Mark Murphy: Ready to Sing

Legendary jazz singer talks about his misdiagnosis and about his return to the live music scene

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of Mark Murphy’s physical and mental decline are slightly exaggerated. The legendary jazz singer was said to be suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, but he says it wasn’t exactly true. “Well, I was misdiagnosed,” Murphy says coolly by phone from his current residence in New Jersey. “I don’t have any signs of Alzheimer’s at all, but now I can’t seem to get out of this goddamned nursing home. I’d like to go live somewhere privately.”

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Jean-Pierre Leduc and Mark Murphy
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Mark Murphy performing at Upstairs jazz club in Montreal
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Mark Murphy performing at Upstairs jazz nightclub in Montreal
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Ranee Lee and Mark Murphy at Upstairs jazz nightclub in Montreal

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His manager/agent Jean-Pierre Leduc out of Montreal confirms that Murphy has been living in at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in New Jersey, because he has reached the age where it’s not easy for him to live alone and take care of himself. “The reason he’s there is that he can’t easily manage day-to-day things like laundry, food, etc.” says Leduc. “It might seem a little extreme, but sometimes there’s no happy middle ground. As he says, some people go there to die, but he went there to live.”

However, Leduc says that the rumor about Murphy having signs of Alzheimer’s originally stemmed from a misdiagnosis and subsequent prescription for a medicine, whose side effects included symptoms like confusion and disorientation. “He was prescribed medicine for Alzheimers because that’s what they thought he had,” explains Leduc. “It became like a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the effect of this medication was to make him confused. He’s off that medication now. This all happened about a year or a year and a half ago.”

For his part, Murphy says he’s now feeling very much on top of his game vocally. “The singing is just fantastic,” he says, with verve. “I never had such a good voice. I used to have tremendous trouble with smoke. I thought I was going to lose my voice because of the cigarette smoke in clubs. Anyway, now I’m flying high.”

Recorded in the summer of 2010, Murphy’s latest album is a new studio session with pianist Misha Piatigorsky and his trio. “We did all first takes and I just sang all day,” says Murphy about that recording. The album, tentatively entitled Evolution, features Piatigorsky on piano, Danton Boller on bass and Chris Wabich on drums. A former record company person himself (at Justin Time), Leduc is shopping that album to various record labels in order to get Murphy’s current sound out to his established fans, as well as to new audiences.

Given his reputation as a distinctive stylist who can make just about any tune his own, I wondered how he picks his material these days. “Now I think in terms of picking stuff that I did before and recording it again because people can’t get some of the earlier stuff. New things are now very difficult for me to find because no one’s writing stuff that I’d like to sing. In this record, I did the Bill Evans tune with the lyrics by Gene Lees. It was a ballad, one of the greatest songs ever. And I recorded a song called ‘The Peacocks,’ written by Jimmy Rowles, with lyrics by Norma Winstone. It’s a fantastic song to sing. I like to get the audience quasi-hypnotized while I do these songs and that’s very gratifying to me. I’m very lucky that audiences want to come to see me.”

It seems that the love between the audience and the singer flows both ways. “They allow me to sing what I like. I wonder how far I’ll be able to go with young people. I seem to be able to get all ages.” However, those young audiences aside, Murphy has issues with some of the vocal music that is so popular these days. “I only watched that TV show—American Idol—maybe once. I was horrified. Oh, man they’re all trying to sing in that R&B style. And meanwhile the R&B singers, I haven’t heard any of them go anywhere. Maybe it’s good for me because I’m sort of in a sound cocoon, where I’m just doing what I do and I don’t worry about anybody else. It seems to work because the audiences love us.”

Will Friedwald, author of A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, is unabashed in his high regard for Murphy’s unique talents and legacy in the field of jazz singing. “As a jazz singer, he probably had the widest range of techniques, scatting, vocalese, even spoken word and poetry recitations, working in every possible style and/or tempo,” explains Friedwald. “He is endlessly creative, and he always seems to be working out new ways of different things—new ways to get there from here.”

Friedwald saw Murphy perform in 2009 and again recently in 2011 and he certainly noticed the improvement in Murphy’s condition. “I just saw him two nights ago and he was terrific,” says Friedwald. “He moved like an old man, on a very small stage and a very awkward space, but his singing was absolutely fine, the voice was strong, and his head was there. If his singing isn't 100% as good as it ever was, it's still certainly better than it has any right to be.”

