Singer Mark Murphy passed away in his sleep last night. I only knew him professionally — we met about 15 years ago when he joined me for a 90-minute interview on WKCR, then had opportunities to write a liner note for his terrific 2003 recording Memories of You, one of several he did for High Note, and to interview him in 2007 for a Jazziz piece framed around the release of Love Is What Stays (Verve) and the documentary The Evolution Of An Artist. I’m including the liner note, the interview for the liner note, and the interview for the “Jazziz” piece in the link below.
Mark Murphy (Jazziz Interview, Oct. 2, 2007):
TP: In light of the new record, let’s talk a bit about the repertoire you chose for Love Is What Stays, which mixes older and newer material, a lot of different contexts, and of course you make each your own. Do you make any distinctions between the older songs, the songs you came on, and the newer repertoire, whether in a formal or structural sense? Or is that not particularly an issue for you.
MURPHY: Well, it’s not an issue, because you work that out in the musical analysis. For instance, the Johnny Cash song is really like singing blues, and the other one we had to be a little more careful with, so people who knew… Mind you, jazz people don’t know those… What’s the name of the group that sang “What If?”
TP: I don’t remember.
MURPHY: Well, they don’t know them. So it was just a matter of taking out or lowering some of the kind of poppish feel sung by the whole group, and making it more something that I could just sort of live in, so it would sound maybe like an improvisation for me. Yeah, that’s mainly it, to make it sound like I was just freewheeling there.
TP: So the trick is to work on something enough to make it sound like you’re freewheeling.
TP: There’s orchestral accompaniment on some of these, you’re performing in several configurations, and I’m wondering if those configurations pose different challenges for you.
TP: Do you have preferred configurations as well?
MURPHY: I wasn’t there when the orchestra was put on. In the old days, everything you heard on the LPs was done right there, including the strings. I don’t know whether I prefer it or not. Well, see, with Nan Schwartz, she has a sixth sense about how I sing, and so I have no worries there. My God, what she does with the four French horns sends chills up my spine today. My main concern with her work is that she helped us make the record a great work of art, and Jazz Art singing. That’s really what I do. You had a difficult path there to make sure that your fans are satisfied, but that you might say hello to a few new people.
TP: You’ve already given me about a third of my piece!
TP: I’ve been asked to ask you this, and I apologize beforehand if it’s a boring question. But my editor wants to know your feelings about some of the newer generation of jazz singers.
MURPHY: I was just out in Oakland. Have you heard Kenny Washington? He’s a very, very short black singer who sings around Oakland, and he is one of our rays of hope. Of course, J.D. Walter on this coast. He is a motherfucker! He’s something else. It’s wonderful what he does, and did. He’s exciting to hear live, and he’s building up… Look, it’s always slower. It’s an incredibly slow build in jazz, because it’s an art form, and people have to come to it in strange ways. I was almost a little depressed after the record was all finished, because I said, “This is too good; this is too much above most jazz fans.”
TP: Your new record, you’re taking about.
MURPHY: Yes. Well, I was kind of nervous about that. As I see now, it’s a record that makes very slow, turtle-like progress towards any kind of recognition. However, that’s always the way it is in this kind of singing and production. It’s just something you have to get used to.
TP: You were mentioning what hard work it is to make every piece sound freewheeling and improvised. About how long did it take to prepare the repertoire for this recording?
MURPHY: Well, I had to get used to some of the songs, and I finally did, and we eliminated some of the other ones. I understood what Till [Bronner] was doing. In records that I did years ago, I learned some harsh lessons in that sort of thing, Jazz fans don’t like some sorts of songs that I do.
TP: Which type of songs that you like, don’t they like?
MURPHY: Years ago, at Capitol, we took top-40 hits and just indiscriminately jazzed them up. That record was a huge bomb. So we’ve got to be careful… I don’t know how to describe a jazz fan, what his taste is. But it comes from a different place, and it’s got to be… They’re a little rigid in their expectations of what you sing. So I’ve learned to walk…well, maybe a strange line there.
TP: Tell me a bit about your attitude in this phase of your life and career towards scat singing and vocalese, which played so much a role in what you were doing a number of years ago, and which many people think of as synonymous with your tonal personality.
MURPHY: I know. Well, I usually wait until the performance part of it comes up to start my improv lines, because I don’t sort of actually sing very much vocalese any more, because not much of it is being written. Jon is the last one to be alive of the great writers who did that. So you’re kind of hemmed in to pick something from that genre. So it’s harder and harder to please yourself and to please the people who listen to you. I got into hot water when I did that group with the group in Seattle called Song For the Geese. I got so mad at the guy who ran my…well, it really was an English fan club, that I had to tell him I don’t want to work with him any more. He was really out of bounds with what his… Not to have the attitude. But you don’t work for someone and write about them as an editor without first saying, “I am the editor, but this may not be my favorite of Mark’s records,” but you don’t come out and slam it, you don’t bring it to… He was in the audience at Birdland, going around the room, spitting his opinion all over people. I was pissed off! It took me about a year to compose what I was going to say to him, and I never said, “Stop the magazine,” all I said was, “Take my name off it.” He couldn’t understand that. Well, he and I don’t comisserate any more. Like I say, you’re getting some people who can be very rigid and unmoving in their opinions and what they say about them.
TP: Since you were talking about records, what aside from your latest are your favorite over the years?
