CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

What’s in a Name?

Lee Mergner ponders the complications encountered by jazz artists who share the same name

Jazz vocalist Mark Murphy

Recently we received a press release for a new recording by vocalist Mark Murphy called Hiding Place. We were excited to hear some new, perhaps previously unreleased, live material from the legend of jazz singing who died in 2015. But alas, it was not that vocalist Mark Murphy. This Mark Murphy—Mark Murphy 2.0, so to speak—is a much younger singer, songwriter, and guitarist along the lines of Kenny Rankin or Michael Franks. Hiding Place is his fourth album, and it is excellent. Had it been by the original Mark Murphy, who influenced a few generations of jazz vocalists, it would have been his 52nd album. With that in mind, I’m sorry to say that it will be a long time before Google favors the younger Murphy, talented as he is. [Editor’s note: You can read a profile of Mark Murphy 2.0 here.]

Singer and guitarist Mark Murphy
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Mark Murphy

The very alive Mr. Murphy is not the only emerging artist in the jazz world with some name-recognition issues. How about the U.K. guitarist Neil C. Young? Or the jazz drummer Peter Buck?  Perhaps there are some hardcore jazz fans who are unaware of the very famous rock artists who share those names. But the rest of you can imagine our disappointment when we realized that the singer/songwriter Neil Young hadn’t just released an instrumental jazz album, presumably featuring guitar solos of just one note. (As Stephen Stills once told writer David Carr: “We’ve played that note, can we move on, Neil?”) Likewise, as far as we know, the influential R.E.M. guitarist has not traded his signature pick for drumsticks and then tried to emulate Elvin Jones or Art Blakey. Yet.

It’s got to be hard for these jazz name-doppelgangers to deal with the inevitable questions from just about any music fan or critic: “Wait, you’re not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?” or “What’s Michael Stipe really like?” or “You’re not the son of one of the great innovators in vocalese?” In the case of Murphy, he’s now careful to put his picture on the cover of his CDs; the fact that his more famous namesake is no longer with us has also eliminated at least some confusion. And to be fair, the vocal jazz legend Mark Murphy is not even the most famous Mark Murphy in the world. That honor, as Google quickly reminds us, would go to the ex-football player. Or the chef. Or the professional golfer. Being known as yourself is indeed a competitive business.

The saxophonist Bill Evans faced a similar challenge when he arrived on the New York jazz scene in the early ’80s. The great pianist by that same name had just died in 1980, so there was at least one mitigating factor. But perhaps most ironic of all, both Bill Evans (Evanses? Evani?) played with Miles Davis, albeit more than 30 years apart. For those who’d slept through the late ’70s, the big reveal would be that it was actually a young saxophonist from the Chicago area who got the high-profile gig with Miles when he returned in 1981 from his hiatus, not the iconic pianist of Kind of Blue fame, who remained buried in Baton Rouge’s Roselawn Memorial Park (Lot 161, Section K). In a peculiar twist of fate, saxophonist Evans has had an outstanding career in contemporary jazz, longer by several years than the pianist, who was only 51 when he died. (There was yet another jazz saxophonist named Bill Evans, but he converted to Islam in the ‘50s and changed his name to Yusef Lateef.)

Photo of Bill Evans
Bill Evans (photo courtesy of Rob Rijineke)

The bassist in that same early-’80s Miles “comeback” band had been making his reputation as a session player, producer, and sideman to stars like Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn, and Luther Vandross. At that time, Marcus Miller was, as far as we can tell, the most famous Marcus Miller in the world, and he would continue to build on that fame with a career that would be the envy of just about every musician on the scene. In 2004 Marcus may have initially been surprised to see that he had somehow released an album called It’s Miller Time. But yes, as you can surely guess and as Marcus soon learned, the recording was by a different Marcus Miller—a drummer from Los Angeles, who uses the middle initial “L” to create at least a little separation from the brand name that nearly defines contemporary jazz. To his credit, Marcus L. Miller has had a fine career performing and recording with a wide variety of notable artists, playing jazz, world music, gospel, and R&B. Like the bassist, he’s even composed and recorded movie soundtracks. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when the former manager for the bassist Miller told me that sometimes his residual checks are sent by mistake to the drummer Miller, who, I’m happy to report, does not cash them but rather forwards them on to the guy who actually earned them. Hmm, maybe I’ll change my name—Quincy Jones has a nice ring to it. He won’t miss a few checks here and there, right?

Then there’s the case of Avishai Cohen, a gifted instrumentalist from Israel, and Avishai Cohen, a gifted instrumentalist from Israel. The former is a 50-year-old bassist who performed and recorded with Chick Corea and has released nearly 20 albums as a leader.  The latter is a 42-year-old trumpeter who has performed with his sister Anat and has recorded numerous albums as a leader for ECM and other labels. The good news: They look nothing alike. And they’re both quite accomplished on their respective instruments, with neither one in the other’s shadow. However, a publication like ours finds itself constantly having to identify them by their associated instrument, e.g., “bassist Avishai Cohen” or “Avishai Cohen (trumpet).” Okay, our problem, not theirs.

The obvious solution for an artist who’s coming along after a namesake has already made a name for themselves (in the most literal sense) is to pick a different one, at least professionally. This is the same method that actors have used for years to avoid issues with the SAG union. The prolific and highly respected pianist Marc Copland’s real last name is Cohen, but around 1991 he changed it to avoid confusion with the “Walking in Memphis” singer/songwriter Marc Cohn. And what a striking last name he chose—much better than Stravinsky or Bartók. Kudos to you, Marc. However, if a young jazz pianist named Aaron Goldberg comes along and chooses that same striking last name of Copland to avoid confusion with the Harvard-educated pianist Aaron Goldberg, who’s been a member of Joshua Redman’s quartet for many years … well, that would be just plain wrong.

The smooth jazz singer Miles Jaye’s full name is Miles Jaye Davis. I think we can all agree at this point that he showed good sense to drop that last name when he entered the music business. One piece of advice: If the Ellingtons name their boy Edward, they can go ahead and stick with that. If the Basies name their son William, still fine. But if Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong decide to name their first-born male child Lewis, then the young man should probably pursue a field like cybersecurity rather than music.

(Side note: My wife works in the foundation world and one of her co-workers is Bill Buckner. Bill does not play first base. Yes, we can hear those Red Sox fans saying, “Neither could our Bill Buckner.”)

For my part, I’m very glad to be the one and only Lee Mergner and not have to compete with anyone for my place in the world or, for that matter, my URL (not that I have a website). Although perhaps my singularity exposes me to the possibility of identity theft because those hackers can really zero in on me. Maybe Lewis Armstrong could help me with that. My friend Evan, a music writer, was not as fortunate when a talented young hockey player with the same first and last name as his came along from Canada and turned pro a few years ago. Shortly thereafter, hockey player Evan posted on social media something to the effect of “I just signed a rookie contract for a few million and so, ladies, Evan [last name] is open for business.” A distressing choice of words for the very woke and married writer by that same name. I do wonder if Evan the hockey player was ever sent jazz CDs for review consideration and then attacked for not responding to the pitch. That too would be wrong, but somehow right.