© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“When Mark Murphy died in October 2015, the world lost one of the greatest jazz singers in history. Murphy was the last of his kind, a hipster of the Kerouac generation, -who rejected the straight life of prosperity and numb consumerism. With a catalogue of more than 40 albums under his own name, Mark Murphy was a consummate improviser, who never sang a song the same way twice. He could have enjoyed a successful mainstream career in the vein of Mel Torme or Jack Jones. But his ambition was greater -to be an artist, to rebel against the commercial music industry and to carry the jazz vocal flame wherever it led him.
Murphy was a master of scat and vocalese, of songwriting and the spoken word. He expanded the jazz singing repertoire, adding his own lyrics to instrumentals like John Coltrane's Naima, Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay, and Oliver Nelson's Stolen Moments. Unrivalled as an interpreter of ballads, he was able to express longing and regret to a degree lacking in any other jazz singer.
For years he roamed the world, playing thousands of gigs. Rediscovered in the Eighties by a new audience of jazz dancers, and again in the 21st century by a digital generation who invited him to guest on their recordings, he remains a crucial though unjustly neglected figure in vocal jazz.
This Is Hip is more than a biography: it also explores Murphy's innovative approaches both to singing and to the teaching of singers. Based on numerous interviews with those who knew him best, the book delves into a performing and recording career that spanned 60 years and earned him five Grammy nominations.”
This is Hip: The Life of Mark Murphy by Peter Jones [Bristol, CT/Sheffield UK: Equinox Publishing LTD, 2018] is another in Equinox Publishing Ltd.’s Popular Music Series.
The series is edited by the esteemed Jazz author, critic and broadcaster, Alyn Shipton and is comprised of “... books that challenge established orthodoxies in popular music studies, examine the formation and dissolution of canons, interrogate histories of genres, focus on previously neglected forms or engage in archaeologies of popular music.
Valerie Hall, the Editorial and Marketing Manager at Equinox is offering JazzProfiles readers a 25% discount using the code Jazz when ordering from the Equinox website.
If you have ever wanted to know what made the vocal styling of Mark Murphy unique, then you need look no farther this remarkable biography by Peter Jones as it “... explores Murphy’s innovative approaches both to singing and to the teaching of singers.”
But don’t look for any straight-line answers explaining Mark’s sui generis approach, rather, these are revealed throughout the book in much the same fashion as this “gnomic definition of a Jazz singer that Mark gave to Michael Bourne in a 1975 interview in which he -
"... elaborated on the difference between a jazz singer and a cabaret singer. He said there was a singer in New York who used to sing 'Last Night When We Were Young'. And on the same word in every performance, a tear went down her cheek." But real jazz singing, according to Murphy, is not like that. "He said, 'Everything changes as you're even singing the song with musicians. It's like basketball. You're dribbling the ball as you're heading toward the basket, and you have this idea that you're going to shoot a lay-up, and then somebody bumps you, and now you're going sideways, so then you're doing a jump-shot. Things change, as you do them.'" [Emphasis mine; “gnomic” is used to describe something spoken or written that is short, mysterious and not easily understood, but often seems wise.].
Stylistically and thematically, Mark Murphy was constantly changing and these adjustments are reflected in the recordings that are arranged chronologically in Peter’s Discography Appendix - another great service of his work - to hear the constant evolution of styles, tendencies, techniques and approaches that Mark employed in his singing.
Here are some selected excerpts which I hope underscore how Mr. Jones’ work is in the service of helping the reader understand Mark’s distinctiveness; what made him so special and at the same time different than many Jazz singers.
Jazz is all about being truthful; who you are comes out in the way you express yourself in the music. The hope is that in so doing, you develop an instantly recognizable, individual sound. A few bars was usually all it took to identify that it was Mark Murphy singing.
By way of background:
“The late 1940s and early 1950s, when Murphy was reaching adulthood, were a time of maximum cool and hipness in jazz. Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions took place on the cusp of the 1950s. And Miles was the musician Mark Murphy admired the most; like Betty Carter, he wanted to make his voice sound like Miles's trumpet. Jazz defined Mark Murphy to such an extent that in later life he would tell audiences, "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."
He lived much of his life below the radar; as he criss-crossed the world, from San Francisco to London, from Japan to Australia, and throughout Europe, even his family and close friends often had no idea where he was. His nomadic life included long periods with no fixed address, living in a camper van or sleeping on people's sofas.
The truth is, Mark Murphy never fitted in. He grew up gay at a time when being gay was literally unspeakable - a crime both legally and socially. He didn't fit in with the sexually straight world, nor - since he was never fully 'out' - with the overtly gay world. He was white when many thought that jazz singers ought to be black. You could be white and a crooner, but Murphy wasn't a crooner. He was an eccentric beatnik-cum-hippie whose distrust of the straight world of business was such that it restricted his career, even as it allowed him artistic freedom. He didn't fit in with the jazz establishment. He was a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool rebel, who identified closely with the acid jazz "kids" he met in London in the late 80s, because, like him, they were part of an underground culture - subversive, passionate, devoid of cynicism.”
