Although Murphy confesses it took time to find his niche, many will disagree. Once you became turned on to Murphy’s remarkable style, you bought every single recording you could lay your hands on. Those who didn’t, now find themselves scrambling to find out- of-print albums that should have been included in their jazz library long ago.
When I think of Mark Murphy, I go to that special place in my heart when jazz was all that, and many of the best jazz performers in American history were packing clubs from New York to Los Angeles. Murphy is one of those best. He arrived, continually revitalized and survived 50 years in the business, receiving nominations and winning awards for the best in jazz vocals, a passion he has dedicated his life to.
Today, Murphy comes full circle with his latest and most emotionally, reflective-filled album, Once to Every Heart [Verve/Universal]. Recorded in Till Brônner’s private studio in Berlin and shelved for 3 years until Mark’s contract with a U.S. label expired, the timing of this release was well anticipated. The teaming of Mark Murphy, Till Brônner, Nan Schwartz and Christian von Kaphengst is a work of art. Like a great painting, all you can say as you stand before it is, "Look at that!" But you will feel in your heart what Murphy’s very soul speaks to you on this successful album.
Please join me in this remarkable and candid interview with the greatest story-teller in jazz, Mark Murphy.
JazzReview: I saw you at The Jazz Bakery last Saturday evening. Your performance was marvelous.
Mark Murphy: The trio was heaven. I felt like I was in heaven the way those guys played.
JazzReview: Absolutely. I really enjoyed myself.
Mark Murphy: Same here.
JazzReview: I like the Bakery’s ambiance. It’s very up-close and personal.
Mark Murphy: It’s beautiful. And they’re not serving anything [laughs].
JazzReview: [Laughs] No tinkling glasses or waiters. So did you have a nice Thanksgiving?
Mark Murphy: Yeah, you know Sheila Jordon? I went up to her place. I’m in the mountains here, but she is just three valleys away up in the Catskills.
JazzReview: Oh, how nice.
Mark Murphy: There was some snow getting up the hill, but I got there.
JazzReview: It’s always sunny here in L.A. with great weather.
Mark Murphy: And earthquakes. [laughs]
JazzReview: It must be very beautiful living in the mountains this time of year.
Mark Murphy: Well, I like the air and I always sleep so well up here. That means a lot to me.
JazzReview: They say you arrived on the scene fully developed. Is that a skill that was in-born or did you have to work at it?
Mark Murphy: It took half a lifetime just to learn how to grab my audience. I didn’t really get my music together until I was about 40. Then I started working with these musicians out in Cincinnati, Ohio. I started getting my repertoire together. It was sort of like having my own trio off and on for three years.
JazzReview: And who were they?
Mark Murphy: Well, I’m afraid most of them are dead by now [laughs]. They were called the Dee Falice Trio [spelling]. Dee was the drummer. There was a piano player and several different bass players.
JazzReview: So you really didn’t have a regular trio you traveled with back then?
Mark Murphy: I couldn’t find anybody in New York for the longest time that really I mean, I hadn’t really worked there that much. So what I would do when I did those little concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall was I would take in a piano player who knew my repertoire.
I had John Hasselback from Buffalo. I used to work Buffalo and Cincinnati when I came back from Europe because they played my records and I could get gigs there. So the ‘70s were a sort of "start all over again" thing for me, but I was lucky. I got a contract with Muse Records when I came back in 1971.
JazzReview: Which was really an impressive time for you from that point onward.
Mark Murphy: Well, it was creative. I’m not sure it was always impressive for me, but when 1976/78 rolled around, Richie [Cole] called. Eddie Jefferson had brought back vocal jazz, so really I had a bunch of whole new opportunities. Then I got Stolen Moments going, Red Clay and then the [Bop for Volumes I & II] Kerouac album . . .those three things became my ticket through the ‘80’s.
JazzReview: You recorded so many albums under your association with Muse.
