Mark Murphy: The Explorer

At 80, the great vocalist is in the midst of a career renaissance

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Mark Murphy with Ella Fitzgerald, 1968, photo courtesy of the artist
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Mark Murphy, early 1980s, photo courtesy of the artist
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Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan, 2008. Photo courtesy of Mark Murphy
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Mark Murphy
By Jean-Pierre Leduc

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September is waning and, though he officially became an octogenarian six months earlier, Mark Murphy is in Toronto for a one-nighter in celebration of his 80th birthday. The concert, a sold-out date that will kick off radio station JAZZ-FM’s annual Sound of Jazz series at the Old Mill Inn, is still 24 hours hence. Tonight, Murphy is tucked into a corner of the hotel bar, holding forth about the ups, downs and endless curves of a career that touches six decades. Apart from the classic jazz tracks—Miles, Ella, Bird with strings—softly piped from hidden speakers, the room is still, one middle-aged couple its only other nighthawks. Lean, lanky and colorfully dressed (his sartorial eccentricity a longstanding trademark), Murphy looks his age and admits that his memory has grown a bit spotty. But as the conversation meanders—even in interviews Murphy is the consummate improviser—it’s clear he’s lost none of his wit or charm. After Murphy departs, the nearby couple wanders over.

“We couldn’t help eavesdropping,” says the husband. “All those stories were so fascinating.”

“And,” gushingly adds his wife, “the way he told them was so wonderful.”

A pregnant pause follows before they sheepishly ask, in near-unison, “Who is he?”

***

That’s the story of Mark Murphy’s life. Though recent years rank, financially and creatively, among the most lucrative of his career, with international club and festival dates mapped out months in advance and his fees at last somewhat in line with his talent, they’ve been long in coming. He remains the consummate musician’s singer, exalted by acolytes and deeply admired by his peers. (One of his favorite anecdotes dates from the 1960s when, introduced to Ella Fitzgerald in London and asking for her signature, the First Lady of Jazz replied, “How can I give you my autograph when you’re as good as I am?”)

Yet, even among jazz fans, Murphy has never been fully embraced or appreciated. Over the course of 56 years, he has released some four-dozen albums, the majority long out of print. That places him, in terms of recorded output, in the same neighborhood as Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, yet both Sinatra and Bennett have frequently achieved greater sales with a single album than Murphy has across a lifetime.

Perhaps it’s the peripatetic journey he’s taken, his seemingly insatiable desire to expand his musical horizons. Where a Sinatra or Bennett rarely strays from their prescribed path and listeners know what to expect, Murphy is boldly daring and utterly unpredictable. As his close friend Sheila Jordan, an equally skilled vocal gymnast, explains, “When you’re as creative as Mark is, you tend not to go back to what you did. He might go back to parts of it, but then he improvises on it, and then improvises on the improvisations.”
Adds Murphy, “I’ve always been a chance taker. My artistic restlessness has been my curse, but it’s kept me going, because I never got stuck in a rut.”

As a result, Murphy tends to be an acquired taste. “For new people coming to Mark’s table, he is such a potent flavor,” says Kurt Elling, who, among the many jazz vocalists who have been influenced by Murphy, owes him the biggest debt. “It’s a very distinct and powerful spice, and not everyone’s ready for that. Not everyone has the jazz or cultural education, not everyone is open to that level of risk, [and] not everyone’s ready to go that far down the road—just as not everyone’s ready to go as far down the road to Ornette or Dave Liebman.”

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Originally published in December 2012

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