The formative phase of Mark’s singing began when:
“Murphy realized in retrospect that he had come on the jazz scene during a period of transition: younger audiences were beginning to turn away from big band music in the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman style. He saw himself the last of the "developed" singers. As time went on he came to love the bluesy style of Joe Williams, who sang with Lionel Hampton's Orchestra in the 1940s, and with Count Basie in the 50s. He learned about ballads as well as bop and blues, particularly the way Peggy Lee sang them. "I send out a beam of attention, like radar. I learned this from Peggy Lee. I used to watch her on Steve Allen's show. Peggy would sit there very still; she never took her eyes off the camera. You'd feel as though she was singing just to you. I see inside the song I'm singing as though I'm watching in a movie, always drawing the picture with my words and sounds. This is art."”
The great science fiction Ray Bradbury once said - “You make yourself as you go” - and so it was with Mark Murphy - making himself into a Jazz singer:
“Asked many years later about the cloud of melancholy that seemed to follow him around, he said, "It goes with my jazz territory. I trace it back to my dues-paying days in New York City where I knew nothing, except that the music inside me had to come out... I walked around Manhattan like a child with his nose pressed against the window of some fabulous restaurant. I saw Frank Sinatra's impossibly blue eyes... Then I saw the blue eyes again - ice blue, ocean blue - on Maureen Stapleton on Eighth Avenue. Searching for an apartment, I ran into Paul Newman. There were those same eyes."
Stuck at the bottom of the jazz food chain, he was at least living the life. "I can remember so many things, like the time I was walking down 54th Street when I did my year as a night clerk at the Gotham Hotel, screwing up all that typing. And I saw Lena [Horne] and Billy Strayhorn walking along hand in hand and I was walking along 51st Street another day and Billie Holiday came bursting out of a bar like giving this guy hell she was with and things like that. I got there just in time to see the end of 52nd Street and the beginnings of Birdland."
Though it was tough for a newcomer like Murphy, the mid-1950s must have seemed like the ideal time to forge a career in jazz. It was, after all, the dominant genre of popular music, and singers were enjoying unprecedented popularity. But in other ways his timing was a little off. Too late for the big swing bands, he was also too early for rock and roll, and bebop singing was (and remained) out on the margin, thinly inhabited and way too niche for the mainstream audience. Nevertheless the established singers, most of whom had started out with big bands, had succeeded in becoming mainstream stars, their sales boosted by the popularity of the vinyl albums which were now replacing shellac 78 rpm records. Most of the music that sold well was jazz-influenced pop rather than jazz per se, but it was enthusiastically embraced by radio stations, by upmarket magazines like Esquire, Life and Playboy, and even by the new medium of television, which hosted shows like Art Ford's Jazz Party on the East Coast and, on the West Coast, Bobby Troup's Stars of Jazz series.
If Mark had learned anything from his father, it was the virtue of persistence.”
Good thing, too, as Mark was still himself on some of his earliest recordings on Capitol - This Could Be the Start of Something and the Hip Parade -
"I had tried to compromise, which of course was a mistake," Murphy explained in later years. "People who wanted those songs didn't want to hear me, and people who liked me didn't want to hear those songs. They printed too many copies and it sank. We were kind of traumatized."
Notwithstanding the great climate in Southern California, Mark figured out that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and -
“Murphy wasted no more time in LA. For some time he had been going back and forth from the coast, building a club and college audience back east, before finally deciding to quit LA for good. In New York, he made his way to the West 51SI Street offices of the jazz label Riverside Records - smaller than Decca or Capitol, but perhaps a more logical home for him and his particular talents and interests. Founded by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews, Riverside had an impressive modern jazz artist roster including Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, Cannonball Adderley, and Wes Montgomery, ….”
“Although Murphy himself didn't think he really found his voice until he hit 40 (i.e. in 1972), many of his fans regard Rah, his sixth album, as his best. Certainly, he seems at last to have found a style of his own. Ernie Wilkins's light, crisp backings sound hipper than those devised by Burns or Holman. The singer sounds relaxed, unburdened by the need to show off. Good material almost sings itself, and on this occasion he doesn't destroy it by over-emoting. In fact, he sounds like he's having a wonderful time. The production mix also gives more space to his voice, which in the Decca years sometimes seemed to be battling against the orchestration. Murphy also sounds as if he has been more closely miked.
Ballads like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" suggest a new maturity - no melodrama, simply a grown man looking back and wondering how things might have been. On "No Tears for Me", Murphy's love of theatricality hits exactly the right tone: Bap! (on the snare). Miss O'Malley, take a letter! as if he's in a stage play, and after the verse, he slides beautifully into the ballad proper, with its opulent Wilkins horn lines. There's also a rich, sensuous take on Neal Hefti's "Lil Darlin'", and a gloriously lunatic delivery of Annie Ross's lyrics to "Twisted", but it's when the needle bites into side two that the change really becomes apparent.
