Murray, a Black man wearing a suit against an all-black backdrop, plays the saxophone, his eyes closed in concentration
David Murray. Credit: Dietmar Liste

The jubilant wail of David Murray’s saxophone first resounded on Earth in Berkeley, circa 1965, at the Missionary Church of God in Christ on Allston Way, a congregation where his father was a founding deacon and his mother played organ. 

Handed an alto saxophone earlier that fateful day by music teacher Phil Hardymon at Longfellow Elementary School, the proud fourth grader brought his newly acquired horn to church, where the Rev. Thirland Daniels said, “Young Murray’s got a new instrument. Let’s hear you play something,” Murray recalled. 

“I probably sounded like a young inexperienced saxophonist playing multiphonics and he said ‘You sound very spiritual.’ After a few weeks, I knew all the songs already. I grew very quickly on the horn.”

Murray grew into one of the mightiest tenor saxophonists and bass clarinetists in jazz history, a player whose sound is steeped in the ecstatic Pentecostal gospel music he absorbed growing up in Berkeley. Now living in New York after a quarter-century residency in Paris, he returns to town Friday for a Back Room concert with the GoldenSea Duo featuring Chicago percussion maestro Kahil El’Zabar (they also perform Wednesday, June 21, at Bird & Beckett Books and Records in Glen Park). 

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He and El’Zabar have been collaborating since 1975, when Murray relocated from Southern California to New York City. He’d spent his high school years performing around the region in R&B bands and playing basketball and football. He made the Berkeley High junior varsity team as a sophomore before transferring to St. Mary’s. 

A scholarship to Pomona College put him smack dab in the middle of LA’s roiling creative music scene, and Murray quickly fell in with a brilliant cadre of experimental-minded improvisers and composers such as cornetist Butch Morris, clarinetist John Carter, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, bassist Roberto Miranda and Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer Don Moye (during a brief Southland sojourn). El’Zabar was already connected with the Art Ensemble and he and Murray bonded as fierce athletic competitors and emerging artists eager to establish themselves. 

“Kahil and I met on the basketball court, and we started hanging out,” said Murray, “Kahil was a great basketball player in Chicago. He’s a visionary who’s hooked up to the creator and the universe, and transfers that to the music. We’re not just a duo. We’re a band. We continue every year to get better and better and more explorative. I’m the silent one on stage, other than what’s coming out of my bass clarinet.”

El'Zabar and Murray, two Black men in dark jackets and nice shirts — El'Zabar in a hat and sunglasses, Murray playing a saxophone — against a gray photo studio-type backdrop
Kahil El’Zabar and David Murray. Credit: Ave Pildas Photography

They documented the duo on the 1989 album Golden Sea, which was released by the German label Sound Aspects. With tunes like “Song For A New South Africa” the project captured the particular optimism of the moment as the political tectonics shifted with the end of the cold war and the defeat of apartheid. When he’s not touring with Murray, El’Zabar is best known for his incantatory Ritual Trio, which has featured Murray and similarly protean tenor saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, a group that has released a dozen albums since he founded it 50 years ago, including 2023’s Spirit Gatherer: Tribute to Don Cherry.

Among the most prolific artists in jazz history, Murray has released some 265 albums as a leader or co-leader and around another 100 with other artists and groups, most importantly the World Saxophone Quartet. His once torrential recording output has eased in recent years, though he recently documented several of his working bands for Finland’s Intakt Records, like 2022’s Seriana Promethea by his New World Trio (Questlove recently announced he’s releasing Plumb, a four-LP box set he recorded with Murray and Ray Angry in the coming months).

Despite his blizzard of activities, Murray has always maintained close ties to the East Bay. He’s a founding member of the advisory board for the EastSide Cultural Center, where he and poet/activist (and fellow advisory board member) Amiri Baraka developed the opera The Sisyphus Syndrome featuring Berkeley vocalist Faye Carol, bass great Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Boots Riley and the Deep River Gospel Choir (a production they brought to Paris and Milan).

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While he’s in town, Murray is convening with Bob Weir, Taj Mahal and Cary Williams to continue working on their musical about legendary Black pitcher Satchel Paige, a Sisyphean project they’ve been toiling on intermittently for some three decades. Every once in a while Weir includes a song from the musical on his set list, through the Paige piece that’s gotten the widest exposure, “Shoulda Had Been Me” (by Weir, Bruce Cockburn, and Michael Nash), appeared on the David Murray Octet’s 1996 CD Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead (a strong contender for the greatest Dead cover album ever).

He credits Berkeley with shaping the artist he became, from Hardymon’s affectionate but demanding tutelage in his formative years to his awe-inspiring experience hearing Sonny Rollins perform solo at the Greek Theatre in 1969 as part of the Berkeley Jazz Festival. Feeling a little envy at the bigger size of Rollins’ tenor sax, Murray implored his father to replace his alto. 

His mother had died the year before, and his father, who worked for the Berkeley sanitation department, “took me to the credit union and he took out a loan,” Murray said. “We went to Forrests Music and bought a Selmer tenor that I played up until about 25 years ago.”

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....