The first thing to say is that Mark Murphy was an icon. A living embodiment of Kerouac ‘hipster’ chic, Murphy truly lived the jazz life. No other jazz artist presented this so clearly through his music: Murphy recorded Kerouac stories, he wrote lyrics for modern jazz standards that incorporated bebop imagery and with his resonant baritone he nailed that mix of jazz phrasing and vocalese better than anyone. Modern singers from Kurt Elling to Gregory Porter owe him a huge debt. The shame is that in the wake of his death there aren’t the column inches to reflect that influence.
Mark Murphy was born in Syracuse, New York, joining his brother’s dance band as a teenage singer. Influences were already clear – Nat King Cole, Anita O’Day and Ella Fitzgerald. Murphy was always interested in acting (he graduated in music and drama) and would go back to the stage and television when he wasn’t recording.
In 1958 he briefly moved to Los Angeles and recorded for Capitol
before returning to New York and recording the Rah! album on Riverside Records. This featured versions of Horace Silver’s Doodlin’ and the standard On Green Dolphin Street. But perhaps the most productive time for Murphy was the 1970s and his time with the Muse label. These consistently good recordings feature him at his eclectic best. Albums
like Bop for Kerouac, Beauty and the Beast and – above all – Stolen Moments feature imaginative arrangements, original lyrics and
great productions. Stolen Moments has the inspirational title track, Murphy’s take on Herbie Hancock’s Sly and his soaring vocals on Dori Caymmi’s sensational Like a Love(r) (O Cantador) which close the album. Several of these eighteen Muse albums – including Stolen Moments – were nominated for Grammy awards.
Murphy has also appeared on records by the Japanese nu-jazz group United Future Organization where he wrote and rapped lyrics on songs composed with his young collaborators. This collaboration opened up further new audiences in the acid-jazz and hip-hop genres, most notably in his fabulous (literally) lyrics for Dingwalls, in which he name-checked the famous north London venue where jazz dancers showed how timeless his music was.
With a new Verve contract, he recorded Once to Every Heart in 2005 and Love is What Stays in 2007. Both albums featured Murphy on a range of ballads and were produced by German trumpeter Till Bronner. But for a different take on 21C Murphy try this innovative Henrik Schwartz remix from 2012. Murphy’s last recording – fittingly a limited edition on vinyl only and through the UK-based Gearbox Records – was a tribute to another iconic singer, Murphy’s contemporary Shirley Horn. Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn was released in 2013.
Two British DJs (both much beloved by this site) – Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge – have produced their own heartfelt tributes to Murphy. Here’s Peterson’s Mark Murphy mix from 2008 and we end this celebration of Murphy’s music with these fitting words from Forge on Facebook: So waking up today I’m filled with sadness at Mark’s passing, last time I saw him was in Tokyo, I went to his gig with Shuya Okino, he seemed very frail but was still just as mesmerising in performance, still taking risks, in the moment, going where the music took him. We chatted afterwards and I remember thinking as we left that it would probably be the last time. I’ll always remember interviewing Mark after one of his shows at Dingwalls, and asking him about the lyrics to Red Clay… he told me about how he’d phoned Freddie Hubbard to ask him about where the title had come from, Freddie had told him about playing on the red clay growing up in Indianopolis. Mark’s lyrics are so wonderfully evocative, they seem to capture a whole world, joyful and playful and naturally hip. Maybe “hip” seems an odd word to use, but Mark was an original hipster, a product and devotee of the “Beat Generation” who lovingly crafted music around Jack Kerouac’s words on more than one occasion. Like those writers, his defiance of the humdrum, his pursuit of truth and beauty, his questing soul was always searching for the chance to take flight… Mark’s voice had wings that grew out of the original counter culture, made of poetry and jazz. We have lost a consummate singer, a superb lyricist who could create sublime poetry around great jazz melodies, a fearless improviser and a legendary character. R.I.P.
I also saw Murphy live, but here in the UK in a small jazz club in the heart of rural Suffolk – a lifetime away from New York or Tokyo. It was a never to be forgotten experience, but as soon as I’m back from Beijing I’ll be reliving that classic voice all over again when all those Murphy albums are once more on the turntable.