Creative Vibes, Percussive Drive: Dana Murray's Influence Reverberates in OmahaMar 01, 2021 11:38AM ● By Sean McCarthy
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
In the late 2000s, guitarist Andrew Bailie, then of the band Jazzwholes, went to Mick’s (now The Sydney) in Benson to see percussionist Dana Murray play. Mere feet from Bailie was a musician who just a few years before had played for Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. More than 10 years later, Bailie remembers the gig.
“To this day, it’s still the best drumming I’ve ever heard in my life,” Bailie said.
Bailie and Murray struck up a friendship, but before the friendship came instruction. Though the two have different instrumental focuses, Murray thinks the overall fundamentals of musicianship remain the same: If you want to get to a level where you are good enough to play in the orchestra for a Broadway musical in New York (in Murray’s case, it was supporting The Who’s Tommy), a full commitment is needed. The first step: practice a minimum of five hours a day. No cutting corners.
“The long way is the shortcut,” Bailie said of Murray’s instruction.
Growing up in South Omaha, Murray’s mother, Faye Comer, played gospel, R&B, James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass, and Motown. Murray had a transistor radio, where he listened to whatever was on AM radio in the ’70s—primarily Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles. His stepfather, Clyde Comer, who raised Murray since he was 10, got him interested in jazz, introducing Murray to Anita Baker and jazz icons such as George Howard, David Sanborn, and Najee.
After graduating from Omaha South, Murray studied music performance at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1991. There, he said, most all of the students shared an intense devotion to be world-renowned for their craft.
“Being around other people as self-motivated as I was—was really liberating,” Murray said.
Opportunities to play soon took up most of his time. Murray likened his and his fellow students’ experience to college basketball players who have an opportunity to go to the NBA.
“Most people you read about…most of those people that went to Berklee don’t actually graduate,” Murray said. “You get way too busy to keep wanting to go to school, especially if you’re a performance major.”
Murray became roommates with saxophonist and gospel artist Richard D’Abreu Jr., who routinely was in contact with fabled jazz musician Max Roach. They went to the same church and would talk on the phone frequently. Murray would also occasionally talk to Roach, who recommended moving to New York, because that was the best place to make it as a jazz musician. But, he warned, “However good you are…you’re going to be at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Murray met saxophonist Sherman Irby while playing in a band for Carnival Cruises. The two became roommates in New York, where they shared a 14-by-14 foot apartment at Tudor City in Midtown Manhattan, paying $1,400 a month for rent (in 1994 dollars).
“If you’re trying to go there as a young musician, that’s the last place you want to be,” Murray said.
Speaking from his home in Warren, New Jersey, Irby remembered those first few months in New York. With a small, cramped place “right in front of the United Nations building,” they couldn’t practice in their apartment. Irby went down to the piers to practice, and Murray would practice using brushes. During this time, Irby said, Murray “had a confidence about himself that would never let him be swayed.”
For the first few months, gigs were almost nonexistent for Murray. He spent most days trying to get acclimated to the speed of the city that never sleeps. He networked at Smalls Jazz Club and the celebrated, but now-shuttered, Bradley’s. Murray met most of the musicians he later played with at Smalls, where the younger musicians hung out.
“His personality…everyone basically just loved being around him. He quickly was welcomed into the scene,” Irby said. “He was that kind of cat.”
The staff at Smalls let him practice in their club for a few hours during the day. This meant putting his drum kit on a cart and pulling it onto a train.
“It’s only weird until you see others doing it too. Then it becomes not so weird,” Murray said with a laugh.
Murray’s first regular gig was at Smalls during their Sunday brunch, which eventually led to his first major break: a Monday after-hours gig at Smalls.
“That was like prime time for jazz musicians,” Murray said.
After the regular Smalls’ booking, gigs started to open up for Murray. He and Irby moved to Harlem, a far more celebrated artistic epicenter. Murray got so busy touring for musicians such as the late Jimmy Witherspoon that he was unable to play in the Broadway production of The Who’s Tommy. Eventually, he signed on to substitute gig for that musical.
When Murray got the call to play for Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Orchestra, he remembered times in Omaha where he would practice to Marsalis’ album Live at Blues Alley and imagine himself at that very gig in 1986.
“When I got that call…it was almost like everything that I had done and worked for…now here’s your reward,” Murray said. “Now you’re able to actually do what you envisioned yourself doing at 16.”
In the late '90s and early 2000s, Murray continued to make a name for himself as a percussionist. He lived in Leeds for a year before moving back to Omaha in 2004 after gaining custody of his son, Aleek. He began teaching percussion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and founded Dojo Percussion, an ensemble that featured high school and university musicians.
Murray met his future wife, Deb, while he was focusing on Dojo Percussion. They bought a house in Papillion where he renovated the basement to become his recording studio. It was here Murray recorded his debut album, Negro Manifesto, which was released in 2018.
Part of the album’s origin came by way of Murray browsing through a bunch of vinyl records at a downtown thrift store. He came across an old “educational” album put out by Pepsi called Adventures in Negro History. Released in the early ’60s, it was a well-intentioned but horribly patronizing account of achievements by African Americans.
“When you start listening to it, it really lets you know where the psyche of the country was at the time,” Murray said.
Murray aimed to create his own history with Negro Manifesto.
“I’m going to talk about adventures in Negro history, but I’m going to keep it real,” Murray said. “I’m going to speak about it through my experiences.”
The jazz publication DownBeat said the album Negro Manifesto “emits a nightmarish, cacophonous sensibility, marked by dank electronica textures.” The New York Times called it “a difficult, often rewarding collection that plays out something like an electroacoustic opera.”
Murray said COVID-19 has not slowed his schedule. While unable to tour, he’s spent his time working on his follow-up album, which is slated to be released in late 2021. He’s also working on producing tracks for Bailie’s second album.
Bailie said Murray’s work, both as a producer and musician, has played a tremendous role in elevating Omaha’s music profile.
“To see one man change the scene and raise the bar as much as he did, it just gives you a lot of hope for the future for music and arts in the Midwest,” Bailie said.
Visit danamurraymusic.com for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.