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Book Excerpts

Sunny Murray: On Taking the Leap from One Reality to Another

By Published: July 18, 2010
[Editor's Note: From a work-in-progress, Going Outside: A Memoir of Free Jazz and the Sixties]

[Author's Note: Sunny Murray is widely regarded as the preeminent drummer of the free jazz movement.

The "Jeanne" mentioned below was Jeanne Phillips. Although there were, to be sure, significant differences—she was black, she worked a forty hour-a-week civil service job and her one bedroom flat on West 10th Street in New York City was no showplace—Jeanne, who was astonishingly astute on matters musical, played very much the mother-figure role for the free jazz musicians that the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter had played for the beboppers.]

We're in my living room, taking a break on the second day of an interview I'm doing with him for Jazz & Pop ["Sunny Murray: The Continuous Cracking of Glass," Giants of Black Music (Da Capo Press)]—and smoking the amazing bush he's always holding—when Sunny says, "Bobby, I never told you this, but for a while there were people trying to kill me."

"No shit," I say and turn the Wollensak back on.

"No shit. It began a short time after I met Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
. Did I ever tell you how I met Cecil?"

"No."

"It was at the Café Roué in the middle of winter, 1959. I came in one night with a cat named Wade, who had just bought a bass yesterday. All the bebop dudes that I used to play with was there. Cecil came in a few minutes later and sat in a corner with his collar up over his head. All the dudes immediately started packing up, and when I asked them why they said, 'You don't know Cecil Taylor. The way he plays can't nobody get together with him.'"

"He told me that—back when he was making that scene—they'd always say he didn't know the changes."

"And it could have been true sometimes, but it's not exactly what they meant."

"I know. Go ahead."

"Cecil, man. I've always admired a cat that stood out in a crowd, because it meant he was very...useful. He was a necessity. He wasn't one to shun, he was one to dig. And I thought, if you pack up when a man comes in to play, then he must be something. Let some more come in that make you pack up and then maybe I'll be around some really good musicians. It was like when I was hanging out on the corner with the guys in Philadelphia. If a cat would come up who the other cats didn't like, I'd want to know why. And if they gave me some sick-assed reason I'd say to the cat who'd come up, 'Let's you and me split' and I'd leave them there.

"So I said, 'Listen, man, I'm going to play with him.' And they said, 'Okay, we'll listen.' So I went over to Cecil and introduced myself and said, 'I would like to play with you.' And he said, 'Do you know how I play?' And I said, 'No.' He said, 'Are you sure you want to play with me?' I said, 'Yeah.' He took off his coat, and everybody got all tense, and he went to the piano and started playing. Well in '59 it was a little different. I said to myself, damn, he sure is into something else, and I struggled along. But I played a whole three tunes. Wade played too, even though he couldn't really play. Cecil said, 'That's all right, let him do it if he wants.'

"Cecil laughed. He had fun. A couple of times I didn't know what to do and I just stopped, and Cecil turned around and said, 'No, keep going, don't stop.' I wasn't just playing conventional, like tanka-ting—I could have, but I decided not to play that way with him. I was playing on one. Like Elvin Jones was playing on one in Detroit, but I didn't know about him yet. I just thought it was hip to play on one. Bass players would always say, 'Oh motherfucker, you keep turning the beat around.' So a lot of cats didn't like me, though some cats did."

"Count me with the first group. I hate the way you play."

"Fuck you. Anyway, I went back to play with the beboppers after that night and they all started laughing and saying, 'Sunny played with Cecil, Sunny played with Cecil,' and making a big joke out of it. And I was thinking: 'who is Cecil? Who the devil is this cat I played with?' And I looked for Cecil, man, for days, every day. I thought, I ain't heard nobody play like that, and I'm gonna make sure that I can play with him again 'cause I knew he had enjoyed my playing and it wasn't like I was bugging his nerves. Finally I found Cecil at the old Cedar Bar and we talked a little. I happened to need a place to stay at the time and he helped me get a small loft on Dey Street where he was living. After I moved in I knocked on his door and yelled out his name. There was no answer, but I could tell he was in there and, as it happened, my keys worked for his place too..."

"Could it be, Murray, that you maybe forced the lock just a little?"