Murphy himself is champing at the bit, but recognizes that there aren’t nearly as many opportunities for performances as there were, say, twenty years ago, not just for himself, but for any performer. “Look at it now—if somebody gets two good gigs a month, they’re doing pretty well. I don’t know, I’ll have to wait and see what we get.” Murphy recently did some dates in early November at the Upstairs jazz club in Montreal. Leduc says that he is in the process of booking Murphy at various venues and festivals throughout North America and Europe. “Mark is really appreciated in England and Europe,” says Leduc. “His records sell to collectors there for big bucks. So he’ll likely go to London and Paris for shows.” One major Northeast US jazz festival has already booked him for this summer and Leduc is expecting more festivals to present Murphy. In the meantime, Murphy’s next upcoming performance is at a venue in Florida.

Nearing the age of 80, Murphy understands that he can’t run around the country like he used to. “Yeah, I have to pace myself. But once I get on the stage, I become a different person. I’m relaxed, I like to tell the odd joke now and then, but the music is what I’m there for and the people seem to love us.”

From Kurt Elling to Ian Shaw, there are several contemporary jazz singers who are clearly in debt artistically to Murphy. Friedwald says that it’s not just male jazz singers either. “His influence isn't limited to the male gender,” says Friedwald. “I think a lot of the eclecticism of contemporary singers comes directly from Murphy. The idea that jazz singing isn't just one clearly-defined set of rules with very rigid boundaries comes from Murphy—that jazz singing is an ever expanding, constantly evolving series of universes, where all kinds of ideas and techniques and repertoire are perpetually in development.”

Can Murphy hear his influence on younger singers? “I do hear my influence. I did that tour with Kurt Elling, Jon Hendricks and Kevin Mahogany. They called it the Four Brothers. You know, there’s always somebody trying to outdo you, but I don’t mind that.” But are there any younger singers he enjoys hearing? “I’m gonna tell you. I like Ian’s work, but apart from that, there aren’t any that really interest me. There are some new people that I’ve heard about but I haven’t heard them yet. So I’ve got to wait to find somebody or something that interests me. But right now, it seems that everybody has died. I miss Shirley Horn. I miss Blossom Dearie. I miss the people that I grew up with. I never dreamed I’d live so long, while others started dropping along because of their age. Some of them lived hard lives.”

Like Anita O’Day, who lived the hardest of lives. “Yeah, she and I became good pals. But I never got out of control, except during those three years as a crack addict in San Francisco when I wasn’t working that much. But then I got off that shit and then I started teaching again. When I stopped teaching, I worked in this school in Austria. We had wonderful vocal singing there and after I stopped that, my voice just came out like gangbusters. It’s never been so good. No problems, no problems at all. I can sing all night. I don’t hang out that much any more, because I gotta get my rest, but the voice is my father’s voice. I inherited it.”

Talking to Murphy about his father, it’s clear that the two shared a unique bond over their love of singing. “I used to see him sometimes. I’d do a gig at Birdland and look down and there was my dad. Later on, I realized he was trying to figure out what the hell I was singing. He didn’t understand jazz like my mother did. I got my basic knowledge of music from her. And he supplied the vocals but he didn’t have any concept of jazz. He was a concert singer. He had done the old Chautauqua circuit around New York way back when. I’m talking around 1910—around those days.”

Although his father was passionate about singing, he only witnessed the very beginnings of his son’s long career as a jazz vocalist. “He was knocked out with my first album. He sent it to all his friends and his old vocal teacher. He got it just in time because he died that year. It was very sudden and very shocking. Maybe it might have been a suicide, but I can’t find anyone who wants to talk about it. He was 57, about twenty years younger than I am now.”

Murphy has vivid memories of his childhood and youth, but can’t remember not being a singer. “I’ve been singing since I was 5 years old. My grandmother, my nana, used to call me the soprano God of the bath. I used to sit on the potty for hours singing. Even now, as I’m walking home or doing nothing, I find myself vocally doing something. You’d think if I did that all my life my chops would’ve been shot, but God, they’ve never been so good.”

There was a documentary being filmed about Murphy, but it remains unfinished at this point. “I had to get it away from [the filmmaker], because it got delayed, delayed. And then I put it away for awhile.” He says he’s getting help with the documentary from Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America and he’s hoping that there will be a finished product soon.