MURPHY: I’d have to include this one as one of my favorites. Going back through them, I’d have to include Song of the Geese. I’d have to include two very early ones—Rah in its original form, and then Midnight Mood made in Germany with the Clarke-Boland Band. I heard these years later and said, ‘Whoo, I was good that day!” Or I’d say, “Oh my God, what did I do that for?” Then in between there, we accomplished some rather remarkable things with Bop for Kerouac and the second Kerouac record. I was really responsible, I think, for bringing the Kerouac name back into the fore, because two years after my record came out, I noticed that the records started putting out Beat Generation stuff. Hmm! I was never given any credit for it, but anyway, that was my thought on it. Well, I loved the record I did called Brazil Song, where I took some Brazilian material and did it with a Brazilian band from San Francisco so it was as close to being in Brazil as possible. I didn’t want it to be another bossa nova record. I wanted it to attempt to get right into Brazil. All those titles are some of my favorites. I loved a ballad album I did for Fantasy called September Ballads, which includes that “Goodbye” song to Bill Evans and some beautiful pieces by writers of the ‘70s, which I’m very surprised that people who sing my type of songs don’t pick up on. So there you are.
TP: I was also asked to ask you about influences, who could be singers or instrumentalists.
MURPHY: I really was knocked out by what happened to Miles Davis when he met Gil Evans, the effect it had on his playing, and I, sort of in my head, said, “That’s the way I want to sing.” If I take any students these days (and I don’t), I say, “If you want to learn how to sing a ballad, listen to Miles and listen to his ballads, and learn the courage it takes to use space in your work. I get nervous with too many notes. That’s why I’m off saxophones and onto trumpets. Not that trumpet players don’t use a lot of notes, but I just… It’s probably because the trumpet and my range of voice is sort of like a tenor sax and trumpet, which was so popular with the groups, say, in the ‘70s and ‘80s to start their band repertoires. You can analyze it further into… Oh, I adored Arthur Prysock. Nobody knows him any more, but I think he’s probably still alive and singing somewhere. Johnny Hartman was a sweetheart. I liked Dick Haymes very much. Nobody knows them any more, hardly. I am kind of the last on the list of several generations of I guess baritone jazz crooners. But see, the reason, when I was coming up in Syracuse, is that the bop musicians liked my sense of rhythm, which is pure Celtic—Irish. They asked me up to sing because I swung! Well, I still do. But you use it maybe in a slightly different way. It comes right out on that track on this new record called “The Interview.” It is just simply the joy of riding on rhythm. It’s kind of like a jazz skateboard thing! I never could do it physically, but I do it vocally.
TP: I suppose when you hit your seventies, being on the skateboard isn’t necessarily such a wise thing to do.
MURPHY: Well, Katherine Hepburn got it after she got into it in her seventies. But I don’t think I want to try it! But I would also say that it’s rather like basketball players dribbling down the court, only your dribble comes out of your mouth. If it’s connected to the drummer, you’re cool. If it’s not, don’t do it.
TP: Speaking of risk-taking and being in your seventies, you seem to be taking as many risks with your voice as ever, if not more so, and I wonder if you can talk about your secret about keeping your voice…
MURPHY: I don’t have a secret. It could be because I gave up teaching suddenly. Because that is very draining. All of a sudden, my voice is doing everything I ask of it. I don’t do anything differently practicing-wise, but it will just almost do anything that I ask of it—and I ask a lot of it. Now, that would be impossible for some older singers. I actually don’t know why I’ve lasted so long vocally. I never was a smoker. Now Till Bronner has got me smoking cigars—once in a while. I like a taste now and then. But for God’s sakes, don’t buy me two martinis. Or it could be that just from teaching so much vocal technique that it honed my own working of the chops, the singing in the head and bouncing it off your diaphragm and all that sort of thing. In other words, to save the larynx area wear and tear.
TP: One last question that I’ve been asked to ask you is: What are you listening to now? Do you have an iPod?
MURPHY: No, I don’t have an iPod. I don’t listen, because my head is full of music all the time. I’m sitting, as I say, in an airport lounge, my foot’s going all the time, and I can’t stop it. Sometimes I have to go to certain extremes just to turn it off, so I can relax. It’s a machine that don’t want to stop. It’s like my father, whose voice I inherited, is up there in the singer’s heaven, saying, “Come on, Mark, don’t stop; you can go on a few more years.” The poor cat died when he was 57. I don’t know, it’s all of those things.
TP: The favor I’m going to ask is if you could give me some reflections on Eddie Jefferson.
MURPHY: Eddie was an unsung hero and a genius who.. Actually, I don’t know whether he or Jon was first out there doing that. I know that Jon got lucky with a couple of pop hits, but I know that Eddie had to go work in the post office for a while. Several jazz musicians I know, do, just to get the pension. There are some very nice people in the post office! See, I have a great vote of thanks to give him and Richie Cole. They brought vocal jazz back in the ‘70s. It had been wallowing in the underground darkness ever since them there Beatles started what they did, and then turned over the whole pop music business. Then they got working I think it was in a club in Washington, D.C., and got a great following there, and then it was possible for me to get what we call a jazz hit with “Stolen Moments” and those things I did in the late ‘70s, of course, on to Bop for Kerouac.
He was not an easy person to get close to, so I never sort of wanted to say, “Hey, let’s go out and have a drink” or something, or that sort of thing. He would come in once in a while to hear me with Richie or with other people, and it wasn’t sort of a close personal thing with us. See, since he was a dancer… This is fantastic, because it turns out that my other favorite singer, who had a three-song repertoire, Gregory Hines, was also one of the world’s great dancers. And I believe Ella started out as a tap dancer. When I sing, especially when I’m bopping, it’s like I close my eyes and I’ve got Eleanor Powell next to me doing those fantastic things she did with her feet, and I do it with my voice. It’s all of those things, and I would say that Eddie must have been one helluva dancer.
