TRIBUTE: Tessa Souter remembers Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy in Oslo in 1975
Photo Credit: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo – Creative Commons

The passing of jazz vocalist Mark Murphy on October 22nd has been keenly felt across the jazz community. Here, New York-based vocalist TESSA SOUTER presents a very personal tribute to an artist whom she knew well, and will miss profoundly. Tessa writes:

Mark Murphy was a one-off who I feel privileged to have been born into the same era as, let alone to have spent four-and-a-half years under his close mentorship.

A total original, his singing wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a current male jazz singer who wasn’t influenced by him – most notably Kurt Elling, who started his career sounding so much like Mark, I was shocked when I heard the real thing. (I discovered Mark through hearing Kurt).

And Mark really was “the real thing” in every possible way. Even though he was telling a “story” (he studied acting at University), he was always coming from a place of utter authenticity as well as musicality. For Mark the story and the song were inseparable. Everything had to be in the service of them both.

When he first heard me sing at a workshop (I did ‘Round Midnight’) he asked me why I had held the final note so long. I said something like: “Oh dear. Now you mention it, I think I was just showing how long I could hold it!” And he said matter-of-factly: “Yes. People with beautiful voices have a tendency to focus too much on the singing.” It was exactly the right note – the lesson being, to use music to tell the story (your story) not show off your vocal technique.

So when a few months later he asked me to run his workshops in exchange for lessons and mentorship, I jumped at the chance. As it ended up, I also wrote press releases, publicized his gigs, went to them all (I know, poor me, right?), organized parties, even provided translations for people who couldn’t understand his bop-style one-sentence emails and messages. I was like the woman in Airplane who spoke Jive. I spoke Mark.

But, if it was a lot of work, it was also my labor of absolute love. And, in return, I learned so much from him – not just from witnessing his comments to the many singers that came through his workshops (when he would always pinpoint exactly what was needed), but from being the recipient of his focused love and attention.

He called me “my Tess” and “Tess Trueheart.” He would send me emails entitled “YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and the message would be “You are an absolute angel.” He called me his “next star!” He introduced me to people as “my best student!” He signed his emails “Dad” or sometimes “Gramps”. When I got too busy to run his workshops he wrote to me: “I am happy you are too busy, because you are my gran’baby.”

He came to all my gigs, if he was in town – with flowers. One time, when we were having dinner and I was a bit down, he pretended to go off to get money from the ATM and came back ten minutes later with a huge bouquet. He took me to his recording of Some Time Ago, where I witnessed him nail ‘The Peacocks’ in one take. He presented me at a Mentor concert and forgave me when I had debilitating stage fright. He finally cured me of stage fright by telling me one day: “These people are just here to have a good time. That is all our job is. It’s not about your voice or the performance. You just think, ‘I am here to give these people my love!’”

Sure, he got nervous too sometimes. I can’t count the number of concerts I went to where he’d tentatively ask me in the dressing room: “Do you think people will come?” (Of course!) Or, after a concert, say: “Was I all right?” (Are you kidding? You were amazing!) And even he could be thrown off by someone intimidating being in the audience. But that was part of what made him special. He had a sort of fragility – a human-ness – that made him all the more precious.

And he was very grateful to the people who “got” him. He loved England. He said: “I sometimes think I should never have left!” I definitely think England was more open to the sort of individuality Mark expressed – in the same way that it welcomed the likes of Terry Callier and Jon Lucien, who were largely “boutique” back in the US. His told me he wrote the song ‘Dingwalls’ (which appears on the Gilles Peterson album Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls) to say thank you to Peterson, who coined the term “Acid Jazz” and, said Mark, “reinvented me in the 80s by playing a lot of my fast music.”

He had plenty of trials after returning to the States from his nine-year soujourn in England. But as he said to me, for a 12-page paper I wrote as a student at the Manhattan School of Music (which is where I met him – at a master class – for the first time): “One thing jazz does is open you to improvise your life.” By the 90s he was doing well enough to get a Grammy nomination for the album Song For The Geese – before RCA Victor dropped their entire jazz department. But it remains his favorite album, not least because “it was one of the most pleasurable and relaxing and deep – oh, we went so deep into the songs – recording sessions I have ever done. Nobody was telling me what to do. That whole record was from my heart.”

He hated what he called “office records” – records that “sound like they were conceived by consensus. That’s death to a jazz player because, if I may say in colorful language, it screws up your instincts. If you want to wreck a guy’s magic at his instrument, just tell him to play this or that, not to play this or that, and to play softly and smile. You can’t imagine what that does to the creative process. It’s horrifying.”

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,” he said.

Mark was a true musician expressing his essence. Everything you could possibly want to know about him can be heard in every note. He was not “a performer who sings.” He was a “person who sings.” A beautiful, generous, fragile, loving, real person. To hear him was to know him and he inspired a lot of love. He leaves behind a huge community of singers, friends, musicians and music-lovers who were profoundly touched by his music and his presence, whether they knew him personally or not. I am so happy that he was able to record London, Meader, Pramuk and Ross’s Royal Bopsters Project (Motema, 2015) – an amazing tribute, produced by singer (his good friend) Amy London. I witnessed him listening to it for the first time after it was mixed and mastered. It was so beautiful, I cried. He said: “Is. That. Me?”

The last time I saw him about a month ago he was surrounded by his oldest and dearest friend Sheila Jordan (who, at 86, always ran to see him in the hospice as soon as she got back off tour), his friend and advocate Cha Cha (Francesca Miano), his Brazilian friend Marcelo Maia (giving him a manicure) and me (rubbing his feet). He was so happy. I’m glad I saw that – although he cried when Sheila (the last to say goodbye) left. I will always be grateful for everything he taught and gave and introduced me to – including Sheila Jordan, who has also had a huge impact on my life and music. And I will miss him forever. If there is a heaven, I hope he’s there now, dancing (which he loved) with his partner, Eddie.

LINK: RIP Mark Murphy


Categories: miscellaneous

8 replies »

  1. Wonderful man, beautiful tribute. Just reading this, I want the world outside to stop, to go silent, the way it did on the morning of Diana's funeral here in London. Maybe the seagulls crying can remain, but nothing else. This world will seem such an empty place without Mark's beautiful interpretations, the deep heart and soul of his voice singing. Rest in peace, gentle man.

  2. I first saw Mark at The Bass Clef in London in 1987 on the strength of hearing one song, Honeysuckle Rose, on an NME cassette. I wasn't prepared for what I heard but was soon picking up Mark's 70s and 80s LPs and saw him many times over the next twenty years. The last time was at Pizza On The Park and he invited me to his table after the show to shoot the breeze with his friends. A true artist and a generous gentle man. Irreplaceable and greatly missed.

  3. Time runs away like wild horses over the hills. Just this morning I was listening to one of (a dozen of) his wonderful albums, and he was young, brash, brilliant and so alive….I can't fathom this, Tessa.

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