And, because of his various moves in recent years, Murphy’s looking back at his career has been even more concrete and tangible. “I’ve got to put my mind to getting the music mess out of my nephew’s basement and get it all over to East Stroudsburg University where they’re going to store it for me. That’s going to be one freakin’ job, but I’ve got to do it.”

Murphy has certainly had a long career as a recording artist. He was just 25 years old when Milt Gabler signed him to Decca, for whom he recorded two albums, Meet Mark Murphy and Let Yourself Go, which were later reissued on one CD—
Crazy Rhythm: His Debut Recordings. Murphy moved on to Capitol Records for whom he recorded three albums. In 1961, he began recording for Riverside Records, a jazz label owned by Bill Grauer. “Yeah, poor Bill, he dropped dead on the way to the bank,” says Murphy. “It took them years and years settling his accounts. Orrin Keepnews was my mentor there and we put this album together with the late Ernie Wilkins, who died in my beloved Copenhagen.” That album was called Rah! and featured an all-star cast including Clark Terry, Joe Wilder, Blue Mitchell, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Art Davis and Jimmy Cobb.

Murphy went on to record with Joe Fields’ Muse label, as well as several one-offs with other labels like RCA/Victor, Savoy and Verve. Throughout it all, he kept a very active schedule of live dates at clubs, theaters and festivals all over the world. Lately, he’s been compiling the facts of his own professional life for a book. “I just finished sketching my memoirs so I have all that stuff written down,” says Murphy. “Maybe someone will come along and help me put it into a book form.”

Given that he’s spent a fair amount of time recently reviewing his own life and career, it makes me wonder what he may have learned about himself. Was there anything that he was most proud of? “I guess, I’m most proud of surviving the thousands of miles I traveled, and it was all paid for by career. I never made much money but it paid for me to go all over the world—Australia, Japan, of course, all over Europe. I lived nine years in England in the ‘60s [while also working as an actor]. It suddenly dawned on me. I’ve traveled my ass off.”

But he says he’s not done with all the traveling and performing. “If I take care of myself, I think I’m good for another ten years at least. I’d love to hit 100, but let’s just see if I get to 90!”

8 Comments

  • Feb 06, 2011 at 01:49PM ChaCha

    I had the privilege of hearing Mark sing "I'm All Smiles" at a tribute to its songwriter. His performance of the song was all jazz, in contrast to the standard cabaret heard otherwise that night. Mark's unique spin was so audacious and mind-blowing that the audience went crazy when he was done. There is still no more exciting vocalist, in any musical genre, than the one, the only Mark Murphy!

  • Feb 06, 2011 at 07:09PM wabisabi29

    Mr. Mergner, This is a beautiful written article, but it's "champing" at the bit, not chomping.

  • Feb 06, 2011 at 07:13PM wabisabi29

    ... I should have written, "beautifully"

  • Feb 09, 2011 at 04:33PM Bernard Nisenholz

    My wife and I have wonderful memories of seeing Mark Murphy in California, and once in Seattle. We wish him the best.

  • Feb 09, 2011 at 08:14PM mark robbo

    Mark's music is part of my life. I saw him perform many times in London particularly when he was championed by Gilles Peterson and the "London Jazz Dance" scene. I saw Mark perform in New Zealand a few years ago and now think that was perhaps for the last time. I do wish him well. A wonderful piece of writing - thanks.

  • Feb 10, 2011 at 11:23AM ChaCha

    I can assure everybody that there are many more gigs still left in Mark Murphy. Even as I type this, he's in Florida for a few, including one with a big band. He still sounds great and watching him on the stage is like a master class in compelling and creative jazz performance, age be damned!

  • Mar 11, 2012 at 04:04AM Patricia Jankowski

    I saw Mark perform live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, Michigan a few times, back in the '80's. I have seen few live performances that even come close to his. He is a truly amazing vocalist...well ahead of the pack. Utterly mesmerizing.

  • Mar 21, 2012 at 06:26AM mwrob0123

    Thanks so much for this article. I've seen Mark perform at least a half a dozen times...from the University of Northern Colorado Jazz Festival to clubs in D.C, and Denver. I caught him once at the Kennedy Center with Billy Taylor and in Carmel Valley, California where he performed a benefit concert for his brother who was ill. Mark, according to the liner notes of many of his albums, always seemed to ride under the radar in terms of popularity. But in my opinion, he is one of the significant figures in jazz. I hope someone finishes the documentary...or the memoirs get written. The legacy is real and deserves to be preserved.

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