TP: Anything more to say about him?
MURPHY: I’d have to say I don’t know anything more about him. He was an extremely private person.
TP: Were the early records important to you when they came out?
MURPHY: Well, people would come and say, “Why don’t we try this.” I don’t remember. It’s a long time. It’s fifty years ago. I don’t actually remember. It’s just that on the odd jazz radio show when I’m going through towns or whatever, I would hear something, and that’s usually when my ear caught it. Like, my ear caught the other day Jill Scott, who is very new to me. She’s not who I would say….like John Legend who, although a great singer, is not a jazz singer. But my goodness, they’re doing something wonderful.
Eddie didn’t invite closeness. Jon Hendricks is a different kind of person. He’s more extroverted. That’s just how people are.
Mark Murphy for “Memories of You” – (6-6-03):
MURPHY: It’s a nice title.
TP: You said in the last liner notes by James Isaacs that you make concept records and make records that are just songs. Where would this one fall?
MURPHY: Well, this would be a concept of remembering…well, exactly what it said — “Remembering Joe.” I have asked a few people, who… I sometimes forget how old I am, and I said, “You remember Joe Williams, don’t you?” And these kids say “no.” And I can’t believe it! Even with kids who are supposed to know something about jazz. But there you go.
TP: When did you first hear Joe Williams?
MURPHY: It was very lucky that Milt Gabler heard me just before Joe broke, because what I do is not blues, but… I’m wondering sometimes if he would have used me then.
TP: On this record, you go into the full depth of Joe Williams, that he was a singer and then sang other things, and was always influenced by a blues mentality, but wasn’t necessarily per se a blues singer.
MURPHY: Well, we call it urban blues, that he was a Midwestern, big-city… No, you’d have to call him a blues singer. But he did love ballad singers, too. He loved to sing ballads. But he, of course, never got to do that until he got on his own gigs with Norman, because the Basie stuff or the big band is what the audience came to hear.
TP: I interrupted you when you were going to tell me about your early experiences with Joe Williams.
MURPHY: Well, there weren’t many. Well, he was always gracious to me and outwardly friendly, and not… There wasn’t a bitchy streak in him. And he had to go through some long waiting periods — and those waiting periods do strange things to people — before he got… I would say he was about 40 when he got hot with Basie. But he had NOT a trace of bitterness, and that’s very hard to escape in this business.
TP: Are you sort of saying you come out of a not so dissimilar set of aesthetic experiences? That you have a kind of natural affinity for his sound or for his musical personality?
MURPHY: Well, see, the thing is that I really…and he…probably were the last developed singers who came really out of the Swing Era. Because I grew up on Errol Garner and Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, who were, say, the last sort of big band developments of that era, before the goddamn guitar took over. And I’d say he probably was another of that ilk. So it wasn’t difficult for me to like his whole concept and enjoy… Because I swing. You see, it’s my Celtic roots that give me that ability. Like, Annie Ross was the timekeeper of Lambert-Hendricks-Ross. Have you ever seen a Scottish marching band? Well, they get out there, these plain-looking people, and they get a hypnotic… It’s intense! There’s very deep Celtic roots in the formings of jazz, too.
TP: But that’s a real root for you.
MURPHY: Yeah. Sure.
TP: You were raised in Syracuse?
MURPHY: 26 miles north of there, in a little town called Fulton near the lakeshore, near Oswego. For us, in those days, Syracuse was the big city.
TP: Was there a big band there, or a jazz scene?
MURPHY: There was more like a small bop scene. We had our own little beatnik scene there. Not recognized at that time. Because at that time, about five years later, out came On The Road, which was reminiscences of Jack ten years ago, say, from ’60 back to ’50 and ’45 to ’50, of his reminiscences of those days. As did I and Joe, he bridged the swing into bop into modern jazz eras. Then they get fuzzy in there; you can’t tell the lines any more. But in there was a powerful swing. Nobody was ashamed of it. The moment Birth of the Cool came out, boom, everything just cooled down. I show that sometimes, in my stage performances, how the dancing changed, so that nobody even dared to smile. Because Miles didn’t smile. And he couldn’t understand why Louis Armstrong smiled so much. [LAUGHS]
TP: No more Lindyhoppers after Birth of the Cool.
MURPHY: That’s it! It wasn’t cool to show your aerobic side.
TP: Although they do say that when Charlie Parker played a dance, it was something else. The Audubon Ballroom or something. But this is a different type of band than on the last few records for High Note.
MURPHY: Yeah, I wanted to go with… The first thing I fear is that people will say, “Oh, we love it, but boy, you sure miss that Basie band.” So we tried, with a very small budget, to… It worked, especially on the introduction to “The Comeback.” That’s why I started out with that, because it really grinds in like the clappers. Jesus, I was one of the last people to dance to Count Basie with Freddie Greene and him there at some Grammy party…it must have been in the ’70s in L.A., and… You couldn’t not dance to it.
TP: There are some singers who are going to do what they do regardless of what the rhythm section is doing, but you don’t seem to be one of those.
MURPHY: I just enjoyed being able to relax and let the swing part of come right out. It’s right back to my roots, too. It was a very mellow recording experience for me, I must say. Grady Tate is something else. Not everybody can ride a cymbal like that.