"Maybe. Anyway, I opened the door and brought my drums in after me. Cecil was lying in bed and he just looked at me. It was a depressing period for him—nobody wanted to play with him. I said, 'You don't mind?' And he said, 'Uh-uh.' And I set 'em up. But I was too nervous to start playing with the cat in bed like that. It took me about three weeks to decide, well, I'm gonna play anyway. I've got to practice, and my drums is over there now, and he said, 'Okay, go ahead.' So I played. But he wouldn't get out of bed, and his windows was open, and snow was on the windowsill up about twelve inches, and I'd be trying to talk to him and shivering, and finally I said. 'I can't talk to you like this. Can I please close your windows?' And he said, 'Yeah, okay.'

"I'd been practicing there with a big coat on and I was getting tired of it. Then, one day, Cecil did get up to play with me. He got up to play on his beat-up upright and said, 'I want you to play something like you never played before.' I said, 'What do you mean? Like a drum solo?' And I started to play a drum solo, and Cecil said, 'No. Stop. Just—with me—let yourself play.' Just let myself play. I thought that was kind of weird at first. But you understand what he meant by 'just let yourself play.' He meant like not to be hung up on artificial rules and roles and disciplines and orders that have been set up and which limit what you can express—or to be daring or hip while still playing within the restrictions of those rules, you know, like playing on one. He meant like to go outside of those rules and roles, you know what I'm saying? Like to go outside of time' and to play naturally—out of the natural rules and rhythms of my body.

"Also to really listen to him and to play with him, not just behind him as an accompanist. Dig all the energy that is liberated with this kind of playing and the things that can happen when two or three or four or a dozen cats are playing together like that. The spiritual things that can happen. Like if Charlie Parker had really let himself go twenty-five years ago we would be past all the shit by now and really out there. This is a whole new freedom and a whole new system of music. And dig the revolutionary...enormousness of it."

"He calls it 'exchanges of energy.'"

"'Exchanges of energy.' Right. I have to admit that I didn't understand all of this right away. I was the first drummer to play the 'New Thing' and for a long time I wasn't really sure about what I was doing. It seemed like what I was playing was unnatural, not natural. I was very disturbed. I listened to tapes of myself and I wondered if I was going crazy. It was a couple of years until I understood that Cecil was leading me into a new system. Those were difficult years for me, particularly because of the attempts on my life that happened during this period."

"Yeah, I'm waiting to hear this."

"Okay. Like I went over to the Vanguard one night—I had moved to West 11th Street by then—and I got into a discussion with some dude about the music, and he said that this music was crazy and would never survive. I laughed him off and went outside. But when I got to the corner there was a Thunderbird parked there with the lights on real bright. Something said to me, don't walk in front of that car, that's the dude you were arguing with. I thought I was being paranoid, so I walked in front of the car. And Jim, if it wasn't a fucking movie scene! I had to dive and I landed right on my fucking ass. The car took off. I got up and just stood there, and I thought, why the fuck do they want to run me over?

"I started to walk toward my house and I saw the car again. It was turning a corner and coming toward me. I ran into the house and I went into a vacant apartment. There wasn't nothing there but a mattress—wasn't even no lock on the door. I looked out the window and there's two dudes getting out of the car and heading toward the building. I went to the door, which had a window—a misty window that you couldn't really see through, but you could see the silhouettes. These dudes were standing in the hall looking for my room. I heard one say, 'Do you know which apartment he went into?' One was a soul cat and one was Italian. They were standing right in front of the door—all they had to do was push it.

"I was scared as hell. Finally they left and drove away and I ran over to Jeanne's place. Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
was there. I asked them, 'Am I out of my nut? Is someone really trying to kill me? Jeanne said, 'Sunny, I'll tell you the truth, it could happen that way because this music is bothering a lot of people who don't want black people to play this way. The whole club scene will come down if this music really happens.' And Ornette said, 'Yeah, that's what's happening, man.' And I said, 'Oh shit, you shouldn't be saying this, you should be saying I was nuts or something.' And he said, 'Listen, those people paid me not to play for a whole year.'"

"I think I remember that..."