Mark Murphy: I just about burned myself out! Irish people many times step back and take a good look at what they’ve been doing. I went to teach. Sheila Jordon got me this job in Gratz, Austria at the music school there. I was in and out of there for about 10 years. I learned a great deal of stuff there and bit-by-bit . . .
I was living in San Francisco and heard Lee Musiker, although it took me about 10 years to get a hold of him. There were others around the country; Tom Garvin [pianist] whom you heard the other night, and a few in New York that I really enjoyed playing with. It took me a long time to get that though. I guess that slowed my development down a bit, but you can’t change what happened. So there you are.
JazzReview: You’ve composed and sung lyrics for many great jazz instrumental songs. How did that come about? Did you just think to yourself, "this song needs lyrics?"
Mark Murphy: I don’t know. I heard the Pat Metheny tune, "Song For The Geese." I heard it at an outdoor coffee shop place somewhere in Italy. It seemed like I should be singing that. It took me about two years to write the words. It started out one way, and then I changed it. And then, along came Beauty and the Beast for that record. It came together a lot quicker as I remember.
JazzReview: Perhaps it was just the process of taking that first step with the first one that made it easier the second time around.
Mark Murphy: It could be. I was writing more then than I am now. It’s not something that I can say, "Oh, okay, I’ll sit down and write something now." I have to have some kind of, I don’t know, some kind of inspiration.
JazzReview: A particular piece touches you emotionally.
Mark Murphy: I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t. It’s kind of a love affair with the music.
And I usually work with titles, so it develops into a rhythmic poetry from there on.
JazzReview: I wanted to talk a little bit about Sammy Davis, Jr. and more importantly, your association with Steve Allen.
Mark Murphy: Steve was one of the great humorists of his era. He was kind of a genius in his own right. He’s in the Guinness Book of Records you know, for writing more songs than anybody else.
I saw Sammy on his program one night. For every letter I wrote him, he always answered it. He must have had about twelve secretaries [laughs]. I told him about the time Sammy saw me bopping in Syracuse one night. He wrote back some sympathetic lines.
I can’t say that I had an association with Sammy in his Rat Pack days, but that wasn’t sort of my schtick [laughs]. I was making my own way here, there, and everywhere I could sing.
JazzReview: Was this in New York?
Mark Murphy: No, I settled out in San Francisco after I came back from Europe. This was around 1977. I stayed there for 20 years, I guess.
JazzReview: I had no idea you lived in San Francisco that long.
Mark Murphy: Yeah, how could I have been, but there I was. Then I started thinking about retiring. I couldn’t do it out there because the prices were too high.
JazzReview: Tell me about it!
Mark Murphy: Then I found some property out in Pennsylvania that was easily more affordable and so I bought a house here.
JazzReview: There are a lot of jazz artists living in Pennsylvania. Many things are happening in Pennsylvania jazz-wise Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, all around there. The Mellon Jazz Festival supports the entire Pennsylvania jazz scene in the area, as well as the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild.
Mark Murphy: Oh, yes. And there were always music people down the river-all the Fred Warring group used to live there.
JazzReview: Let’s talk about your new CD and your performance at the Bakery the other evening. I felt that your performance was more heartfelt and reflective than others I’ve heard you sing before.
Mark Murphy: Well, I guess at my age it would have to be because there is so much to remember. It’s like Shirley Horn. She was really singing her life.
JazzReview: Yes, she was.
Mark Murphy: That’s what happens when you’ve been around this long and the life you’ve lived comes into the song. I think I’ve been through all those shades of romantic behavior, so it all has to make a picture. I see it happen in my head. It’s like I’m almost directing myself in a black and white movie in my head.
JazzReview: You certainly communicate that in your songs. I felt that very intensely.
Mark Murphy: Well then, you know where I’m at.
JazzReview: I love the song you did, "I’m Through With Love," and the funny, little romp you told about Alfalfa introducing that song to the public first before Jo Stafford did.
