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Doing It Right

An interview with Mark Murphy

(Article copyright John Watson)

Mark Murphy burst onto the jazz scene in 1956, a super-hip, strongly swinging singer whose precocious vocal technique and expressive artistry immediately singled him out as a major figure in the music.

His effortless expression and natural feel for the music caught the ear of countless musicians, and his career was boosted by active support from one of the biggest stars in show business, Sammy Davis Jnr. Singer and actress Liza Minnelli also became a big fan of Murphy's music, and she once said: EUR~There's a party going on in Mark's head, and I want to go to it.'

But, as with so many jazz artists, his career path has been far from smooth. There have been times, too many times, when Mark has found himself struggling to find sufficient work. Somehow, he has always fought back, and that has once again paid off in recent times. His album Once To Every Heart was released by Verve in 2005 to considerable critical acclaim, and in 2007 came another critical triumph on the same label: Love Is What Stays.More recordings are in the planning stage, and a documentary on his life is to be released on DVD. He closes his documentary with the words: 'I'm still here - I must have done something right!'

As he relaxed over a meal in an Italian restaurant, following rehearsals for a concert and BBC radio broadcast at the Town Hall in Birmingham, Mark reflected on his extraordinary life in music. He was born in March 1932 in Syracuse, New York State, and brought up inthe nearby town of Fulton. His family was a musical one; his grandmother and an aunt were both church organists, and as a young boy he sang in choirs. At the age of seven, Mark started piano lessons - and jazz was already a passion.


 'My uncle - my mother's brother - introduced me to the music of Art Tatum in around 1937 or 38, and so I started riding down across the park to listen to the rest of his jazz records,' he told me. EUR~He had a lot of Benny Goodman, and I had very early introductions to Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, June Christy . . . and Nat "King" Cole was truly my king in those days, you know.'

As a teenager, he began singing with his brother's dance band, and then took up studies in music and drama at Syracuse University.It was while performing at a jam session in Syracuse in 1953 that Mark was discovered by Sammy Davis Jnr, who invited the young singer to his show that night - and then called him up on stage to sing with him. The star remained supportive for many years, eventually arranging for Mark to appear on the Steve Allen Show. In later years, Mark dedicated his album What A Way To Go to Sammy. But at the time the two men were moving in very different circles.

The Sammy Davis Jnr moment vanished in the difference between his income and mine. He was going out with some pretty expensive people, you know. Then the Rat Pack occurred, and I wasn't anywhere near that! You have to go where your wallet takes you. 'The closest I got to Sammy was teaching his American "actor wife", who his manager said he was obliged to marry. His manager said that [as a black artist] he couldn't have any more Swedish blondes in his life. But then he fixed all that, and it meant I didn't have her to teach anymore.'


Mark moved to New York City, the hub of the jazz world at the time, determined to make a career in the business. And he was eager to learn - his ears were open. 'In the late 1950s I discovered the music of Miles Davis with Gil Evans - and, my God, that stopped me! And then after those wonderful recordings with Gil, he came up with "Kind Of Blue". Miles is like the Picasso of jazz, and I try to be like that. EUR~If you consider back in the history of jazz, back to very beginning - 1910, 1911 - the players were trying to play like singers sing.

'And then if you look at the work of Miles Davis, who knew the words to the songs, the ballads, he played, and that was - if you like - a circle of who sings and plays. EUR~The mystery of it all is explained by the fact that they were just trying to play like singers sing. And now singers are trying to play like Miles Davis. At least I do, and I hope I make it sometimes.'

When Mark arrived in New York he was eager to hear Miles perform, and also hoped to meet him. The eventual encounter with the notoriously prickly trumpeter was not a happy one. 'Well, I couldn't say he was a thrill to meet, so I thought "Maybe I'll just listen to him . . .' Before Mark established himself in the profession came at least ten years of pounding the pavement, trying to get a record out, seeing Billie Holiday coming out of a bar on 33rd Street arguing with a guy, and seeing Billy Strayhorn walking down the street looking for an apartment . . .

'New York was still what it used to be then. They hadn't torn down all of 52nd Street. So I got there a little late, but I learned a great deal in those years there.'He made his first recording at the age of 24: Meet Mark Murphy was released on the Decca label. Producer Orrin Keepnews has described it as 'timeless', and remarked on the singer's extraordinary rhythmic ease, and the maturity he demonstrated in these early performances. By 1958 Mark had moved to California, where he recorded for the Capitol label, but the early 1960s found him back in New York and recording the much-acclaimed album Rah for Riverside. The line-up was extraordinary: among the musicians were Bill Evans, Urbie Green, Clark Terry, Wynton Kelly and Blue Mitchell.

