Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mark Murphy's Stolen Moments in Worcester

By Chet Williamson

Although he has appeared professionally in Worcester only a handful of times, jazz singer Mark Murphy has a deep history with this city going back generations.

His grandfather, Richard D. Murphy, was a president of the Worcester Manufacturing Company and according to a 1916 issue of Industry Week, a former manager of the employment department of the Wyman-Gordon Co.

It was also reported that he was also a superintendent of Bethel Mission in Worcester before moving to Fulton, NY to head the congregation there. Mark’s father, the late Dwight L. Murphy attended Clark University where he sang in the Varsity Quartet and was a soloist in the school’s glee club.

In an interview with Lee Mergner for Jazz Times, Mark said, “The voice is my father’s voice. I inherited it.”

Mark Murphy was born on March 14, 1932 in Syracuse, NY. It could be said, that this quintessential jazz singer was born to sing. Both his parents sang in the church choir and his grandmother was a church singer.

Best known for his lyrics to Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” as well as his work in the area known as vocalese – writing lyrics to pre-recorded jazz solos – Murphy has an extensive catalog reaching back to 1954.

In his interview with Jazz Times, Mark spoke further about his father, saying, “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.”

Mark’s father died at mysteriously at the age of 57. “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.”

As Mergner noted his father only witnessed the beginnings of his son’s long career as a jazz vocalist. “He was knocked out with my first album,” Mark said. “He sent it to all his friends and his old vocal teacher. He got it just in time because he died that year.”

After a 1960s TV appearance, James Gourgourous of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, mentioned the singer in his column: “Mark Murphy, a young singer who belted out a special selection last night on Steve Allen’s telecast, is a name at least some Worcesterites should identify.”

Gourgourous noted the city connections, before adding, “There’s music in this young Murphy, from way back, and we’re anxious to hear more from this “skat jazz” artist.”
Throughout the 1980s, Murphy was in regular rotation on the Monday night jazz series at the El Morocco in Worcester, where he appeared with Richie Cole. The shows were always an attraction.

In an October 1989 review of a Murphy performance at the El, writer Peter Landsdowne said: Only a fool would venture out on a cold and rainy fall night like last night, only a fool, that is, and a small coterie of jazz fans bent on hearing jazz singer Mark Murphy.

"Murphy, who returned to El Morocco Restaurant's Nile Lounge after a hiatus of too many years, drew only several dozen jazz fans to the club, but they were the true aficionados, the jazz cognoscenti, the inner circle of the inner circle.

Among them were several local jazz musicians, a handful of jazz disc jockeys, and the group of die-hard jazz fans that make every event, come rain or come shine.”

The review ran in the Telegram & Gazette. Landsdowne also noted that, Murphy "lit into an extended jazz rap, during which he told the faithful few that 'if you're sitting out there tonight, then you can divide your life into two parts: Before Jazz and After Jazz. You had a life before jazz, but once you heard jazz, you knew that your life would never be the same again.'

"These and other observations on the jazz life elicited some enthusiastic applause," Landsdowne said. "Murphy quickly moved into "Moody's Mood for Love," which began life as a lyric interpretation by vocalese pioneer Eddie Jefferson of a James Moody saxophone solo. George Benson covered the tune a few years back, but Murphy's version was much more in keeping with the song's bop roots. The singer turned the composition into an improvisation on an improvisation by freely interpreting both the song's lyrics and its melody. He ended the tune by singing the name 'James Moody!' with a fast shake mindful of a jazz trumpeter's vibrato.

"Murphy also took some time to work over some standards. He sang the rarely heard verse to Johnny Green's 'Body and Soul' with just [Dave] Philips' soft piano chords in the background and later borrowed alto saxophonist Charlie Parker's patented introduction to 'All the Things You Are' to set up a bopping romp on that tune. On 'It Might As Well Be Spring,' the singer cleverly segued to 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.'

"Murphy can sing everything from bop to blues, but he took a detour through Brazil last night. He fervently intoned Gene Lees' poignant lyrics to Milton Nascimento's lilting 'Bridges' and somehow transformed Antonio Carlos Jobim's usually brisk 'Dindi' into a tender ballad."

Today, Murphy’s career now spans greater than a half century. Sometime around 2008 it was rumored that the singer was in the early throes of Alzheimer’s.

In 2011 Mergner set the record straight. He said that according to manager/agent Jean-Pierre Leduc, the reports come from a “misdiagnosis and subsequent prescription for a medicine, whose side effects included symptoms like confusion and disorientation.

He was prescribed medicine for Alzheimer’s because that’s what they thought he had,” said 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.”

Sheila Jordan and Murphy
Leduc also stated that Murphy is living at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in New Jersey. “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.”

Now in his eighties -- as of this writing -- Murphy is still out there performing, singing forever more. In July of 2013, a celebration of his career in jazz was held for Murphy in New York City.

The publicity for the show read: “America's greatest living jazz singer will be celebrated by an impressive group of guests on this special evening produced by Lunched Management, in collaboration with the Jazz Foundation of America. Join us at the wonderfully intimate Joe's Pub to honor the great Mark Murphy, who is also scheduled to perform.”

Among those who performed were Sheila Jordan, Theo Bleckmann, Janis Siegel, Tessa Souter, Francesco Pini, Jay Clayton, Amy London, Roz Corral, Milton Suggs, among others. A trio consisting of pianist Alex Minasian, bassist Brandi Disterheft and drummer Steve Williams supported the cast.

The date also marked is the release of Murphy's latest recorded project, A Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn, issued by Gearbox Records.

The singer’s influence can be heard in a variety of today’s jazz singers including, Kurt Elling, Ian Shaw, and local singer Richard Jarvis, who sings uncannily like Murphy, especially on tunes he learned from the master: “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “Never Let Me Go,” and “I Fall in Love too Easily.”

I like the way he does everything,” Jarvis said. “He uses all the notes in the scale and he knows how to use it. He’s the best.”

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