From the 1970s through the ’90s, David Murray was a titan of New York’s downtown culture. He was a brilliant jazz saxophonist who crossed social and stylistic borders, and a composer who collaborated with poets, writers and photographers, feeding the era’s interdisciplinary energy.
In the late ’90s, Murray followed his heart — and a more global music-minded outlook — to Paris, where he spent two decades working with musicians from the Caribbean and Francophone West Africa.
Now, having returned to New York City, the 67-year-old Murray is regaining vitality as a jazz elder — a quality and status he’s revealing this week at the Village Vanguard with a quartet of great young musicians.
“They call me O.G.,” Murray said, during a long and winding conversation just prior to his Vanguard stint. “It came so fast. I went from being enfant terrible, to one of the oldest living.”
Murray arrived in New York in September 1975, as a college sophomore. He’d grown up in the Bay Area, and played alto saxophone at church with his family since the age of 9, and in local bands as a teen. But after studying with renowned jazz critic Stanley Crouch and trumpeter Bobby Bradford at Pomona College, he felt the pull of Manhattan’s avant-garde music. On arrival, he jumped straight into the deep end of the jazz pool, seeking out some of the city’s most avant-garde artists
“I came here on an independent study,” Murray said. “I interviewed Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Cage and McCoy Tyner. I went around to every concert I possibly could, wrote a review of it, talked about the musicians. I had my heart set on being a writer and a saxophone player.”
Murray moved into a East 2nd Street loft with Crouch, and began playing in the city’s then-vibrant loft jazz scene. Yet he instantly saw himself standing apart from his contemporaries.
“When I got to New York, I realized that, of the people that were around the Lower East Side, I knew a little more music than they did,” Murray said. “I was into this whole new-music thing ’cause Stanley was into it, and the people around me were into it. But I could play a lot of different things, I read music, I understand the construction of songs and how to do it. Which led me to writing.”
Murray cites his time as a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, alongside composer Julius Hemphill, as especially beneficial. “That helped me in a large way, to see how he constructed things,” he said.
Murray began collaborating with the many New York writers and poets living around him — Crouch, Amiri Baraka, Steve Cannon, Ishmael Reed — and often performed with them. Also among those poets was Ntozake Shange whose choreopoem, “for colored girls who had considered suicide / when the rainbow is enough,” was a smash hit at The Public Theater before moving to Broadway.
Murray and Shange created numerous pieces at the Public — including “A Photograph” and “Spell #7” — and inspired its now-legendary music series, New Jazz at The Public. They also fell in love and got married. The romantic union didn’t last long — “about three months,” by his estimation. “But it was a hell of a story.”
He has great memories of the downtown’s creative community, during a time when he could buy smokes with The Ramones, his neighbors on East 2nd Street, bump into pop-culture figures like Tiny Tim, or see a young painter named Jean Michel Basquiat try his hand at music.
“I remember he played really bad clarinet, and they played really loud,” Murray said. “Everybody was just growing up, and it was wide open during that time.”
In 1980, the Village Voice, then the city’s cultural bible, called Murray its “Musician of the Decade.” According to veteran jazz critic Jim Macnie, Murray’s appeal was in the joy and charisma of his playing. What people at times heard as “avant-garde” was enthusiasm, “a young guy’s version of playing everything he could,” Macnie said.
“There’s the blues in his playing, deep lyricism in his lines — it’s not all exclamation,” he added, invoking mid-’80s albums the notoriously prolific Murray recorded as homages to classic jazz saxophonists Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins.
“He’s long appealed to an adventurous mainstream audience,” Macnie said. “It’s versatility and growth that marks his work, and after a while it felt like he could do anything and go anywhere. So, playing with the [Grateful] Useless, working with African drummers, working with Ishmael Reed, and later when he began to examine music round the world, Guadalupe and different locations: his cultural investigations are his passport to all these numerous worlds.”
These investigations grew in the late-’90s, when Murray left New York for Paris. He had fallen in love with Valerie Malot, a global-music activist and reserving agent, and started searching for collaborators and inventive challenges round the world. Over the subsequent twenty years he recorded all through the Black Atlantic — in Senegal, Cuba and all through the Francophone Caribbean — and with immigrants and transplants who handed by means of Paris’s cultural melting pot.
“My whole idea was if I did world music, I wanted to play with the best musicians — the top tier of people,” he said.
After his marriage in Paris ended, Murray returned to New York in 2017. And thought his studio output has slowed down, he’s continued to play live. And if age robbed Murray of many jazz peers (“all of my great rhythm sections are gone”), he has been reinvigorated by a new generation of players fluent in the music’s many histories, but with something new and original to contribute.
“They’re all leaders in their own rights,” says Murray of the other members in the quartet he’s leading through Sunday night at the Village Vanguard.
Madrid-born, Brooklyn-based pianist Marta Sanchez is a perfect example. You can find her 2022 album, “SAAM (Spanish American Artwork Museum),” near the top of many jazz year-end lists. Sanchez leapt at the opportunity to work with Murray. What she gets from sharing his bandstand has less to do with specific techniques or songs than with the freedom and authority to express herself in his music.
“It’s [his] open approach: how you hear the same tune in different recordings, and the approach and the treatment are totally different,” Sanchez said of Murray’s music. “I love the openness to let the musicians put their personality on the tunes, and reshape the tunes.”
On opening night at the Vanguard, Murray sounds powerful playing with Sanchez, bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Kassa Overall. He even makes an occasional dancing leap during his solos. While the weight of a hard-lived 67-year-old artist is apparent, so is his joy at transitioning from a jazz firebrand to a leader of younger players, who view him as an elder statesman.
“It makes me feel quite admirable, that my life was worth something,” Murray said. “To have played with Max Roach and Julius Hemphill when I happened to be 15-17 years younger than them, I looked up to them. I guess now it’s my time.”
He attributes his current resurgence to his wife and manager, Francesca Cinelli, who he calls “my muse.” They live uptown, not far from where Murray first landed in 1975. He’s eager to play, and wants to record again soon — maybe even with this quartet.
“My life is better,” Murray said. “I’m more healthy now than I probably have been in many years. And I’m hoping that it reflects in my playing.”