By now Murphy had fallen under the spell of Miles Davis' recordings with Gil Evans, and his version of "Milestones" is truly something new. His friend Jimmy Britt had written the lyrics to the tune, which had originally appeared on Davis's eponymous 1958 album. Murphy's increasingly distinctive scat is beautifully showcased by the fast-walking double bass which almost drops out in the bridge to increase the tension, rather like the 'drop' in house music, providing a certain euphoria when it comes back in. The ride has been such a thrill that we even forgive the slight wobble on his final note.”
But just as things started to come together for Mark in NYC, things changed - as they always do:
“On the face of it, things seemed to be going well. Mark had finally found a record label that catered for musicians like him. He'd had a hit single with his romantic pop version of "Fly Me to the Moon" backed with another strong tune, the earthy R&B-inflected "Why Don't You Do Right" He was getting booked at the Village Vanguard and the Village Gate in New York. And, no doubt helped by Gene Lees' support, he was voted New Star of the Year by the readers of Downbeat. But something wasn't right. He felt restless.
"In a way... I guess I was still trying to be a cabaret singer in a tuxedo, but singing the things I liked. It just didn't work," he recalled in 1980. The biggest problem was that public enthusiasm for jazz was on the wane in America, squeezed between the militantly anti-commercial free jazz movement and the new heavily promoted pop music. Jazz singers and players had enjoyed mainstream success in the previous decade, but now pop was snapping at their heels. Some of the biggest stars had started to feel the heat: …
So, like so many other Jazz musicians, Mark left the USA for Europe:
“It was in 1963, on his third visit, that he fell in love with London. "It was cheap, very charming, and yet to be discovered by the masses. It was fantastic!" And as luck would have it, his aunt Betty, the doctor, was working in a London hospital and had a flat there, providing Mark with a place to stay. "All this green! So many open spaces," he enthused. "That's what I like about London. Soho Square... great! …
It was also in London that he began to feel a little more comfortable in his own skin. Speaking of his life in the States, he told an interviewer years later, "I was a drag, man... Always sitting in the corner with my head down and not a nice person. Then I started drinking... then I stopped that... And then I came to Europe and I really learned to like myself mostly when I was in England, expanding my brain."
He soon became excited by the possibilities opened up by the imminent extension in broadcasting in the UK. In 1963, there were only two TV channels - ITV and BBC, which also ran three radio services. But a new upmarket BBC TV channel was planned for launch in April 1964.
By January 1964, Murphy was booked in London's premier jazz club, Ronnie Scott's, located in a basement below a gown manufacturer on Gerrard Street, Soho. Due to a long-standing Musicians' Union ban, American performers were still a relatively new phenomenon at the club. But over the years that followed, every American jazz artist of note appeared at Ronnie's, including former Riverside artists Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery.
At his debut gig on Monday 27th, Mark appeared with the Stan Tracey Trio - Tracey on piano, Ronnie Stephenson on drums and Malcolm Cecil on bass. The set included "A Lot of Livin’ to Do", "Jelly Jelly Blues", and "My Favorite Things" - complete with the lyrics that had so upset Richard Rodgers. According to a reviewer, Murphy also did a "savage" "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" in a medley with "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" And he was already singing Oscar Brown Jr.'s lyrics to Miles's "All Blues"
A contemporary reviewer picked up on certain tropes in Murphy's singing: "He has three main emotional forces with which he imbues his songs. He gave them full vent at his 1964 opening night at Ronnie Scott's.... First there is the mean, racy, abandoned mood - storming through numbers like 'Goody Goody’ or a hipped-up 'Hello Young Lovers'. Then he can sing with a sensitive, soft-pedalled poignancy, as for example, on 'I've Got You Under My Skin'. Murphy's interpretation of this is utterly different from all the others you've ever heard, all the way from its feelingful, pianissimo start to its high-powered climax. Third, Mark Murphy is a singer with a great sense of humor. He had us all grinning throughout his rendering of "Doodlin"' and guffawing at his cod version of 'Mack the Knife.'"
Mark loved the club, and became a regular there during the Sixties. "”
Once in London, Mark began to open up, both personally and professionally, and to expand into new areas to express his art, perhaps too much so at times. As Peter Jones describes it:
“Was Mark Murphy a middle-of-the-road entertainer or a serious jazz artist? In November 1966, the jazz critic Benny Green witnessed his gig opposite Freddie Hubbard at Ronnie Scott's, which had by now relocated to its present base in Frith Street. Green, whose rasping "East End" delivery made him an instantly recognizable voice on radio, was a highly knowledgeable critic with a forensic brain. His insight into Mark Murphy's singing style was pointed, and it highlighted an issue that many had noticed before, but few of whom had articulated with such precision.