Mark Murphy: Yeah, [laughs] right.
JazzReview: That’s from The Little Rascals’ "Reunion in Rhythm."
Mark Murphy: Really?
JazzReview: Yes. In fact, I purchased that for you and would love to send it to you.
Mark Murphy: Oooh man, that would be fran-tabulous! I have to see that, to see how he sings it.
JazzReview: It would be my pleasure. Getting back to your performance, the title song you sang, Weston’s "Once to Every Heart" really brought tears to my eyes. It’s such a gorgeously poignant song.
Mark Murphy: It was. I mean I still remember the original recording. A lot of these great songs were done on the "B" side.
JazzReview: All these standards remain so popular today. Small wonder your new album is such a great success, not to mention the dream team appearing with you on the album.
Mark Murphy: The reaction to my record has absolutely astounded me! I mean, I can’t say that we sat down to do a ballad album, because we didn’t. But just the way the of our thinking and the mood we were all in came out. The fact that in this day and age the ballad thing would create business and sales, and get us into the charts, is astounding to me.
JazzReview: I don’t think it should come as a surprise. It is very heartfelt and beautiful, beautiful album.
Mark Murphy: Thank you. I was singing in this club in Amsterdam about three years ago and there were four of these young Dutch guys. They all have like an American ear there. They just hear I mean they were trained in three different cultures as they grew up, but American jazz has a large following there. Whatever I do, it still comes out as jazz, but I was doing mainly ballads for the first set there. I thought, well if there are any romantic people here tonight, they’d want to hear these. So, these young men were, like, transfixed! They never heard, I suppose, another guy sing soft and pretty. Everything they’d grown up with, everybody was screaming shrieking groaning, you know. So maybe I’m a throw back to another age. I don’t make any attempts to be. I mean I just sing them the way they get to me.
JazzReview: And everyone who listens to your album will certainly feel that emotion coming through. The songs you selected are all truly great songs. Did you have in mind certain songs you wanted to do for the album?
Mark Murphy: [laughs] No, it’s fading very fast on how we decide to do all these songs. I just thought, "Oh, my God, I’ve just gotta get some music" and grabbed the pile, on top of which was "Once to Every Heart." What we didn’t do is still in Till Brônner’s [producer] office in Berlin, so I already have some beautiful stuff picked out for the next one. They approached me about . . . yes, yes, we must do another one.
JazzReview: That’s a fantastic idea.
Mark Murphy: That’s what I was really on the edge about. I have got to do this again, at least once more.
JazzReview: You have a great website by the way. I happened to see your 2005 tour schedule posted there and was blown away. Oh my goodness--London, Russia, Australia, Italy, Japan. How do you have the stamina at your age to tour so heavily?
Mark Murphy: Well, I just come home and collapse. Sometimes those trips take me a week to recover from.
JazzReview: I would imagine so.
Mark Murphy: I found two things. One is called "No Jet Lag" that works. It’s made in New Zealand. Someone told me about this other thing called "Airborne" that you put in a glass of water and it fizzes up. It protects you from the germs in recycled air. One of my students in my class was trying to help me with my cough and showed me the bottle he had. I owe a lot to him. It really helps.
JazzReview: Is performing the same for you all over the world?
Mark Murphy: I would say it is rather much the same. I’ve worked in London and in Paris and I get the same sort of. . .and I don’t sing in any other language but English, but I get this concentration from the audience that half way through the song, used to frighten me. I’d feel this aura slipping out of me and they’d seem to really get kind of hypnotized. But then afterward, they’d just go crazy applauding for it.
JazzReview: I think the same thing held true at the Bakery the other evening. We were so very quiet during your songs because we didn’t want to miss one single thing, one note, one whispered inflection.
Mark Murphy: It was just a wonderful audience. I couldn’t believe it.
JazzReview: Where are your favorite places to perform?
