Albert Murray, a self-described "riff-style intellectual" whose novels, nonfiction books and essays drew on the free-wheeling spirit of jazz and whose works underscored how black culture and the blues in particular were braided into American life, died Sunday at his home in New York City. He was 97.
His executor, Lewis P. Jones III, confirmed the death but said he did not know the exact cause.
Mr. Murray was a man of letters whose works interpreted and illuminated African-American culture and how it has transformed American society, often through the metaphor of blues and jazz music.
In books such as "The Hero and the Blues" (1973) and "Stomping the Blues" (1976), he saw the musical idiom not as a primitive means of expressing sorrow and pain but as "a sound track for an affirmative lifestyle" in spite of the existential chaos.
In short, he wrote, the blues was saturated with creativity, resolve and improvisation -- the equipment of life. The cadence of the music also influenced the art of jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, artists including Romare Bearden and writers such as Ralph Ellison, author of the widely acknowledged masterwork "Invisible Man."
Mr. Murray was a classmate of Ellison's at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the late 1930s and mentored a later generation of writers and scholars including Stanley Crouch and Henry Louis Gates Jr. In a statement, trumpeter and jazz ambassador Wynton Marsalis called Mr. Murray "one of America's great cultural thinkers and one of our original champions."
With essay collections such as "The Omni-Americans" (1970), the literary criticism and historical analysis of "South to a Very Old Place" (1971) and a bildungsroman quartet starting with "Train Whistle Guitar" (1974), Mr. Murray attracted superlatives for his often-erudite and lyrical writing.
In The New Yorker, author Robert Coles once wrote that Mr. Murray possessed "the poet's language, the novelist's sensibility, the essayist's clarity, the jazzman's imagination, and the gospel singer's depth of feeling."
He had an unlikely path to a career in scholarship. Born out of wedlock, he was adopted in infancy by a working-class family and raised in a black enclave of Mobile, Ala. He recalled growing up in a bustling community of Pullman porters and returning World War I veterans who supplied a panorama of worldly experience -- not to mention blues and jazz music -- that fired his ardor for storytelling.
Mr. Murray spent more than a decade in the Air Force, alternating overseas military duty with an academic career that took him to Columbia University in New York City, Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He completed a master's degree in English at New York University in Manhattan, where he immersed himself in the city's 52nd Street jazz club scene of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
He began a full-time writing career after leaving the Air Force in 1962 at the rank of major. His debut collection, "The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture," had immediate cultural impact.
It was a tome of contrarian, independent thinking -- a riposte to both black complacency and black militancy. It also fought attempts to interpret black life through sociological concepts, even those espoused by well-meaning liberals such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
"The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people," Mr. Murray wrote. "It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another."
American culture, he continued, is "incontestably mulatto," and Americans of all races are inheritors of a cultural tradition that makes them "part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian -- and part Negro."
In an interview last week, Mr. Gates said this was a "bold argument at a time when black people didn't want to hear it. They wanted black culture to be neo-African, something divorced from the Anglo-American tradition."
Author Walker Percy wrote at the time that "The Omni-Americans" "may be the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture, published in this generation."
A rare dissent came from the black history scholar J. Saunders Redding, who in his New York Times review said that the essays are a "dense mixture of pseudo-scientific academic jargon, camp idiom and verbal play."
Mr. Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., and raised in a black neighborhood of Mobile called Magazine Point. He described his adoptive father, Hugh Murray, as a "common laborer" who worked at times as a sharecropper and railroad crosstie cutter. He received a scholarship to attend the Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University., where he bonded with Ellison over their similar tastes in books by Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Mann and Andre Malraux.