In his book about the early days of Ronnie's, Green described the singer as "an intensely devoted artist with a good musical knowledge and almost limitless ambition. Murphy's chief fault seems to be connected with his desire to cram into every vocal all the harmonic complexities that one would normally look for only in the work of an instrumentalist. In reducing his voice to an instrument through which to express the words, Murphy sometimes complicates his material to the point where it disappears entirely. There is another end result of this kind of vocal daring. Each song, composed of chords, is given the same degree of intensity, so that the weightiness of one lyric is equated with the triviality of another. If Murphy were to lend a lighter touch to some of the lighter songs, the value of his recitals would immediately double. As it was on his debut at Scott's, admiration for the vocal gymnastics was always tempered by the regret that he was reducing the words too often to mere sounds."
But throughout his life, all attempts to cast Mark Murphy from some preexisting mold were doomed to failure. He was an educated middle-class man who never showed the slightest interest in money or the pursuit of a conventional career. He was a white man whose entire being was consumed with his love for jazz, which despite its hybrid origins has long been considered a "black" art form. …”
There is much merit in Benny Green’s assessment of what sometimes went wrong in Mark’s approach to Jazz singing.
Mark didn’t always succeed at what he was trying to pull off, but this is not unusual because in Jazz improvisation, one tends to fail more than one succeeds.
One must be brave and take chances and the more chances one takes the more risk of failure is involved; or one could play it safe and play only those things one knows one can pull off.
Based in London and performing in other European venues from time to time, the 1960s proved to be a transformative period in Mark’s career which Peter explains this way:
“The positive influence of Eddie [O’Sullivan, Mark’s partner] probably had a lot to do with this, as had the hard-won experience of performing day and night during his long stay in Europe. And perhaps too, as he approached 40, Mark had simply become more at ease with himself. But work in the UK had become scarce. … [So Mark turned more to acting]. … But soon even the acting work dried up. ...It was then  that he learned that his mother had died.”
The death of Mark’s mother brought him back to NYC, and after the details with his mother’s passing were sorted out.
“Mark, disillusioned with life in London, decided to stay and try again in America. For the time being, Eddie would have to remain behind, since he had no right of residence in the USA. People in the north-eastern cities still remembered Mark from the Fifties and early Sixties, played his records and offered him gigs, and so were the logical places for him to begin what was now his fourth career relaunch.
He settled initially in Buffalo, finding work there and in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Providence and Boston, albeit performing top-40 material. … To save money, Mark lived in a camper van …. ‘He was not fussy about his living situations,’ recalled Charles Cochran. … Whenever possible, the impecunious Murphy would stay with friends.”
Although initiated through the sadness associated with his mother’s death, Mark’s returned to NYC in the 1970s proved to be an auspicious one for as Peter notes:
“While in New York, Mark looked up his ex-manager Helen Keane, who had been managing Bill Evans for the past nine years. Gene Lees, who knew Keane well, described her as ‘the archetypal New York woman’ tough, clever, perceptive, realistic, but with a sensitivity she kept well hidden - especially from the macho world of jazz. One of her contacts was Joe Fields, who had just started a new jazz record label called Muse. …
Muse Records, which Fields launched without financing ("I rubbed two matchsticks together," he told Downbeat) was both prolific and diverse. It functioned for a quarter of a century, releasing well over 200 albums in the Seventies alone, from soul jazz and hard bop to Latin and fusion.
Fields knew about Murphy's Rah album from hearing it on the radio, and he also knew Helen Keane. "We were quite friendly. She was one of the first tough bitches that walked around in the jazz business... which wasn't exactly a minor-league feat. We got along just great. So she said, 'Come to lunch, I
want you to see Mark in person.' I don't remember the exact occasion, but he was the act that was singing for this particular luncheon. And I liked it, it knocked me out. As tough a broad as Helen was, she had great taste... she worked very hard to promote Bill Evans.’”
In addition to his many albums on Muse, the 1970s would prove to be an important decade in Mark’s life for other reasons including re-establishing his partnership with Eddie O’Sullivan in the States when Mark moved west again to take a flat with him in San Francisco, and his first forays into teaching, which Peter Jones explains may have come about this way:
“It is not clear exactly when Mark Murphy began teaching his craft, but he may have got the idea in 1979 at the College of the Siskiyous, a public community college that had a jazz choir. Run by Dr. Kirby Shaw, an accomplished trumpet player and scat singer, the College was in the hill town of Weed in the far north of California. Shaw loved "Stolen Moments" and had written a vocal arrangement for it. In researching the tune, he realized that Murphy lived only a few hours away, and decided to contact him.
The beginning of his musical relationship with alto saxophonist Richie Cole [whom Mark had heard on an Eddie Jefferson record] can also be traced back to his time at Muse when they worked together on one of Mark’s more famous recording, Bop for Kerouac.
Richie Cole regarded Bop for Kerouac as a jazz concept album. "[Mark] was taking a chance with that, because at the time everyone wanted a hit record. He didn't give a shit about hit records. He just had this fantastic artistic concept... it was something he believed in, and he did it. I admire him so much for that. If it's something that you really wanted to put out there, that you think is worthwhile, then lack Kerouac was certainly worthwhile. It brought new attention to [him], as an underdog kind of hero."