The LP has since been re-released on CD by Fantasy. His version of 'Fly Me To The Moon' made the charts when it was released as a single in 1963, and Murphy was named New Star Of The Year in the magazine Down Beat.Just when things seemed to be going so well, Mark's struggles began. The Beatles and other pop groups swept away much of the club work which sustained everyone in the jazz business in the States, and Mark decided to move to England, where he found work as an actor as well as a singer, living in London and performing around Europe before returning to the USA in 1972. Back on home turf he found himself on the upswing again, establishing a 14-year relationship with the Muse label and releasing an average of one album a year.

Stolen Moments

Those LPs included one that was to become a classic: Stolen Moments. Mark had been inspired to write words to the tune, written by Oliver Nelson for the album Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse!). The song gave a rocket-boost to the singer's career. 'Writing words to tunes, it has a strange history. I would say it goes back to the first year I spent here (in the UK) in 1964, and there was this Oliver Nelson record everyone was playing, Blues and The Abstract Truth. And I just heard this [sings] 'Do-do, der-dum . . .' and it just caught my ear. It's whatever catches your ear; you start to live in it. Then the odd thing is, I sang it a couple of times at Ronnie Scott's, and I took it to Europe and sang it there, and then I put it away, I would say almost for ten years.

'But I kept the music and the words in my RV, [recreational vehicle] which is what I lived in during the 1970s, and I was going through the music one day and I came across it. I said to myself "Oh, my God, here's that arrangement of Stolen Moments I did all those years ago". I started to do it at the clubs, and the kids liked it, and were always asking, "Can you do that Stolen Moments again?"'

Earlier on the day we met, Mark had rehearsed 'Stolen Moments' with the BBC Big Band, and he praised the 'really beautiful' arrangement of the tune, written by Barry Forgie for the concert. His other projects for the Muse label included the Nat"King"Cole Songbook Vols. I and II, Bop for Kerouac Vols I and II, Living Room, Satisfaction Guaranteed, and Beauty And the Beast. In 1987, came Night Mood, an album of songs by the very fine Brazilian composer Ivan Lins).


 Later, Milestone Records released the album September Ballads.The 1990s were a very productive time for Mark. His studio work produced more critically-acclaimed albums, including Very Early (West and East-BMG), One For Junior with his singer friend Sheila Jordan (Muse), I'll Close My Eyes (Muse) The Dream, with the Metropole Orchestra (Jive Music), and Dim The Lights, with Benny Green (Millennium Recordings). Some valuable retrospective albums were also released in that decade. Reissues of his earlier work included Stolen And Other Moments (32 Records), The Best Of Mark Murphy - The Capitol Years (Capitol-Blue Note), the boxed sets Jazz Standards and Songbook (both on 32 Records) and Crazy Rhythm - his Debut Recordings (GRP). Since the year 2000, Mark's albums have included Some Time Ago (High Note), The Latin Porter, with trumpeter Tom Harrell (Go Jazz), Links (High Note), Memories Of You - Remembering Joe Williams (High Note), and Bop For Miles (High Note).

Over the years, Mark has written words for many jazz standards, including works by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. These have included some very progressive pieces as well as catchy tunes. As with many forward-looking artists, this has sometimes led Mark into controversy. 'On one recording, I thought that the lyric I wrote to Joe Zawinul's tune "Birdland" was going to be the big hit of that record, but his manager said he didn't like it, and Joe didn't like it, so it was dropped. But I was completely unprepared for "Stolen Moments" becoming a hit track. It was a strange little quirk, there. I had no charts prepared for it, so I prepared my own, and I discovered that it was just a minor blues

'The next song I wrote words for, and which was to be one of my hits, was "Red Clay" by Freddie Hubbard, and I said to him "Freddie, what do you think of it?" and he told me he really liked it. The words to the tune would just tumble in my head as I drove this great RV of mine across the country. You never know where you're going to find the words. Sometimes they just appear, maybe in very distraught circumstances, sometimes they just drift in . . . just eight bars, maybe, here and there.

