I know your intention was pure; or, Don Murray's death, Episode 4

by Coscannon

I was happy to summarize some of what I'd looked into and then I got huffy over how I perceived the additional questioning. Nothing at all to do with your original inquiry, Jon.

Tales of Don Murray’s death follow a pattern not uncommon in retellings of historical events. With perceptions informed by the present, we don't fully allow for differences in the past. Everyone’s done that at times.

The cause of Murray’s death was described as "Fracture of skull from a fall while under influence of alcoholic liquor." Modern day jazz fans who know something of Murray generally know he was fond of alcohol. We are also familiar with decades of testing to determine inebriation, which means something more than "has consumed alcohol." Between Murray’s fall, and that judgment inscribed on his death certificate, we tend to assume Murray was undoubtedly tipsy. Yet, in 1929, reliable chemical methods to establish intoxication in living persons were yet to be found.

Then too, if you ponder something long enough – with little verification available – rumor and conjecture can take over. Look at the story of a supposedly recovering Murray tippling in the hospital. Few behaviors could have been more dangerous. So is this a gloomy morality tale, or a skewed Jazz Age tribute to the irresistible allure of alcohol? Either way - or any way - it's got legendary impact stamped all over it. How did that story arise? Who knows, but it too appears in BIX: MAN & LEGEND, sourced to Paul Mertz's recollection of what Charlie Horvath once said. How, one wonders, did Horvath become a fount of knowledge on this matter? In any case, I don't fault Mertz or Bill Rank, credited with the running board pass-along, for sharing what they'd heard. I don't fault BIX: M & L either. The book provided sourcing for the few accounts of Don Murray’s death obtainable from a limited circle of survivors. But now, with access to more information and perspective, we should recognize an absence of factual support.

Either Herb Sanford’s book about the Dorseys or the Levinson book has a few sentences on how Murray’s death stunned the jazz community. Given all the discussion of Bix’s legend, I submit there’s some legendermain (couldn’t help it, Nick) in the character of Don Murray too. He emerges as a carefree, sometimes imprudent or reckless, but good-humored Bacchus (not that wine was his intoxicant of choice). There are several preposterous stories about his pranks. One of the more outlandish has Murray taking apart a tractor and leaving every last piece in someone’s hotel room. A tractor, mind you - and a hotel room! I don’t think anyone should try to deconstruct – or reconstruct - that one. (Although, to be rigorously candid, I have.)

The only moral I find here is that if you die very young and suddenly, these tales can happen to you.


Posted on Sep 5, 2015, 2:26 PM

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