The album also caught the ear of the influential vocal Jazz author and critic, James Gavin, According to Jones:
“The album, Murphy's 18th, was the first to catch the attention of young writer James Gavin. Stereo Review magazine included it in its "best of the month" roundup: ‘I was fascinated by the description of the Bop for Kerouac album. It sounded as though Mark were a sort of pained, troubled world traveler, who was underground after having been in the business for many years, and had an elite cult following of very hip, very clued-in musicians, singers and fans. And that made it catnip for me, because I'm mistrustful of anything that is too popular. It remains, I think, his greatest achievement on record, and an album that I play to this day. It has all of the best of Mark and none of the worst of Mark.’”
In 1983, Billboard magazine announced that Bop for Kerouac had been nominated for a Grammy, but it would ultimately lose to An Evening with George Shearing and Mel Torme which prompted the following observation from Peter:
“Although his disappointment was understandable, he had learned not to expect any recognition for his work other than the applause and congratulations of audiences when he played live. And apart from the occasional decent press review, he had come to the conclusion that the critics didn't really like him. He knew he was not everybody's cup of tea, but put that down to the fact that he was an artist rather than a popular entertainer. Now 50, and in the business for three decades, he knew he would never get rich. His comfort, he said, was that the people who appreciated him really appreciated him, and that because they hung on to his old records, and often brought them to gigs for him to sign, he played some small part in their lives.”
In this regard, Mark may also have drawn some comfort in the fact that Norbert Warner, based in Newcastle and a Murphy fan in long-standing, in 1981 released the first quarterly issue of his fan magazine - Mark’s Times.
“Throughout the late Seventies, Murphy continued to make regular trips across the Atlantic” which landed him back in London in the 1980s and into an exciting time in his career which Peter captures in this title to the ninth chapter in his Murphy bio: “It’s Hot, It’s Red Lights, It’s Exciting.”
“In 1979, a 15-year-old South London schoolboy was skimming through the racks in the music section of Sutton Public Library when he came across a newly-released Mark Murphy album and decided to borrow it. The record was Stolen Moments, and it turned Gilles Peterson into an instant fan. 37 years later he still hadn't quite got around to returning it. As a teenager, Peterson was listening to jazz-influenced rock and soul - Level 42, Earth Wind and Fire, and Central Line - as well as jazz-pop artists like Al Jarreau and Michael Franks, and the music he heard on pirate stations such as Radio Invicta. It inspired him to set up his own pirate station, with an aerial slung between a tree and a phone box, playing a mixture of jazz, funk, reggae, soul and early electro. Soon afterwards, as luck would have it, Radio Invicta needed a new transmitter, so Gilles offered to donate his in return for a regular slot on the station. Other pirate ventures followed - KJAZZ, Solar Radio and Horizon - before, in the grand tradition established by Radio 1, he was hired in 1986 to present a show on BBC Radio London: Mad on Jazz.
After establishing an early presence as a London hip-hop DJ, Peterson started looking for a new angle on the dance scene, and found it by going back to the original jazz records sampled by the hip-hoppers. He found his audience very receptive, and acid jazz was born. ….
Jazz was becoming the focus of the growing London street dance scene. ...
Gilles Peterson continued to play Mark Murphy tracks….
Back in 1981, Colin Kellam's distribution outfit Jazz Horizons had made all of Mark Murphy's Muse albums to date available in the UK. It was good timing, from Murphy's point of view, since it meant younger fans could now go out and buy the music they were hearing for the first time.”
The renewed interest in his music gave Murphy ideas. ‘I'm kind of tired of the cool jazz approach. That's why I'm so interested in Latin music. It's hot, it's red lights, it's exciting!’ And he felt that the rhythm in his singing was what had turned younger audiences on to his work. ‘I started singing this music because I'm a rhythm singer. I learned that from Nat Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. I want that to vibrate out. I think the day of keeping it all in, of being too cool, is finished. After I was forty, I became a gregarious person, and I knew I'd wasted a lot of time being introverted. I enjoy the outgoingness of singing hot jazz instead of cool jazz.’
By 1987 the Mark Murphy craze was in full swing in England. …”
Before Mark could revel in his new found success, tragedy was to strike as a result of Eddie O’Sullivan’s death due to AIDS.
The loss of Eddie ushered in a dark time in Mark’s life which was compounded by turning sixty years of age, losing his Muse recording contract and having a serious slowdown in bookings. Needless to say, Mark did not react well as Peter underscores in the following excerpts:
“ … Emotionally, Mark had been unraveling ever since Eddie's death, and his previously mild drink and drugs intake began developing into a crack cocaine habit that lasted through the first half of the decade. "He was wracked with guilt," said James Gavin. "Mark felt that if he had been home more with Eddie and paid more attention to Eddie, then Eddie would not have gone out straying, which Mark was certainly doing himself. But he felt responsible for Eddie's becoming ill and dying because Mark was on the road and not home with Eddie. Mark was not a stay-at-home guy. He was a true Kerouacian, On The Road vagabond." …
It took some effort and more than “a little help from his friends,” but back in London again by the mid-1990s, Mark began to clean up his act.
