Born in 1955 in Oakland, CA, David Murray's first instrument was the piano, on which he learned gospel and ragtime rudiments. At age 9, he took up the alto saxophone, and at 11, after hearing a Sonny Rollins solo performance, he switched to tenor sax. In his teens, he digested the sounds of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Albert Ayler, as well as the Bay Area sound of the Grateful Dead and pop hits from Motown, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix. And in his late teens, he developed from co-leader of the 15-piece band Notations of Soul into a practitioner of experimental jazz in company with Butch Morris, James Newton, and Ornette Coleman's trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Encouraged by Bradford and critic Stanley Crouch, Murray moved to New York City in 1975, where he became involved in the loft jazz movement. By the end of the year, he had co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet with Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and Julius Hemphill.
As a saxophone soloist, Murray achieves a rare orchestral range; his signature "power grooves" are charged with bold altissimo leaps and buzz with purposeful multiphonic drones. As a bass clarinetist, he draws deep and surprising revelations on an instrument rarely explored by a master jazz improviser. His art exemplifies the spirit of spontaneity, yet his discipline confirms the value of deeply rooted jazz styles.
The David Murray Octet practices energetic song-based improvisations on themes derived from American jazz traditions. Murray breaks the Octet into smaller touring units with players such as pianists Dave Burrell and John Hicks; bassists Richard Davis, Ray Drummond, Johnny Dyani, and Reggie Workman; drummers Ed Blackwell, Ralph "Power" Quartet, and John Micks. One unit, the David Murray Big Band, has appeared every Monday night for over two years at New York City's Knitting Factory, performing original compositions and arrangements utilizing Butch Morris' concept of "conduction." He has also played with the Grateful Dead and with the solo groups of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, a collaboration that lead to the recording Dark Star, an album of Grateful Dead songs arranged and played by Murray and his Octet.
As a leader, Murray's discography now numbers nearly 200 recordings, including 300 original compositions and suites. His albums Special Quartet and David Murray/Milford Graves were voted two of the best jazz recordings of 1993. His Live at Sweet Basil, Vol. II was a critic's pick of the decade in Jazziz magazine. He received a Grammy for Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane, with McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil McBee, and Roy Haynes.
Murray's numerous honors include a Relix Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Bird Award, the Danish Jazzpar Prize, The North Sea Festival's Charlie Parker Award, and a 1995 Juno Award. He was named musician of the decade for the 1980s by the Village Voice and musician of the year in 1993 by New York Newsday. He has won many critics' and readers' polls in Downbeat, Jazz Times, Jazziz, and the Village Voice.