Mark Murphy: Inside the Mystery

Suzanne Lorge BY

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Beyond its stylistic differentiators, jazz contains what vocalist Mark Murphy calls "a wonderful mystery," a mystery that was fostered in small, regional clubs around the US during the '30s-40s, when Murphy was developing the distinctive vocal style that launched his decades-long career.

"I've seen this mysterious quality of jazz set rooms on fire," Murphy attests. "[Rooms] where nothing was going on until the band shuffled up and this musical rhythmic thing would happen right there on the spot."

It was Murphy's intuitive grasp of "this musical rhythmic thing" that gave him an early foothold in the jazz world. As a student at Syracuse University in the early '50s he would sit in with the local bop musicians, who would then seek him out for gigs, recognizing his advanced understanding of the music. "I think [my rhythmic sensibility] is what made them ask me to sing. They liked that—it's what jazz is all about," he explained.

Murphy has always been something of a musical sponge, absorbing the sounds around him and incorporating them into his own self-expression. He grew up in Fulton, New York, 15 miles south of Syracuse, surrounded by all the grooves and harmonies of a Northeast mill town during the post-Depression years.

"At 7 am and 5 pm there'd be a call to let out the factories," he recalls. "There's a rhythm to that, if you can dig it."

On the radio at that time were Erroll Garner, Stan Kenton, June Christy and, most importantly for Murphy, Peggy Lee. At the local Methodist church were hymns and organ music. And his Aunt Mary, a pianist, played in a swing band. It was his aunt's example that inspired Murphy professionally. "That's where I learned most of the early gems of music that you have to get in order to tell yourself where you are going."

But by the time Murphy entered university as a music and drama student and started performing, the sharp edges of bebop had already drawn first blood on the soft underbelly of the Swing Era. "Everybody was singing bop tunes," Murphy remembers, but the schooling in it wasn't mainstream yet. "Our schools were the streets. There were one or two little fascinating joints that fostered and featured jazz—you had to look for it."

One night while playing the Ebony Room, Murphy noticed Sammy Davis, Jr. at the door, listening carefully. After the show Davis asked to meet Murphy and the two struck up an acquaintanceship. Davis' interest in the new singer's music only confirmed Murphy's resolve to pursue a singing career. "Here was a major star getting introduced to what I did. That's a very important thing. At that age you need that kind of qualification, the stamp to make you think that you're doing it right."

He must have been. In 1954, a year after graduating from university, Murphy moved to New York and within two years had recorded his first album for Decca, Meet Mark Murphy. He's been recording steadily ever since, turning out nearly 50 albums over the last 54 years.

Murphy credits the singers he was hearing when he first moved to New York with strongly influencing his musical development. "[They] spun around in my head and made me creative," he says. Among them was Sheila Jordan, who became a lifelong friend and collaborator.

"Sheila and I met in a place called the Page Three, right next to the Village Vanguard," Murphy recalls. "I'd meet her there on Monday nights. It was usually a variety club, but on Mondays the whole scene was jazz. At 8 when the jazz band came on, the vibe changed and the people changed. Even their clothes changed. It was part of this wonderful mystery."

Like many, Sheila Jordan remembers vividly the first time she heard Mark Murphy sing.

"I first heard Mark right after he made his first recording. He sat in at Page Three and sang 'Willow Weep for Me.' I can still see him standing there, very tall and handsome. I remember thinking, 'Who is this guy?'" Jordan recounts. "But you hear Mark and fall in love with his music right away. He doesn't have to grow on you, the way some singers do. You can feel the heart and soul in his singing immediately. That's how I felt when I first heard him and that's how it is today."

Over the years Jordan and Murphy have had many opportunities for performing together, in the US and eventually in Europe, where both were finding receptive audiences. Recordings of the two together are rare, however, though in 1993 they made two: One For Junior (Muse), their only album as a duo and an homage of sorts to their early days at Page Three, and Cosmopolitan Greetings (Musiques Suisses), a recording of the George Gruntz-Allen Ginsburg jazz opera in which the two starred, along with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Howard Johnson.

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. 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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