“In London, the big advantage of working with Pete Churchill, from Murphy's perspective, was that the pianist knew a lot of tunes; it gave the two of them an instant shared repertoire. Churchill knew all the piano bar songs, and had played small wine bar gigs with London-based singers like Stacey Kent and Christine Tobin. Soon afterwards he met his future wife, the jazz pianist Nikki Iles, who had played with luminaries like Art Farmer. ‘My listening changed. She brought a load of music I hadn't listened to. My playing changed too. And the next gig I did with [Mark], I remember so clearly, he put his hand on my shoulder in the middle of the gig, and said, 'Have you met someone?"'
“It was a shock to Pete Churchill's system to be tossed into the stormy seas of a Mark Murphy gig, where the improvisation was on a whole new level. ‘It was an unbelievable awakening. He was throwing things out at me, and long scat solos where I just thought, I don't know how to do the gear change that he wants from me in the rhythm section to take it to the next level. He was the perfect link I'd been looking for between the vocal jazz world and the instrumental world. I'd always seen them as very separate. I did my singers' gigs and then I did my instrumental gigs. And now here was a singer's gig where he didn't want me to be a singer's pianist. That was revelatory. The way he engaged the rhythm section and played the rhythm section was unbelievable. I don't know any other singers who did it the way he did it.’”
Retirement and withdrawal were off the agenda. Mark Murphy was finally ready for a new challenge.”
For not only was Mark “still in demand amongst the hip crowd in London,” but at this point in his career, another of Mark’s angels was to enter into his life in the form of Cindy Bitterman who became a member and contributor to The Mark Murphy International Appreciation Society for which “she dashed off ecstatic reviews of Mark’s recorded output and gigs.”
"She was estranged from her husband," explained James Gavin. "They were living in different wings of the house. She loved singers and loved jazz, and she was driving around when she heard Mark on the radio for the first time." This was January 1995, and the tune was "There's No You". Cindy wrote about her epiphany in Mark's Times: "I've heard lots of really top singers do this just as you have, but 1 don't recall holding my breath at the ending as I do with his version. The first time I ever heard him sing this was in my car and it nearly caused me to have a very bad accident."
Bitterman soon became much more than a mere super-fan or groupie. At first Mark was suspicious of her, assuming her to be one of the legions of adoring older ladies and wannabe singers who surrounded him these days. In fact, she was like a second Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, the friend and patron of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and many other prominent jazz musicians of the Fifties. Not only did she understand with great clarity what Mark Murphy was doing professionally, she seemed to see into his very soul: "Watching Mark work only confirmed what I guessed at after listening to a few of his albums last winter, He reminds me of a little boy who is only happy when playing in his sandbox, and Mark's sandbox is filled with things musical, lust as Mark is. I think his veins are filled with bits of notes, chords, sharps, flats etc. Music is to Mark what water is to a fish. A necessity. Watching him work you can see his knowledge and command of his craft. He toys with a song, not quite like a cat with a mouse, because Mark is not killing, but toying, weaving and winding and bending and leaving me as usual shaking my head in disbelief. Taking two steps away for a drink while the trio continued, Mark is still working. I don't believe I've ever seen any singer so totally involved and in control of his work."
"Over a 15 year period, I cannot begin to tell you what Cindy did and the amount of money she poured into making Mark Murphy's life better," said James Gavin. "I don't think he would have lived as long as he did without the loving care of Cindy Bitterman. She paid for him to stay at Washington Square Hotel when he came to New York so that Mark wasn't staying at places like the YMCA anymore. She paid for projects for Mark, she bought him clothes. Mark at some point turned on almost everybody in his life. He did it to me a couple of times - it passed quickly, I got off cheap. But he never turned on Cindy Bitterman; he didn't dare. Because he needed her, but he also really loved her. They were talking on the telephone every day, several times a day, for years. When Cindy got sick, and that petered out, Mark again took it all very personally. But Cindy wanted nothing more than to help nurture Mark, for Mark to feel good about himself, and bring him to a wider audience.”
Even with Cindy’s help:
"Mark was probably the least [well] adapted human being that I've ever met to living in this world," said Roger Treece. "Getting along in the everyday practical world was something that he seems to have a singular inability for... The interface with the practical world was just something that was very difficult for him... It was also why things were so difficult after Eddie died, because he didn't have that other half. Eddie was more practical than Mark was... Mark needed a producer. He was very strong on concept and creative details but very weak on technical details."