Mark Murphy: Well probably I’d say L.A., San Francisco, New York, London and Paris . . .and now Berlin, because I was surprised to learn how hip the kids are there. They’re like a New York audience. I can even tell them jokes and they understand them.
JazzReview: Would you say Europeans are more serious about jazz?
Mark Murphy: I don’t know. It’s very hard to say because I’ve been getting the same kind of attention recently both here and in Europe.
JazzReview: I think jazz is making resurgence in the U.S.
Mark Murphy: I hope you’re right. I sometimes fear it’s a dying art form or something, but I must say that people who dig it will come out for it. They certainly will.
JazzReview: Which is very important, supporting your favorite artist.
Mark Murphy: Oh, yeah!
JazzReview: You have your upcoming tour in Japan, in January.
Mark Murphy: Yeah, it should be nice because Till [Brônner] will be there with us and I will have one of my best pianist from New York [Joshua Wolff], a great bass player [Stewart McCain] who is from the San Francisco area. And on drums will be David Rokeach, the same guy you heard me with at the Bakery. He’s a really good Samba drummer.
JazzReview: I love the Brazilian songs you’ve sung--the Jobim, Ivan Lins--great stuff!
Mark Murphy: If you come to New York in February, I’ll be at the Iridium with a four-piece band, with percussion in it. That will be an experience. If you manage to make it east at that time, join us ‘cause you’ll get a double whammy!
JazzReview: I’d love to. The one thing I’d like to ask you is, like the "Ballad of All the Sad Young Men," being on the road and so many years in the business, is there anything you feel you’ve left undone? Anything you feel sad about?
Mark Murphy: Well, you mean musically?
JazzReview: Well that’s up to you [laughing], anything you might care to share.
Mark Murphy: I suppose. [long pause] I lived in London for nine years a romantic interest until about 1989 ended in San Francisco so I have that to look back on. I’m not searching for any more of that. I think I’ve learned what love is and what love isn’t. I don’t think I have the energy to go through that again [laughing].
JazzReview: I can say ditto to that! I learned the same thing in Belgium.
Mark Murphy: Once to Every Heart, right?
JazzReview: You’ve nailed it!
Mark Murphy: I think the cover helps that, too. I know I look a lot like Al Pacino! [laughing]
JazzReview: [Laughing] You do! You do!
Mark Murphy: It helps the ambiance. [Laughs]
JazzReview: What do you do to relax between engagements and touring, something for fun you enjoy?
Mark Murphy: I’ve got a great, big, huge screen TV that I’ve become a "vid-e-it" with. And New York is just 2 hours away. There is always something to do.
JazzReview: Whom do you go see?
Mark Murphy: Blossom Dearie.
JazzReview: No way! Is she still performing?
Mark Murphy: Oh yes. She looks like rare Venetian porcelain, but her hands still pound the chords as beautifully as ever and
JazzReview: I adore her. She still has that wonderful little girl voice?
Mark Murphy: Yes, same one. I go there whenever she’s in town. There’s a new singer around, too. I told Kurt Elling about him. The kid’s name is J.D. Walter. He’s got a website, so check it out.
JazzReview: I certainly will. Anything else you would like your fans to know?
Mark Murphy: They have a lot of material from me and if there are any questions about my albums or material, they can write to my website chat room. People in the chat room have a most amazing way of connecting information you know, many of my records are very hard to find, even on E-bay. There are a lot small websites that are springing up junior websites that people can also find this information on.
JazzReview: I’ve found many albums not available in the U.S. through Japanese issues.
Mark Murphy: Yes, Japan and France. I just got the award for Best Jazz Vocal Album of the Year from the French. I go over in a couple weeks to pick up the award.
JazzReview: That is wonderful. Congratulations. Best of luck to you with your outstanding new album: Once to Every Heart. Thank you for taking time out for this interview, Mark, and Happy Holidays.
Mark Murphy: You’re welcome. Thanks for calling. Ciao.