TP: Were all the tunes chosen by you? How did you go about selecting repertoire?
MURPHY: Norman Simmons faxed me a few lists, and I went over it and picked songs I liked. But I wanted a lot of blues in there, because I like to sing it, although I’m not considered a blues singer — but I do love to sing it. I suppose they’ll say, “How come you didn’t do, ‘All Right, Okay, You Win.'” I don’t know. It just didn’t seem to fall in there.
TP: You certainly inhabit them all with your own personality. It’s a great homage because it’s all you dealing with these great tunes. On some of these records, you’ve gone into detail on your responses to each song. “The Comeback.”
MURPHY: Well, see, I also was a Peggy Lee freak.
TP: She liked you, too, right?
MURPHY: [LAUGHS] I don’t know whether she did or not. She was a strange broad. But she took “The Comeback” and did it [sings striptease beat] much slower. Which worked for her, and the record is powerful! It was in those Decca days after “Lover” when she really started shouting out. That HAD to be in there. So I said we’ve got to do that and “In The Evening,” which is a lovely blues, and “Every Day.” Those had to be in there, I think. And “All Right, Okay,” somehow didn’t settle in. So I didn’t force anything in there.
TP: “Every Day” is an interesting arrangement. It starts with a James Brown funk line and then goes into K.C. swing.
MURPHY: That’s all Norman’s idea. I just let him go.
TP: So basically, he presented you these arrangements and you came in and flowed with them.
TP: Did you just go into the studio and hit, or…
MURPHY: We had at least session with me and him to make sure the keys were okay. I’m a stickler for tempo, so sometimes… Until I find my groove, I don’t want to see it yet. So we had to fool around with some tempo changes sometimes. But that’s all. One reason I felt smiling about it is that it did fall into place very easily — for me. Bill Easley and Paul Bollenbeck were…oh, it was just natural to everybody. Did you listen to the blues chorus that Norman plays just before I start to sing on “In The Evenin’?” That’s such a far-out harmonic conception, but it is blues. Stuff like that was thrilling to me.
TP: What was your association with “In The Evenin'”?
MURPHY: I always loved the way that Quincy and Ray Charles did “I’m Gonna Move Way Up On The Outskirts Of Town.” I wanted to get something like that in that particular blues.
TP: Where would you mostly be gigging at the time you came to New York? What sort of rooms were you playing in then?
MURPHY: In some of those things I was playing piano for myself, and I don’t play well, never did, but I could get a few gigs. [LAUGHS] Most of the time I got paid. One time the guy said, “Come here a minute,” and he gave me some money and said, “I’m going to take you to the railroad station.” [LAUGHS] I was sitting there in a tuxedo, and he just left me there, and I had to wait all night for a train. So once in a while that would happen. But New York was a pretty brutal town in those days. You know the movie Sweet Smell of Success? It was those days. Nobody had tried to pretty up New York, like Giuliani did with plants and flowers and trees. Now it’s a stunning city. It was then, too, but it was hard-ass. It was…
TP: Everything was mobbed-up then.
MURPHY: Well, okay. There was in Vegas, too. And that was good for us because they liked jazz. The first guy that spoiled all that was Howard Hughes. Then he sold it all to Trump, and that fucked everything up. No more jazz. No more swing.
TP: But in your twenties in New York, when you would play jazz gigs, would they be in the Village? Would they be Midtown? Did you play uptown?
MURPHY: I used to play at a joint called the Toast, which was over on First Avenue a little bit up from the Living Room, one of those rooms where you could sit in easy chairs. Those were big then, with piano-singers and piano trios. Out on the West Coast, people like Paige Cavanaugh were doing that. Matt Dennis and Bobby Troup came out of that sort of era, although Bobby Troup was a little more previous to that.
TP: Were you ever singing gigs where you’d be needing to access the blues side of your personality? Or was that something that’s always there?
MURPHY: Probably that would have come out more in the latest ’50s and ’60s, when for the first time I got to having sort of a regular band, out of Cincinnati, which I would take wherever I could. That wasn’t very many places. But I did get them into New York once or twice. In that era, I did some blues stuff. Because out of that era came my hanging at the Showplace in the Village, where Roger Kellaway was appearing, and I got him his first record date, and that was that This Side Of The Blues album. So I always had that connection, and there were one or two or three absolute blues lyrics in that record. Most of them were what we call blues songs, like “Blues In The Nights.” I’m fascinating with introducing my kids now to Harold Arlen, because all of his songs are blues, but they’re songs. Jesus, “Blues In The Night” is a fantastic piece of material! Or “The Man That Got Away.” If you get the right blues groove from the band, the singer, if she or he has got it, can really dig into that. But it’s hard sometimes for them to hear that.
TP: Well, for “Memories Of You,” you put on the verse. An extended rubato verse.
MURPHY: Well, I always liked to do that, the verse.
TP: Well, I never heard anyone do the verse for “Memories of You,” though my experience isn’t comprehensive.
MURPHY: Well, it has a line to and from periods of my life when… I found out Gregory Hines was collecting my records, and he came upon the stage in Vegas with his purple tap shoes, and tapped with us on a blues. I think it was a Wardell Gray…the one about the girl… “Farmer’s Market.” That’s all blues. But then, one night, I was driving around San Francisco, and KJAZ, god bless the memory, played this tune called “My Old Friend,” and this singer I had never heard before. It was like, “Jesus Christ, this guy is doing everything I want my kids to do.” And I pulled over, and if it wasn’t fuckin’ Gregory Hines! He did three tracks on a record of a drummer…he was on my blues album… Anyway, that’s how I discovered that he was really now my favorite singer. But his rendition of this song, “My Old Friend” (I don’t know who wrote it), was about Eubie Blake. Evidently, they were real close family chums in his evolution up from the Hines, Hines & Dad. But my God, can he sing! I don’t have any contact with him now. But I’m literally on my knees begging him to get into the studio again. I think he got stung by that session he did with Luther Vandross which was supposed to be a Pop thing, and it didn’t happen.
