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October 19, 2004
The New York Post called Mark Murphy “a hipster’s hipster.” An article in Jazziz magazine said, “He is one of the true remaining jazz hipsters of our time.”
But Mark Murphy himself says he is no hipster.
“That’s a misnomer,” he told me recently from his home in Pennsylvania, “because a hipster is a person who can’t do what we artists do. He is like the finger snapper to what the artist does. You might call Harry the Hipster the penultimate of that. He ended up living in a camper surrounded with pictures of all the greats of jazz and he worshipped them. He is the classic hipster, not me.”
He laughed lustily as he did often in our conversation.
“You can say that I’m hip, but you can’t say that I’m a hipster!”
The jazz world will agree that Mark Murphy is definitely hip. And this hippest of jazz singers comes to town Friday night for a return engagement kicking off a new season of Jazz on Granby concerts at the Roper Performing Arts Center. Murphy headlined the very first Jazz on Granby show back in January, 2001, and he’s looking forward to another go with the John Toomey Trio. This time around it’s an evening billed as “The Duke Ellington Songbook,” and he’ll be joined by young DC-based vocalist Michelle Walker.
“She was one of my students,” he explains. “But I suddenly realized that this is no student, this is an emerging artist. She’s really singing the soul of the song.
“We’re going to do some Duke Ellington. I was the first person to record ‘Blood Count’ with a lyric and she’s taken that and really zapped it up. It’s beautiful.”
Murphy was the first person to put a lyric on a lot of jazz instrumentals. He’s carved out a unique niche singing not just the standard repertoire, but expanding it in interesting directions. And he doesn’t just sing words; he turns his voice into an improvising instrument, as though he’s another horn in the band.
“It just came out,” he says of his distinctive style. “That’s just how I sound. In fact, I used to get jobs with orchestras in Holland because the guy that booked me was a frustrated trombone player and I can sort of sound like a trombone.”
And he maintains that he doesn’t really have a “style:”
“I never really considered myself a ‘stylist’ until I got a clone. And then I could see that it was kind of a door opener for guys with real voices that didn’t grunt and groan, and it was also a door opener for guys and girls that wanted to expand their jazz expertise.
His uniqueness wasn’t always easy for record companies to market. In the early days of his recording career in the mid-to-late ‘50s, both Decca and Capitol Records attempted to push him as a teen idol. But his muse was leading him in a totally different direction from the rock’n’roll-driven pop winds of the day.
“Well, they tried everything,” he remembers. “In those days they couldn’t say ‘jazz’ so they’d say ‘singing swinging,’ or try to make up all these new terms. It didn’t really gel into jazz until I went with Riverside in 1961. That’s what they wanted. Finally a jazz label set up not only to record a lot of wonderful jazz groups. Cannonball Adderley helped me get this contract and I think he was a little upset that Orrin [Keepnews, president of Riverside] didn’t ask him to do the record with me.”
Since he created a subgenre of his own, I wondered who his role models were.
“Peggy Lee was the main influence,” he said in reply. “But my soul daddy was Nat King Cole. I just tried to sing as effortlessly as he did. I don’t think I succeeded, but I sure as hell tried. It wouldn’t come out like him anyway.
“I don’t think in terms of style, I think in terms of ‘how much farther can I get into this tune? Am I really telling a story?’ I was always a frustrated actor and I wanted to tell the stories. And that’s also very Celtic---they would gather around the fire at night and tell stories. My father and my older brother are story tellers. My younger brother is a somewhat troubled poet. So, it runs through the family.”
More than a mere storyteller, Mark Murphy has been a musical explorer throughout his 50-year recording and performing career. And though he’s never been a popstar, he’s had occasional minor hits, most notably his 1978 version of Oliver Nelson’s ”Stolen Moments,” with a lyric he wrote himself. Along the way he’s also had a number of disciples, the best known being Chicago-based singer Kurt Elling. But he’s always been the pioneer, out in front on his own musical adventure.
“I tried to follow Miles. He was like Picasso---he’d have a period of this, and then he’d hear something else or invent something else. Whether he invented it or not, it became him. So I was able to do that, maybe sometimes by accident, sometimes by plan.
“They’ll put on my gravestone, ‘He Tried Everything.’ I think ‘Stolen’ came along and that kept me going for a couple of years. And then the Kerouac album [Bop For Kerouac, 1981] really turned a lot of people on, and really still does. It’s strange. There are people in Italy who are starting a Kerouac thing there, and they come and hang around me and worship me. So you never know where it’s going to land.”
Friday night, Mark Murphy lands in Norfolk with Michelle Walker and the John Toomey Trio, celebrating Duke Ellington but also dipping into that hefty Murphy songbook as well. At 72-years old, he’s still busy, writing songs and performing all over the world. When we spoke, he had just returned from a festival in the Azores, off Portugal. On the horizon are an Italian tour and a return to Australia, where he performed for two weeks earlier this year.
“I think I can keep it going,” he concludes, “depending on my health and what this travel stuff does to my health. My voice seems to be hanging on like a champ. I’m lucky. If my voice starts to disintegrate, I will stop the next day.”
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