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Artist Profiles

Mark Murphy: Inside the Mystery

By Published: July 31, 2009
Over the years Murphy and Jordan also have offered some of the best teaching available to up-and-coming jazz singers, devoting a significant part of their careers to imparting the knowledge they learned in the edgy jazz clubs of their youth.

"I started a workshop for jazz singers in Graz, Austria," Jordan reports. "And I decided to bring some other singers in, like Mark and Andy Bey and Jay Clayton. Everybody loved it."

Still, vocal jazz is a tough thing to teach from an academic setting, a situation that gives Murphy pause.

"They're trying to put [how to sing jazz] into books now and the books are marvelous, but you can't get the feeling from that," Murphy explains. "To be a jazz singer it takes a lot of study. You've got to know the chord changes and the words" first off, he asserts, but when it comes to improvisation, the litmus test for serious jazz singers, you can only learn by doing.

"The way I learned was I'd just get up there and at first the more complex parts of the improv weren't there. But you try them again and it flows a little more. You have to fall in love with it and that's what gives you the courage and the inspiration to go on further and further and further. And then, all of a sudden, things start to happen."

But more than anything he can explain in words, it is Murphy's extensive and ongoing body of work that serves as the inspiration for new singers.

"Young singers coming up gravitate toward him," Jordan points out. "And he has a big influence on them."

Probably the likeliest heir to Murphy's legacy is Grammy-nominated vocalist Kurt Elling
Kurt Elling
Kurt Elling
b.1967
vocalist
. Both have deep, textured voices and an almost-funk-like understanding of jazz—and both have risen to prominence for their innovative contributions to the vocal jazz lexicon.

"The most significant lesson Mark offers is one that he's made available to everybody through his work and that is that we are here to be individualists," Elling comments. "There is a way for [a jazz singer] to turn jazz history on its head for one's own use, for the time one lives in—to be in love with it, but not be bound by the past. Think of what Jon Hendricks can do with somebody's solo. You think, How can anybody exceed that in a vocal setting? Then you hear Mark take the same thing and make it into something just as new as when Jon made it new—which was just new as when Basie made it the first time. That's quite an accomplishment when you think of the richness and the splendid surprise that came with the original recordings. But Mark is the guy who set that standard. And God bless him for it."

As the discussion of a jazz legacy continues, Murphy cites two disturbing developments in the new millennium: the decline of live venues—those spaces where the mysterious things of jazz can happen— and the passing of the singers who started it all. "We're dealing with the loss of a lot of great people who were our mentors," Murphy laments. "Which is why I'm glad to know Wendy Oxenhorn."

Wendy Oxenhorn is the Executive Director of the Jazz Foundation of America, a not-for-profit that supports the work of veteran jazz and blues performers and holds its stated mission as "saving jazz and blues... one musician at a time."

"The thing now is to keep going when all the clubs are disappearing and our mentors are dying," Murphy asserts. "The Jazz Foundation is helping a lot of jazz people survive by giving them grants. That's why Wendy and the Foundation are so important to the art form. It keeps us going."

Murphy paused. "Someone ought to give Wendy Oxenhorn a medal."

In fact, it was the Jazz Foundation of America that gave Murphy a medal (of sorts). On June 16th, at the 2009 Jazz Journalists Association Awards, Murphy received The Jazz Foundation of America-Jazz Journalists Association Words and Music Award—a long title for an award that only begins to acknowledge what Mark Murphy has given to jazz.

Recommended Listening:

Mark Murphy, This Could Be The Start of Something Big (Capitol, 1959)

Mark Murphy, Rah (Riverside-OJC, 1961)

Mark Murphy, Midnight Mood (SABA-MPS, 1967)

Mark Murphy, Stolen Moments (Muse, 1978)

Sheila Jordan/Mark Murphy, One For Junior (Muse, 1991)

Mark Murphy, Once To Every Heart (Verve, 2005)

Photo Credit

Jos. L. Knaepen


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