...."Well, my life timing has always been strange," mused Mark. "I asked my psychic in Berkeley if I had been jinxed in a past life, and she said, 'Yes, Mark, you were, back in the 10th century.'" …
Mark reached a point in his life when he began to consider retirement because as Peter offers:
“Despite his popularity outside the USA with the younger acid-jazz crowd, Mark Murphy still saw himself as part of an older jazz tradition: "I love doing ballads. That's when I feel I can communicate one-to-one with listeners. People tell me it's as if I'm singing directly to them. I've been a part of marriages and divorce settlements, child conceptions and wakes, my fans keep my albums for years. They come up to me at my live shows with these scratchy LPs and ask me to sign them. I never sold a million albums, but those I did sell are still out there. Shirley [Horn], Sheila [Jordan] and I seem to be the last of our generation. But the gold is that when you reach maturity as vocalists, you begin to sing your life. You're not just performing. You're putting your life into your songs."
But the jinx continued. Mark's name was accidentally left out of the Downbeat male jazz singers' poll of 1998,....”
And yet, fortunately for Mark, another of his angels appeared on the scene, or perhaps, returned to the scene would be a better way to put it, with the reappearance of record producer Joe Fields in his life.
“Unlike Mark Murphy, Joe Fields never had any intention of retiring. Shortly after selling Muse, he and his son Barney launched a new record label, HighNote. Although Joe had sold the Muse catalogue, he hadn't sold the contracts. "There was literally no transition. We were still in the same office. I took the Muse sign off and put the HighNote sign up, and we just continued to roll." Mark Murphy, a singer without a record label, gratefully signed up.
Before long it was as if he and Joe had never been apart: five HighNote albums were to follow….”
And not only did Mark once again have a record label that believed in him but -
“Some of the greatest music of Mark Murphy's career was recorded in Berlin in 2002 with 30-year-old German trumpeter Till Bronner. Hailed in some quarters as a reincarnation of Chet Baker, Bronner had been introduced to Murphy's music by a jazz singer friend. One evening in 2001, on his way back from a radio engagement, Bronner was passing by the A-Trane jazz club and noticed that Murphy was playing that very night. Bronner, whose Baker tribute album, Chattin’ with Chet, had come out a couple of years earlier, had long been impressed by Murphy's ability to sing like an instrumentalist on albums like Rah. Entering the half-empty club and positioning himself in front of the stage, he became aware that Murphy was directing the local trio in a way he had never seen a singer do before. And when Mark sat down alone at the piano to accompany himself on a ballad at the end of the show, Bronner found that tears were rolling down his cheeks.”
“ … [Bronner’s] insight was that Murphy possessed the rare ability to tap into profound, half-buried emotional conflicts, in a way that made his ballad performances extremely moving. ‘For me, only Frank Sinatra has the same ability to make me feel he is speaking to me when he sings. The others just perform. The songs that Mark sounded so good on were the ones that contained a big unresolved emotion. The mother of all love songs is disappointment, unrequited love, and that's something that you feel you shouldn't show. And in his case, being gay must have given him even more reason to sing [about these emotions].’
This was the beginning of what became the album Once to Every Heart. The idea was to aim for a mood of relaxation and intimacy. There would be no hurry, no stress, no clock-watching. Mark would be close-miked, and the only other musician in the studio with him and Bronner would be Frank Chastenier, long-standing pianist with the WDR Big Band, and a player of extraordinary sensitivity. On the recordings, Bronner's own musical lines were as sparse as he had ever played. As he put it, ‘What could you possibly add after this guy sang?’ Following two days in the studio, Bronner did an edit in which he took out all of Murphy's breaths, but he decided in the end to leave them in. ‘Hearing him breathe made it so personal.’"
In 2006, Mark turned 74. Peter gently introduces another key aspect that entered into Mark’s life at this time:
"It was also the year that friends and colleagues began to notice that something wasn't quite right.
Lesley Mitchell-Clarke phoned him for a chat one day. He always called her Blondie. "Hey," she said, "This is Blondie." There was a long pause at the other end. "Which Blondie?" asked Mark, eventually. This set Lesley's alarm bells ringing. Shortly afterwards she learned that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, was wearing a patch that delivered medication, and had a care-worker living with him.
When he made one of his regular trips to Holland, Greetje Kauffeld hardly recognized him - he suddenly seemed very old….. But Mark continued to perform … with [pianist] Misha Piatigorsky's trio ….”
But after the onset of the illness, Mark went through period where things improved to a degree that allowed him to function. As Peter describes it:
“His health improved to the point where, on July 31 and August 1, 2009, he was able to play four sets at New York's Kitano, a Japanese-owned hotel on Park Avenue and 38th Street. ‘Reports of Murphy's demise were exaggerated,’ blogged Will Friedwald. ‘Although he now walks with a cane and sings sitting down, he looks really good: he's let his beard go white, and has given up the infamous high hair for a tasteful knit cap, and he's neither gained nor lost any weight. His chops are in terrific shape, although his concentration isn't entirely what it used to be... He spends a lot of time scatting, and, beyond that, making wildly nonsensical sounds, but, as always, Murphy extracts more coherent meaning and emotion out of scat phrases that most contemporary singers do with actual words... After being on for 50 minutes or so, Murphy abruptly stopped, took a small bow and walked off. He was, understandably, exhausted after four shows in two nights. (The next day, a Murphy fan emailed me a recording of the earlier Saturday show, which was only slightly longer but included seven different songs, one of which was his own beautiful torch tune, 'Before We Say Goodbye', which, as far as I can tell, he's only recorded in an electronic, acid-jazz setting.) Overall, Murphy sounded great, and it was one of the most moving of all the dozens of performances of his that I've attended.’”
