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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.


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