TP: How many of these songs were part of your repertoire before you made this album?
MURPHY: I do “Close Enough For Love” quite a bit. It’s a ballad just for piano, a haunting song — I’ve always dug it. Most of the others were not in the repertoire I’ve been doing, say, for the past thirty years. Outside of the closeness of some of the blues in the Kerouac stuff. It was, I would say, slightly more sophisticated.
TP: So you had to assimilate lyrics for ten new songs, basically.
MURPHY: Well, I purposely chose things… I have a horrible absence now of memory for words. The music is not the problem, but man, do I help with the words, just to remember them. So I didn’t want to be struggling on a date with a lot of things that weren’t part of me.
TP: What are saying about you approached the material and the date? Because it all sounds like it’s part of you. There’s barely a note that doesn’t sound like it.
MURPHY: I wanted everything to be really copasetic and organic with me, like stuff I grew up with or… That for me was a departure. For the last few years I’ve been bringing in stuff that was new to me, because I liked it or because I had written it and so on.
TP: Specifically on the records for High Note?
MURPHY: Yes, because I had a New York band that I loved and could do that sort of thing.
TP: Lee Musiker is a very accomplished arranger type of pianist.
MURPHY: Yes, but he is also for me a very emotionally harmonic one. It’s strange when… Yeah, it’s something singers go through. Peggy kept Jimmy Rowles for so long that they began not to get on well together, because they were too familiar with one another. But she finally found that Lou Levy, “the great white fox,” could approximate what Jimmy played. She said, “What band are you going to use?” and I told her Jimmy Rowles, Joe Mondragon and Shelley Manne. “Oh, she said. “Sounds like I should have been there.”
TP: How about “Squeeze Me”?
MURPHY: I haven’t done it for years, but it is a gorgeous piece. Right out of Ellingtonia. As is, to my ears, the playing of Bill Easley. It was so Ellingtonia. Well, I used to love Basie, too. But Duke would bring the whole Harlem Renaissance with him wherever he went. He had dancers and Kay Davis was leaning against the edge of the stage with no microphone and one of these revealing gowns and singing these vocalese things. He was a fascinator, that Duke Ellington.
TP: You saw him a lot.
MURPHY: As much as possible.
TP: Was Louis Armstrong someone whose singing you paid a lot of attention to as a young singer?
MURPHY: No. It took me a long time to get used to what Billie Holiday was doing, because it seemed almost wrong — until I heard her sing that series of stuff she did with Oscar Peterson. Then I understood that she was naturally back-phrasing, and then I got fascinated with how she almost fucked up but didn’t because her style was what it was. You were hearing a style that nobody else could do. Lee Wiley was that way, too. Never sang a bad note, never sang a bad song, never had a bad track on a record, every record she made was better than the last one. But few people remember her today.
TP: But Louis Armstrong wasn’t a strong influence.
MURPHY: No. Well, the giant of jazz he was…
TP: But in the ’50s a lot of people didn’t like him.
MURPHY: No, because Miles really had made Louis look a little corny. Whether he wanted to or not, I don’t know. But you can say that Bobby McFerrin did the same thing in the ’80s, quite purposefully, I think sometimes, too… He made a lot of singers look corny. Because he could do the acrobatics of his kind of vocalese in his new way. He sort of intellectualized what… I do his solo on “Freddie Freeloader,” the Miles Davis solo is done on the record by…. He made a record of “Take Five,” a big hit… He’s a tall, skinny guy…
TP: Sorry, I’m no help.
MURPHY: Anyway, a lot of people my age could not sort of easily take Louis Armstrong.
TP: Interesting, because the timbral liberties you take remind me of him in some strange way. Maybe it’s because you’re singing repertoire like “Memories of You” and “Squeeze Me.”
MURPHY: See, that’s a problem in style, too, for some people. He was doing things that no other singer had ever done, say, technically — like starting scat singing (with Bing Crosby, by the way) — and, covered up by this sound style which a lot of people found unattractive to listen to, were these innovations. So by the end, you sort of just took Louis. He was the guy that came out with the wet handkerchief and did those cute little trumpet solos. But he had, in his day, innovated trumpet playing into something it had never been before, like Miles did in his day.
TP: Speaking of Miles, “If I Were A Bell” seems very much in Miles’ style.
MURPHY: Well, he’s sort of more my basic sound anyway, out of the Birth of The Cool. And then, my God, those… I call him the Picasso of Jazz, because he never stopped reinventing himself. I was able to do that myself until the last album called Song Of The Geese, which we couldn’t sell in the United States, because the business had changed so much in the ’90s. By the time I’d conceived the album, by the time I had it done, the whole business had done another flip-flop. Some day I’ll tell the whole story of that. It ended up in a warehouse in Jersey, and the freaks have got all the copies, and there aren’t any left. But it is an exquisite expression of what I wanted to do.
TP: So “If I Were a Bell” was Norman Simmons’ arrangement, and you just hit the groove and followed along.
