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

Robert Levin By

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[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. 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?"

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