In October he was honored at Yoshi's in Oakland, during that year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, by many of the singers he had known during his long residence in the Bay area, including Kitty Margolis, Madeline Eastman, Ann Dyer, Laurie Antonioli, Bobbe Norris, and Joyce Cooling. The Jazzschool in Berkeley, which ran a four-year degree course, announced that it was establishing the Mark Murphy Vocal Jazz Scholarship. ‘He lived here in the 80s when we were cutting our teeth on the local jazz scene,’ Margolis told Jazz Times. ‘I can remember not only going to see him at his gigs, but him coming to my gigs. Not many older and successful musicians did that. He's always been very generous as a friend and as a teacher.’ Recalled Ann Dyer, ‘At the end of the evening, Mark came out, sat on a stool, and it was like - let me show you how it's done. He took the entire room to a whole 'nother level. He still had such facility with his voice. He was eternally hip and eternally sincere in his musical performances.’"
“With the aid of Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America, a place was found for Mark at a retirement community in Englewood, New Jersey. It was there, in room 111 of the Lillian Booth Actors' Home at 155-175 West Hudson Avenue, that he spent his final years. Mark Edmond Murphy had been granted power of attorney, and bought out the reverse mortgage on the property, which had up to now provided his uncle with some income. This released funds to pay for Mark Sr.'s residence at the actors' home. Like many at his time of life, he was desperate to stay in his own house. ‘Mark was absolutely miserable about this," said James Gavin. "I know that his nephew was completely devoted to him, but Mark blamed him for getting him out of his beloved home and sending him to this wretched place. That was typical Mark - overreacting and pointing the finger of blame. But it was essential that Mark was moved out of that house, because something terrible was going to happen.’”
“Said Jean-Pierre Leduc, ‘If he'd had a partner at the end of his life, who was there for him come rain or come shine, then he wouldn't have had to live in that place. But when you're surrounded by people who are staring out the window, or drooling, or whatever, and you've just come back from Paris and London and Berlin, performing to sold-out houses, it's very hard to keep your morale going. I think you can just turn a corner in a bad way, and just give up.’ James Gavin added, ‘He didn't want to be there, he never wanted to be there, he hated that place. It has three floors: the upper floor is sunlit and very pretty, and that's the assisted living floor. And so there you're living in small apartments and you're getting help with medications and meals and things. But otherwise you're free to come and go. But the middle and the bottom floors are Alzheimer's and dementia floors, and in those cases you're basically locked in because it's the only way you can remain safe.’"
“Even after Mark Murphy's singing career appeared to be over, he continued to receive visitors and take phone calls.”
Mark died in his sleep on Thursday, October 22, 2015 with complications from pneumonia cited as the official cause of death.
One of Mark’s friends, Francesca Miano, concluded her part of the eulogy given at his Memorial Service on March 14, 2016 by saying:
"Mark Murphy was a great man yet so down to earth, a man and a boy simultaneously. Yet, in spite of all he went through, he never lost his dignity. It was like being in the presence of a great guru, one who exuded music until he took his last breath."
And Peter concludes his biography with these assessments of his career and its significance:
“Mark Murphy's reputation will only grow as he recedes into history. His career began when jazz was at its peak of popularity, and continued long after it had been eclipsed in the public mind by other forms of music. His achievements were many, and they were extraordinary. Perhaps the most extraordinary of all was that he survived, eking out a living from his chosen art form, something only a few achieve when that art form is jazz, and of those, almost none without support from the music industry. He lived into old age, while so many of his contemporaries died young, victims to illness, overwork and drug abuse.
Many of those who witnessed his live shows felt that no sound or visual recording medium could do justice to him as a performer. 'He's a hundred times as good as any record that he's ever done,' said Cleo Laine. "He was a total artist," said Richie Cole. "Of course he would have loved to be accepted and famous and all that, but he just followed his natural instincts to put out the best music that he knew. He followed his heart."
At various times in his career Mark was presented with chances to make money, and passed them up. When it came to the crunch, he was simply not prepared to compromise. As Tessa Souter pointed out in her obituary, "To him, it was a 'miracle' that he was able to survive - and even buy a house -without compromising his artistic integrity. ('I don't know that you'll ever find me in K-Mart.') 'Just being a jazz singer is a risk, because it is the world's most unpopular music. You have to dare. You have to get up there. Because you are creating. You are up there making something that wasn't there before and that takes daring. It's not the easiest way of life, but it is interesting.'"