MURPHY: Yeah. “Close Enough For Love” was all Norman, too. That was a new concept for me behind it. Because I like to do it just very slow and very understated.
TP: I never heard Joe Williams do “Love You Madly.” On “I Got It Bad” you do the verse again.
MURPHY: Yeah. I LOVE that verse! And nobody does it. Then you get into…there’s several verses in that tune. And the trickiness. I forget the writer’s name right now, but the trickiness of the melody…it can trip you up so easily. It’s a very difficult song to sing correctly. But I really wanted to do that one with the verse for this record.
Norman said that Joe did “S’posin'” nearly every night, that he loved the tune and the swing of it — just the joy part.
TP: “A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry” is a great urban ballad.
MURPHY: Yeah. We did that in one take. It was really like a little black-and-white movie there.
TP: So you’ve done homages to Nat Cole and now Joe Williams. Any other male singers you’ve done that with?
MURPHY: No. Nat and Joe were the greatest to me. Nat, my God, he would sing so effortlessly and just fracture you with what swing was and what syncopation is. I scream at my kids, “For God’s sake, learn the time step” or “bring in some brushes.” Then I put them right up with the drummer and make them watch his hands, and try to make them sing with their voice what he plays with his hands and feet. And it works. Once in a while, it works!
TP: Most singers, when they scat, it sounds artificial, but it’s very organic with you. Are you very self-analytical about your singing, about your records?
MURPHY: No. I hardly ever listen to my records. Once in a while I hear them now on the radio, and this is the time I can, “Oh, Jesus, I was good that day.” Because you’re so close to it and you’re so… I don’t want to be hyper-analytical. I want to do it, let it out and then go on to the next one. So that I don’t become hung up with self-criticism. That can really fuck your head up.
TP: It can really hang you up the most, right? But I wonder, do you think of yourself as being stylistically unique as a singer?
MURPHY: Well, see, I never considered myself a stylist. I was always a creative singer. If you say there’s a singer still singing now who is a stylist, and everything comes out stamped like the last one… In a sense, the Sinatra records were the genius of Stylism. Because he did what the crowd wanted, because that was what he did, so he did it.
Then there was also this question of me… It’s amazing that I made what little impact I did make when I was at Capitol, because they had… First of all, they were making all that money with the Kingston Trio, and that’s a problem in itself! They made more money for them I think than Sinatra sales. Peggy’s sales were sometimes large, and George Shearing was there, and Dean Martin, and then Murphy was down somewhere… I was just trying to do something that nobody had ever done before, in a sense. Now, some singers don’t have to try to do that, because they are stylists. But I had to invent ways of doing things differently. Because every time I would start over again, I’d find that all the bases were loaded, so I had to go out somewhere where they couldn’t go, and so I had to go, say, far out on the edge of jazz. People say I’m a risk-taker, I’m on the edge. But I had to be there, because that was the only place that wasn’t overcrowded.
TP: So whatever style evolved, or whatever sound people recognize Mark Murphy by, evolved from your running away from being a stylist. Because you have a sound anyone who appreciates singing would recognize.
MURPHY: It’s a discussion that can go on forever. It’s very, how do you say, quixotic; you’re on quicksand there.
TP: But was the zeitgeist when you were coming up the notion of having your own sound and distinguishing yourself with a sound?
MURPHY: I guess the thought was they’ve taken me because I do something different. See, I was just at the edge of the last… Joe Williams was the last of singers like me, who were before… Because as we were beginning and making our first successes, undermining all that was “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and then the guitars took over, and then the ’60s happened, and the shit hit the fan. Anybody could get up and sing a song for the children. [Herman’s Hermits style] “Oh, my, I’m walking down the street, I look a little…” Anything could go. [LAUGHS] I had to put my jazz book away for ten years, the ’60s and ’70s.
TP: You were acting, too, right?
MURPHY: Well, yeah. I was living in England mostly in the ’60s. The economy got so bad there, like it’s getting here, and I had to go out… A girlfriend of mine was an actress, and she said, “Why don’t you go see Margaret.” So I went to see this lady, and I bluffed my way into a couple of roles. Then even that got scarce. Cleo Laine started making a success in New York, and I was surprised by that. So I said, “Maybe something is happening here.” So I went back and poked around, and found that there was a slight resurgence.
TP: In the way you treat a lyric or treat the arc of a lyric, is there an analogy at all to acting?
MURPHY: Sure. It is my love of words and emotional-motivational… It’s like if I say to you the “emotional-motivational fuck,” will you understand what I mean? That you get the words and you shove them in and you bring them out again. You do all sorts of things with them. That’s my fascination with this music, that you can do it that way, and it will be accepted.
TP: With this set of repertoire, do you feel you were able to do that? Or is there a function that overrides some of your autonomy?
MURPHY: You say function. I would get probably a bit funkier actually in my own… If I’m doing these songs, some of them I probably would take at slightly slower tempos, so I can get where I want, where I can do that… Like, if you come see me at Birdland or Joe’s Pub some time, you’ll see I take it further. It’s a joy to me that I am able to do this. Some days I wonder if the audience is receiving this, but most of the time they are. Because they know that I do this, and that’s what they come for — to see if I ever really will fall off the edge.
TP: It does seem a very generational approach, the way Shirley Horn does it, or even Freddy Cole…
MURPHY: Yeah! Like Jackie & Roy’s audience towards the end would fill up in San Francisco with all people with white hair, who were the hippest of the hip fifty years ago.