'Sometimes it's when you wake up, and youEUR~re in that not-quite-awake state of mind, several of them have come to me that way. I'll wake up, start to write it down and maybe go finish it off another day. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open all the time.' Mark has always tried to progress musically as an artist, while not leaving his audience behind. It can be a difficult balance to strike.

'Sometimes jazz can kill itself by being non-imaginative. It's like, "Oh, let's just do it like we always did it." But you can't run a business like that - you've got to be ready for innovation, for elaboration. It will mean a little change, yes, but come on - get off the poop and do something different! You can take the audience with you, to a certain point - I did a record call Song For The Geese (BMG-RCA Victor, released in 1997), and this one made a lot of my audience mad. Because I went into the repertoire of Pat Metheny, I went into Steely Dan, and they didn't like that.


'The thing is, I can go there, but they can't. So what should I do? Stop growing? I just think these records take much longer to make a mark, than regular pop records. You can progress up to a certain point if you're a singer, but then you run into "audience lag". They can't quite keep up with you, and that happened with Song For The Geese. I had this guy who was running a fan club, and in [the New York club] Birdland I could see him running up to all the people he knew there from the fan club, and shouting out: "Isn't this awful? What's he doing this for?" So I've remembered that.'

It may have been a controversial album among fans, but Song For The Geese won a Grammy nomination - Mark's sixth. Despite the 1990s being a productive era in the studios for Mark, he became concerned about the state of jazz generally - not just the state of the business, but also the artistic side. Then he came across the work German trumpeter and producer Till Bronner, and they have since developed a strong creative partnership. 'In the 1990s I thought, "What is going on - nothing is happening in this era". And then I heard the album Chattin' With Chet by Till Bronner, and I thought "Whoah, what is this!" It was not only the way he played, it was the way he orchestrated the music to give such ambiance to the record.

'Not everybody could do that, but on the top of that orchestration he could play like an angel. I met Till at the end of a tour with pianist Alan Broadbent, it must be 10 years ago. I met him at the Berlin jazz club, The A Train. I saw him standing with a guy from Universal Music [parent company of Verve], with a bunch of discs in his hands. Till came over to a café across the street and started talking to me, and when someone in Germany starts talking to you in English - and wonderful English - you talk right back. And so it started. He gave me this record, the music of Chet Baker, and he had taken those songs that Chet did and put them into a hip-hop beat. Which was very imaginative, because I hadn't heard any jazz that did that successfully.'


The encounter led to the creation of Mark's Verve album Once To Every Heart, recorded in Bronner's own studio in Germany. The release sparked a worldwide resurgence of interest in the singer's music, and was followed in 2007 by another acclaimed collaboration with Bronner on the same label, Love Is What Stays. This orchestral album features not just one, but three very different takes on EUR~Stolen Moments', and other highlights on the CD include a solo on EUR~My Foolish Heart' by the great alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. 'We have very good sales, particularly in Germany, for example,' said Mark. It takes these kind of records longer to hit a point of sales - even getting a jazz record out is not easy, and it never was.'

A new collaboration with Bronner was on the cards at the time of our interview. EUR~Till has expressed interest in doing a new record - but he is not exactly Mr Swift, so I'm waiting to find out what we'll be doing at the moment.' In the meantime, Mark was looking forward to the release of the DVD, entitled Evolution Of An Artist. EUR~Finally it's completed, and now it's getting the finishing touches on it. I'm hoping it will give me some new energy in the States, and here in the UK too.

'It starts with my childhood, as you would expect - but I wanted to put lots of things in that people might not expect, things we had on film that we could resurrect. A documentary would get stupid and dull if it just was "Oh, he did this and he did that", the kind of things you would expect. So I got together with a drummer friend of mine, and we did some "word jazz", and instead of doing it the regular way I did it the irregular way. So it's more interesting that way. I made sure there was enough variety. At the end of it I say: "I'm still here - I must have done something right!"

At one time, while living in California, he seriously considered retiring, but decided that property on the West Coast was too expensive. Then he found his more affordable - present home in Pennsylvania. 'I'm just two hours from New York,' he said. Perhaps the relative proximity to the Big Apple helps to keep the creative juices flowing, while his home in the hills provides a peaceful retreat after exhausting international tours. Mark Murphy is still very much in the jazz business. And doing it right.

(Article copyright John Watson)

* Photographs of Mark Murphy are in the 'Jazz in Birmingham' section on this website