We Remember: Russ Murray, an American jazz legend

I remember my passion. I remember an artist-in-a-making who managed to fuse his love of jazz with his lifelong desire to provide shelter, housing and community for the people who needed it most.

Born in Washington in 1926, in addition to his jazz passion, Russ Murray served as the front man and singer for the dance band which played at all the Village Vanguard jazz clubs. He also wrote 10 songs, and produced 45 of his own, a large majority of which influenced musicians throughout Washington and the city’s surrounding region.

I met Russ through my dad, Gordon, the drummer for the rock band Big Wheel which was also one of his longtime bandmates. Since then, he has kept a low profile and has quietly kept busy, playing clarinet and piano during a few shows at Town, although with what frequency wasn’t exactly clear. He passed away at the age of 89 in 2012, but not without contributing to the Washington music scene.

I was first introduced to his work through a 2009 documentary called “Changing Times,” which is receiving its U.S. premiere at this year’s International Documentary Film Festival. Called “An American Dream: The Life and Music of Russ Murray,” the film shows the influence Murray had on Washington, the opportunity he and musicians like Ray Charles had to escape the poverty and brutal poverty of Harlem and Washington, D.C. He also touches on the racism and segregation he suffered throughout his career.

The film took four years to make and includes interviews with Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Martha Scott, Billy Stewart, Joe Hamilton, Sheila E., Kool and the Gang, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gladys Knight, Buddy Rich, Miriam Makeba, Smokey Robinson, Lou Rawls, Harry Belafonte, David Benoit, Delfeayo Marsalis, Questlove, Kenny Barron, Buddy Rich, Don Rich, Clarice Smith, Wayne Shorter, Nancy Wilson, Soul II Soul, Chico Hamilton, Thomas Burrows, Herbie Hancock, Maynard Ferguson, Muddy Waters, and Jazz Masters Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Dave Brubeck, Clark Terry, Vy Higginsen, Charles Mingus, and Walter Schnur, among others.

Shane W. Clark’s documentary “Guitar Power” was also nominated for an Academy Award this year, and is one of my personal favorite films of the year. Full disclosure: I have had the pleasure of working with Clark in the past, taking his film “Street Metal: The Rise of Chicago” to film festivals, and even getting to see how an Academy Award nomination is made. You can see “Guitar Power” in theaters in D.C. on Oct. 20, and early screenings of the film before the big premiere.

The documentary covers Murray’s journey from Park Heights, Maryland in the 1950s and 1960s, where he grew up poor, to his time as an organist, pianist and founder of the Village Vanguard Jazz Club and Night Club, a popular DC club for the African-American artists and fan base who traveled to see him. In this film, we see Murray playing at Carnegie Hall as well as at the Apollo Theater, Arthur Godfrey’s Showcase of Black Talent, Phyllis Marshall’s apartment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, interracial love between Murray and his second wife, Raquel, and Murray’s song, “Urban Remedy.”

I feel lucky to have gotten the chance to watch him get an Oscar nomination for his work in an already crowded field of documentaries this year. Watching him bicker with professional jazz musicians as he strives to make his mark on the stage is priceless and it reminds me of how proud I was to have him as a family member.

I cannot wait to see “Changing Times” when it is released on DVD, but first, I’ll wait for “Guitar Power” to open, since a trip to Arlington to see where Murray took his final bow is definitely in order.

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