MURPHY: Would you remember a place called the San Remo? Kerouac used to hang out there. That’s the first time I ever heard a girl rush over the bar and say, “It’s J.F.K., baby!” — because he’d just been elected. Sawdust on the floor. I stood outside two years ago, when he was filming it, and read some Kerouac, and then we moved to some other places. So that thing… Well, look, it’s all a tourist trap now, but that thing then was real, and at least I got inon the end of real. [LAUGHS]
TP: You could make a song out of that one.
MURPHY: Right. [SINGS] “At least I got in at the end of real.”
MURPHY: When I was a kid up in Fulton, the little kids, some of the musicians or jazz lovers…there were three or four of us in Fulton at the time… I don’t think Symphony Sid, WJZ from Birdland… I don’t think that they had FM then. So sometimes at night the sounds would drift up to us, starting at about midnight. We’d listen as long as we could, and then fall asleep, and whoever fell asleep last would wake up the other one — “Well, I stayed up til 4 a.m.!” So it was kind of an exciting time in that kiddie sense.
TP: Developing your hanging chops at an early age.
MURPHY: Well, I used to be a great hanger, but that diminishes with time!
Mark Murphy (“Memories Of You: Remembering Joe Williams“):
“I’ll never forget a concert at Kent State University. I looked up and backstage, and there grinning in the wings Joe Williams stood, big as life. Ever since then his blues picked me up more times than I can remember. I was — as all were — so TOUCHED by his attempt to leave that Vegas hospital and die at home — poor baby didn’t get there — but his spirit is up there! Maybe he’ll give his blues crown to the great Ernie Andrews now…” — Mark Murphy.
“I sometimes forget how old I am,” says Mark Murphy, “and I ask my students, ‘You remember Joe Williams, don’t you?’ But these kids mostly say ‘no.’ And I can’t believe it! They’re supposed to know something about jazz. So the concept of this album would be exactly what it says — remembering Joe.”
In case you’ve forgotten, Williams made his name singing the blues in front of the “New Testament” Count Basie Orchestra, solidifying his fame in later solo years with repertoire that mixed his blues, ballads and jazz songbook classics, delivered with a trademark velvety, fluent baritone, peerless diction, and deep soul. He was also a famously classy guy.
“Joe Williams was always gracious to me,” says Murphy, who moved to New York in 1954, a year before Williams hit the jackpot with “Every Day I Have The Blues.” “There wasn’t a bitchy streak in him. He had to go through some long waiting periods — and those waiting periods do strange things to people — before he got hot with Basie. But he had NOT a trace of bitterness, and that’s very hard to escape in this business.”
A “singer’s singer” for half a century, Murphy’s c.v. cites close to 40 albums and seven Grammy nominations. He boasts a staunch international fan base that includes quality peer-groupers — Kurt Elling built a career off his style, and Shirley Horn and Gregory Hines are avid admirers — and enough critical plaudits to fill a few scrapbooks. Still, he knows a thing or two about long waiting periods, and shares with Williams that sense of perspective he describes. Like Williams, Murphy hears time like a drummer, his diction is immaculate, and he cuts to the emotional essence of a lyric. Also like Williams, he’s aged gracefully. No one would ever use the adjective “velvety” to describe Murphy’s instrument, but it remains resonant, flexible and magnificently textured, with a gravelly ache, at the service of its master’s restlessly improvisational imagination.
“I’m one of the last developed singers who came really out of the Swing Era,” Murphy remarks. “I grew up on Erroll Garner and Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, who were, let’s say, the last sort of big band developments of that era, before the goddamn guitar took over. Joe probably was another of that ilk. So it wasn’t difficult for me to like his whole concept, that Midwestern, big-city, urban blues feeling. Because I swing.”
“I never considered myself a stylist,” he continues. “I was always a creative singer, trying to do something nobody had done before. Some singers don’t have to try to do that, because they are stylists. In a sense, the Sinatra records were the genius of Stylism; he did what the crowd wanted, because that was what he did, so he did it. But I had to invent ways to do things differently. Every time I started over, I’d find that all the bases were loaded, so I had to go out somewhere they couldn’t go, far out on the edge of jazz. People say I’m a risk-taker, that I’m on the edge. I had to be there, because that was the only place that wasn’t overcrowded.
“It took me a long time to get used to what Billie Holiday was doing, because it seemed almost wrong — until I heard her sing that series with Oscar Peterson. Then I understood that she was naturally back-phrasing, and then I got fascinated with how she almost screwed up but didn’t because her style was what it was. You were hearing a style that nobody else could do. Lee Wiley was that way, too. Never sang a bad note, never sang a bad song, never had a bad track on a record, every record she made was better than the last one. But few people remember her today.”
Other jazz singers take extreme liberties with a lyric, but Murphy is sui generis in his ability to approach singing like a character actor, conveying the arc of a song by isolating words and syllables with precisely calibrated accents, inflections and melismas. “I love words, and I love to put them through an emotional-motivational fuck,” he says. “You get the words and shove them in and bring them out again. You do all sorts of things with them. That’s my fascination with jazz, that you can do it that way, and it will be accepted.”
That Murphy weaves his seductive web on a set of 11 main-stem classics from Williams’ repertoire without distorting or detracting from their blues identity testifies to his gifts. Out of Fulton, New York, a small town near the shore of Lake Ontario about 25 miles north of Syracuse, Murphy evokes the days when he and a small group of fellow teen musicians and jazz lovers would stay up late to listen to Symphony Sid Torin broadcasting live from Birdland. “We had our own little beatnik scene there and in Syracuse; not recognized at that time,” says Murphy, whose most famous album is a musical adaptation of the writings of Beat King Jack Kerouac.
