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Melody Breyer-Grell

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Conversation With Mark Murphy -- The Last Word in Vocal Jazz?

Posted: 07/21/11 12:36 PM ET

I met Mark some years ago at one of his vocal seminars, which was comparable to a Trekkie meeting Captain Kirk at a convention. Or perhaps Yul Brenner's King in the R&H musical. He was the coolest singer I had ever heard, being that the first thing I stumbled upon was his original lyric "Stolen Moments" -- set to the Oliver Nelson bop head. Sounding pretty much like Shirley Bassy on steroids, I could see the poor man's head-splitting as I belted out "Old Devil Moon" in a key way too high and brash to purport of any jazz sensibility. I forced my way into his vocal studio with the thirst of someone who wanted to learn how to change and did come out a much more subtle singer, if not person... I always wanted Mark's approval; even though that was not an easy thing to attain, I believe he knew how he influenced me.

Mark Murphy was at his early peak at the time he recorded his first jazz masterpiece, RAH. This followed the singer's early "pop" with pop music. Tall, imposing and with a sonorous speaking voice, Mark was gifted with many talents, but he always knew -- since he heard Art Tatum as a kid -- that he was a jazzer.

As RAH opened with its blazingly hot and original, yet accessible track of "Angel Eyes" I can only imagine how it burned into the psyches of the vocal jazz community forever. That was 1961.

Although Murphy, when I worked with him, was at this point of his musical career an avant-garde singer ( at least comparatively speaking), the most interesting thing about studying with him was that his foundation was stronger than most singers of any sort. His insistence on diction and proper vocal technique is ironic... considering the freedom he allows and almost demands in the music.

Also probably why at this point of his life, he has better high notes than most Met Divas could dream of. I learned a lot from Mark, but never to be cool... ya gotta be born that way.

Talking with Mark.....

I must admit that I did not start off the interview very well -- the logistics were crazy. I was supposed to meet Mark at 11 a.m. in a cafe near the famous Strand Book Store and since I did not realize what cafe it was, by the time we found each other I ended jumping in Mark's car and accompanying him to his 2:00 p.m. interview at WBGO in New Jersey. It was hot and stressful and I was grateful that I was along for the ride...

One time ,in passing, Mark made the statement about how bad it was for jazz singers today, what would they do?

In my oracular wisdom I attempted to impart to him that they probably had to return to the roots of the music and put their own inflections on it. It is seems that because as far as vocabulary goes, it does look like Mark, through years of deconstruction of melodies and stretching rhythms has pushed the limits as far as they need to go.

In our interview I picked up on that and pressed my point...

ME: Look what Maria Callas did for opera years after the musically vocabulary was used up.

MM: "Well" he said contentiously "there is one guy, what's his name in Chicago" He has copied me and is getting all the credit" (I paraphrase on that!)

ME: But he DOES acknowledge you...

He just waved my rationalizations off. At his age, Mark does not hold back, vocally or with his opinions. He is of the opinion that he has not been compensated for his work and I don't doubt him, as he has made about 40 some records or CDs. His words are hard ones.

ME: Mark, what was the bottom line for you. Making the transition from pop (where he was starting to be a sensation) to throwing it in all the way to jazz. What did your handlers think?

MM: Huh?

ME: You know, your agents, advisors, what ever you call them, what did they...

MM: F$#k them, that is what I think, do you have anything cold to drink?

I guiltily handed him some of my nutritionally deadly chocolate shake and that seemed to mollify him. He did not get to have water because of me in the cafe, I was cringing with guilt..

ME: I can say that, really?

MM. What do I care -- I just did what I needed to do. I found some great guys, made a demo and ran around with it for three years...

ME: RAH was your real break through, real jazz, no doubt, a total success, vocally and musically.

MM: Yea, but that Richard Rodgers would not let me do "My Favorite Things" the way I wanted to -- he did not approve of the verse to the tune. So it was cut.. Well they have it in Japan floating around somewhere.

ME: So look, you started to hit it, but the Brit invasion started -- but then you invaded Britain!! You lived there for 9 years or so..

MM: Hmm -- I was brought over there by some Australian scam artist who told me there was a Jacques Brel show lined up for me. She just fell into a bottle of wine and never got out.

ME. A drunk in showbiz, how surprising? Well we all have our own poisons ( I said taking another pull from my milkshake) But you did stay, and must have found work.

MM. Yes I met some TV producer who said I looked like Jesus and got me a TV series, lasted one episode., but I did work and got singing jobs all over Europe and...

ME: So many jazz performers get it going in Europe, it is almost a right of passage, same as in opera.

At this point I have to say that one must really hear Mark's music to know what I am talking about. He has at least three distinct periods... First the pop, which alone could have made him, as Sammy Davis Jr. was bowled over by his witty, clean, vocally polished grasp of the American Song Book. Although he did not particularly sound like Jack Jones, that is the closest I can come with all due respect in conveying his beginnings as a recording artist.

Then there was the second stage, Bop! Strong, thrilling and melodically sung, slightly progressive, purely jazz music that was accessible as examples on RAH and his following recordings. For me, a jazz traditionalist, it changed the way I listened to male jazz singers, full of scat, leaps and bounds and melodies, not to mention strong, stirring ballads -- that was the Mark I loved the most.

Eventually Mark moved more "out" and really personalized his music, bending his voice to the sounds that he hears and still makes use of the lyricism with honest emotion, even though he is in the most progressive of vocal states. Not everyone gets this ( I certainly don't always), but the ones who do are slavish in their devotion. Jonathan Schwartz , the "curator" of the great American Song Book and host on Sirius Radio proclaims Murphy the greatest Jazz singer of these times. He constantly lands number one in the Yearly Downbeat Best Male Jazz Singer poll.

Now we talk about the dark side of the record business. For a man who has made 40 albums, he wants to know where the money is...

Me: Well I just saw this new compilation of yours on Rhapsody music service. Do you like the cuts they picked?

MM: I don't know, I don't have a choice. They throw these things together and I am not in the light about all this.

ME. You don't even know about this?? They (I have to find out who they are) can just put together your music and sell it?

It was really not a conversation either of us could continue, how can you talk about a business that is no longer a business, the record business.

We were pulling into Newark and Mark proclaimed that he was no longer talking and that he was resting for the radio. One thing Mark knows how to do is cut out all distractions and concentrate on his career and what the next move should be

His new CD, Never Let Me Go is available on CDBaby.com -- where many of us who want to get paid eventually move on to, even ones who have been on labels as big as Verve and Concord, as Mark has been. I am not sure he even knows what CDbaby.com is, but maybe he will be thrilled when the checks come in from this artist driven company.

See Mark at Birdland! Get his Never Let Me Go and if you are a fan of really hip traditional vocals, go back into his catalog (probably on Amazon) and find Meet Mark Murphy.You will get to experience the last of the great original cool cats -- one who might have had lived several of his lives but with a couple more to go. With Mark entering into his 80th year, the time to see him is NOW -- which happens to be this Sunday at Birdland.