"Yeah. I stayed at Jeanne's until the sun came up. Then, dig this, when I went to Europe with a group I co-led with Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
—that was the 'Free Jazz' group, and Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
b.1935
bass
and Don Cherry
Don Cherry
Don Cherry
1936 - 1995
trumpet
was in it—a lot more strange things happened that I didn't understand. Like when I had gone to Europe a year earlier with Cecil as the leader, almost everything had been pretty cool. But with Albert and me it was different. Like, first of all, part of the tour was cancelled when Albert hit some promoter in the mouth over ten dollars. I always thought he hit the wrong cat. The cat he should have hit he was always smiling at. And like later, when we got ready to go home, I had to go to the embassy because I didn't have enough money.

"Everybody else in the band was cool. I didn't understand that shit—why was I the only one that was uptight? The embassy had to give me a transport ticket to go home. Another funny thing was like on the first tour, when I was playing with Cecil at the Montmartre in Copenhagen, one night this bartender went crazy. He started screaming and tearing up the bar. 'Stop the music. I cannot stand the music!' Then on this tour he comes back. Albert, who had played with us on the first tour, saw him and said, 'There's that dude.' And the dude came back and he said, shaking hands and very quiet, 'You have freed me.' He'd been in a home for almost a year."

"That's funny."

"But a lot of strange things. In Denmark, [the bebop drummer] Art Taylor
Art Taylor
Art Taylor
1929 - 1995
drums
, who's been living over there, told me we were chased to Europe by the business world. The tour was agreed upon by a lot of business cats just to get us out of the country. He said that anything could happen and to be careful. He said, 'Look what happened to Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
.' I said, 'Man, are you serious?' He said, 'Just watch yourself.' And I almost did get killed. See, I was getting strange vibrations all the time we was in Europe. We were very in tune with the spirits when the 'Free Jazz' group was over there—we were the most spiritual band in Europe at the time. Eric Dolphy, who'd come over earlier with Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, had stayed in Europe to play with us, with the 'Free Jazz' group. He wanted to bust loose and really play free. But he died. Suddenly! Rumor was that he was poisoned."

"Eric. How old was he?"

"Thirty-six? Thirty-seven? Yeah, that set me off and I began to realize that a lot of people were doing things to me to hang me up. I started to get very nervous. It seemed like they was always doing something to me to stop me from the way I was playing. I was getting sick a lot—drugs, I'm serious, were being put in my drinks, and shit like that. Then, when the time came to go home, everybody split on me—Albert said, 'Bye,' and flew home. I was stranded and frightened. I was in a hotel room alone in a foreign country. The embassy said, 'Okay, we'll send you home on an army boat.' They told me what boat to catch.

"And this is how another attempt on my life came about. I had known a chick from the earlier tour, and she came up to me and invited me to stay at her home, which was sixty miles from Copenhagen. I said, 'I'm catching the boat tomorrow and I can't go that far.' She said, 'Don't catch that boat, catch the next one.' So I got a strange vibration and I didn't go home with this lady. I packed my bags and headed for the train station to take a train to the port where the boat was. When I got on the train, two cats got on right behind me. They were dressed very debonair. They kept watching me. Smiling at me. Every time I went to eat they followed me into the dining car—real foreign intrigue shit!

"One time, these dudes came and looked in my compartment, opened the door, smiled, and then closed the door. I had some smoke and I threw it out the window. I didn't know what was going on and I took this little Swedish dagger out and kept it near me all the time. When we got to the port the dudes changed clothes, man, and they came out dressed like sailors—and they weren't no sailors. This really messed up my head because what happened then was they changed into civvies again. And when I got off the train I saw the dudes cross the platform and get on a fucking train that was going back! It was too much, man.

"But that wasn't even it. On the boat, about three days at sea, a dude cuts into me and he says, 'You know the next boat that was leaving the day after this one? Everybody on that boat is just about dead, man.' I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'There was an epidemic of spinal sclerosis or something. Somebody snuck a sick person on the boat, and he died on the boat.' They had taken about four people off the boat in helicopters. So I'm thinking, damn, if I'd went over to this broad's house and laid up an extra day in her crib and caught the other boat, I'd be dead."

"Jesus, man."

"Yeah. But then—it was weird—all these attempts on my life just suddenly stopped. I've never been able to figure it out. I remember that it was around the time that J.C. Moses
J.C. Moses
b.1936
came into town and tried to play like me in the new system—and, right after him, Paul Motian
Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
. That made three 'New Thing' drummers. Right about then is when that shit broke up. Since around that time I ain't had no more hassles with people trying to kill me with violence. Since around that time I've been cool."


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