 1970s Murray returned to America and formed the band Untouchable Factor, that recorded two relatively hard-to-find albums, 1977’s Charred Earth and 1978’s Apple Cores. They also contributed two tracks – a rawboned version of “Over the Rainbow” and the 17-minute “Something’s Cookin’” – to the first and last volumes of the Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions compilations. In a 1978 interview with Cadence magazine, Murray claimed Apple Cores was one of his favourite albums; he called it “a kind of happy album. An album I can play on my lighter moments of life.” In the same interview, he said, “I try not to be stylized, my style is a changing style and I must keep that up until I’m too old to really stop that. I want to have a kind of home brewed, grown way, to express my way to people so they are able to feel some of me in them.”
In 1980, Murray reunited with Cecil Taylor for the staggering It Is In The Brewing Luminous, and recorded Jump Up, a trio performance with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and bassist John Lindberg. In the 1990s and 2000s, he played in duos with saxophonists Charles Gayle, Sabir Mateen and Arthur Doyle (the albums Illuminators, We Are Not At The Opera, and Dawn Of A New Vibration, are all worth seeking out), and made an album with the Philadelphia-based Sonic Liberation Front, a group that blends free jazz with Afro-Cuban and Yoruba musical concepts.
Murray was irascible and relentlessly hostile to record labels he felt had cheated him and other free jazz musicians; he fought with Bernard Stollman and BYG’s founders for decades, eventually reconciling with the former but never the latter. But Michael Ehlers of Eremite, who made three albums with him and reissued 1969’s rare and long out of print Big Chief on vinyl, says, “It’s like the William Carlos Williams line that [critic] Robert Palmer used to describe the Ayler brothers, ‘the pure products of America go crazy.’ Jazz is so many things, and it’s incredible and beautiful that Sunny made a place in it and made such a fascinating contribution.”
Still, Murray frequently expressed a feeling of being left behind by history. In his interview with Warburton, he said, “I feel in some way the system refuses to let the new generation hear me, because I could become a force as a drummer, not as a rich one, but as a real direction for young drummers to follow to be good creative drummers instead of just listening to each other all the time. For me it’s like the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre…there’s a million prints but you have to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. That’s how I feel about me and all the other drummers. OK, they listen to Max [Roach] as the father of bebop, to Elvin [Jones] the father of swing, but when it comes to avant-garde there’s no father figure…The young cats look at me kinda strange, like I don’t exist. But I’m there. And when I play they know I exist, and it leaves a space when I go.”