“Like Joe and I, Kerouac bridged the swing into bop into modern jazz eras,” Murphy says. “Then the lines get fuzzy; you can’t discern them any more. But a powerful swing was in there. Nobody was ashamed of it. The moment Birth of the Cool came out, boom, everything cooled down. I show that sometimes, in my stage performances, how the dancing changed. It wasn’t cool to show your aerobic side. Nobody even dared to smile. Miles didn’t smile. And he couldn’t understand why Louis Armstrong smiled so much. Miles actually made Louis look a little corny. Whether he wanted to or not, I don’t know. A lot of people my age could not sort of easily take Louis Armstrong, even though he was doing things that no other singer had ever done technically, like starting scat singing, and — covered up by this sound style which a lot of people found unattractive to listen to — were these innovations. You can say that Al Jarreau did the same thing in the ‘70s by re-Africanizing scat, and Bobby McFerrin did it in the ’80s, quite purposefully, I sometimes think, because of the way he intellectualized the acrobatics of his new kind of vocalese.”
Known for launching into his own brand of extravagant vocalese at the drop of a hat, Murphy sings barely a wordless syllable through the course of the recital. Helping him to swing the blues right is a killer rhythm section, comprising pianist Norman Simmons, who doubles as the date’s arranger, Monk Competition bass winner Daryl Hall, and drum giant Grady Tate.
“I’m not considered a blues singer,” he says. “But I do love to sing the blues. On this I wanted everything to be copasetic and organic, like the stuff I grew up with. That’s a departure. For the last few years I’ve been bringing in stuff that was new to me, because I liked it or had written it and so on.”
“Norman and I had a session to make sure the keys and tempos were okay,” Murphy says. “I’m a stickler for tempo — until I find my groove, I don’t want to see it yet. But that’s all. It fell into place very easily, and I enjoyed being able to relax and let the swing part of me come right out. It’s right back to my roots. A very mellow recording experience, I must say. Did you listen to the blues chorus that Norman plays just before I start to sing on ‘In The Evenin’?’ That’s such a far-out harmonic conception, but it is blues. Stuff like that thrilled me.”
Murphy’s testimony on “In The Evening” is a classic example of his art. Early in the verse, over a perfectly executed slow groove, he contracts and expands “eee-ve-ne-in” like he has a rubber band in his larynx, then reaches for the stars on “if I could HOLLER like a mountainjack, if-I-could-hol-ler-like-a-moun-tain-jack” — without ever making the flourishes seem excessive, rococo or precious, and never losing the thread of the narrative. On “The Comeback,” he floats like a butterfly over Grady Tate’s coal-digging shuffle, while on “Every Day” he sings the opening over a wicked Clyde Stubblefield-style funk backbeat, before the tune transitions to swing-like-a-gate Basie four/four. After this opening trilogy, you might be inclined forevermore to utter the blues and Murphy’s name in the same breath.
The Andy Razaf-Eubie Blake title track and Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad” are classics of the genre that Murphy describes as “blues songs.” Hearkening to his long ’50s apprenticeship in New York (“it was a brutal, hard-ass town in those days”), where the aesthetics of Broadway and cabaret were essential at certain venues, he articulates the full verse. He delves further into Ellingtonia with “Squeeze Me” and “Love You Madly,” on which Ella Fitzgerald, another Murphy advocate, put her indelible stamp in the ’60s.
“I saw Ellington as often as possible,” Murphy recalls. “Duke would bring the whole Harlem Renaissance with him wherever he went. He had dancers and Kay Davis was leaning against the edge of the stage with no microphone in one of these revealing gowns and singing these vocalese things. He was a fascinater.”
Murphy offers two homages to Miles Davis — “he’s my basic sound, out of Birth of the Cool.” Also by Razaf is “S’posin'” (“Norman said that Joe did ‘S’posin” nearly every night, he loved the swing of it — just the joy part”), which Miles recorded with John Coltrane in 1955, while the Murphy-Simmons treatment of “If I Were A Bell” hews to the way Miles did it with his quintets from 1956 to about 1962.
Bill Easley’s keening soprano intro and apropos obbligatos highlight Simmons’ arrangement of “Close Enough For Love,” one of the few tunes on this program that is part of Murphy’s regular book. “I like to do it very slow and understated, so this was a new concept for me,” Murphy says.
Simmons offers another vivid piano intro to the album-closer, “A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry,” a great urban ballad that was a Williams staple of the ’60s and ’70s. “It was like a little black-and-white movie,” Murphy remarks.
The different phases and cycles of Murphy’s nomadic life might inspire a filmmaker of a certain sensibility to shoot a black-and-white film noir, but he is sanguine.
“It’s a joy to me that I am able to do this,” he says. “Some days I wonder if the audience receives it, but most of the time they do. They know that I do this, and that’s what they come for — to see if I ever really will fall off the edge.”
“Would you remember a place called the San Remo?” he asks, referring to an Italian restaurant on the northwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village that was a favored hang for Kerouac and various other Village artistic types, Bohemians and political folk. “Sawdust on the floor. That’s the first time I ever heard a girl rush to the bar and say, ‘It’s J.F.K., baby!’ — because he’d just been elected. Two years ago someone was filming a documentary, and I stood outside the site and read some Kerouac before we moved to some other places. Look, it’s all a tourist trap now, but that thing then was real. At least I got in on the end of real!”