Jazz singer and writer Peter Jones has written a biography of the American vocalist Mark Murphy, which will be published by Equinox on 1 March 2018. Entitled This is Hip: The Life of Mark Murphy, the book outlines an extraordinary 60-year career in jazz. Interview by Sebastian:
LJN: For people who aren’t aware of Mark Murphy, give us a thumbnail sketch. Why is he significant?
PJ: For my money, Mark Murphy (1932-2015) was the greatest jazz singer of them all, because he could do everything: he could swing like Jon Hendricks, he could scat like Ella Fitzgerald, sing ballads like Sinatra, write wonderful songs, and incorporate poetry and other forms of the spoken word. And that’s before you even start with the recorded output – nearly 50 albums and still rising. He was so creative, and took risks constantly, never content to rest on his laurels; Mark was a restless soul, always looking for something new.
LJN: What persuaded you to write a biography?
PJ: Jazz FM have always been big Mark Murphy supporters. When he died in October 2015, they started playing a track I hadn’t heard before – Our Game, from his 2005 album Once to Every Heart. It’s the most intense ballad, written by the trumpeter Till Brönner, who’s also on the track, with lovely, subtle orchestration by Nan Schwartz (link below). What can I tell you? It just got to me. I’d only recently taken an interest in Mark Murphy, based on his ‘signature tunes’, Stolen Moments and Milestones. Our Game just made me want to find out more about him, but there was very little out there – no books, only a few online articles and interviews. I remember thinking: why doesn’t someone write something in depth? And immediately afterwards: I don’t want to sit around for years waiting for someone else to write a book, why don’t I write something?
LJN: How did you set about it? What was the first step?
PJ: I approached Equinox Publishing, who asked for a brief outline. This was hard, for a start, since I knew almost nothing about Mark at that stage. But I managed to scrape together enough information, and a couple of months later they commissioned me. Later on I was lucky enough to make contact with several surviving members of his family, and a lot of musicians and arrangers he worked with like Dave Matthews, Bill Mays and Lee Musiker, as well as the guy who signed him to Muse Records, the late Joe Fields. And of course close friends like Sheila Jordan. One person led me to the next, so that in the end there were dozens of interviews. Thank God for Skype! And I discovered this thing called Mark’s Times – a quarterly Mark Murphy fanzine that was produced for two decades by a guy in Whitley Bay! The one person in the world who had a complete set turned out to live just down the M3 from me, so I was able to drive over there and read them. After several visits he got fed up with me knocking on his door. He said, ‘Look, at this rate it’ll take you years. Just take the whole set away and bring them back when you’ve finished with them.’
LJN: How have you ordered the chapters of the book?
PJ: There are 14 short chapters of biography. Then there are two appendices – the first is about what Mark brought to jazz singing as an art form; the second is about the extraordinary methods he used to teach jazz singing. There’s also a comprehensive discography.
Photo credit : David Jacobson
LJN: When I read the final proof of the book I was fascinated by the stories of Murphy’s teaching methods…
PJ: As a former teacher myself, I was blown away by the stories I heard. Mark knew instinctively that each student is different, and needs a different kind of help to improve their singing. There are many examples of the ideas he came up with. One, which other singing teachers now use with their classes, was designed to make scat singing more focused. Mark would put a pair of singers together and getting them to perform a routine. For instance, one might be a shoplifter and the other a store detective. It’s hilarious in practice, but it works.
LJN: As you researched it, what were the biggest surprises?
PJ: The biggest surprise was also the biggest relief: I realised in retrospect that Mark Murphy might have turned out to be quite dull. He might have led a blameless life, doggedly building his career, going home every evening to his wife and 2.4 children. That would have made a pretty dreary book. But thankfully Mark was the complete opposite of that. He was a crazy beatnik-cum-hippie, who worshipped Jack Kerouac and lived in a camper van for several years and never had any money in his life. At times he got heavily into drink and drugs. He travelled all over the world, carrying his stuff around in a couple of plastic bags. He was gay at a time when being gay was illegal. He would go off and record albums with all sorts of people at the drop of a hat. Such a fascinating guy, and I break out in a sweat when I think how easily he might not have been.
LJN: And the funniest moments in writing it?
PJ: There were many, but some of the funniest came in an interview I did with a drummer called Albert Amaroso, who played with Mark at various times in Buffalo, New York. He told me a story about a strange lunch meeting with some executives from Warner Brothers who wanted to lure Mark away from his deal with Muse Records – he was with Muse for 20 years. Being signed to Warners would have given him a far more stable career and a probably decent income. The Warners people started talking about how Mark and his band should look on stage. Mark just sat there, not saying a word, and after a while he got up from the table. Albert assumed he was going to the bathroom, but Mark walked right out of the building and never came back. There were also many stories about wigs. Mark went bald very young, but you couldn’t be bald in showbiz, so he wore cheap mail-order wigs for almost his entire career. His publicist told him he needed a better-quality one for an album launch, and got him measured and fitted out by a professional wig-maker. Within a week he’d destroyed the wig completely by smearing Vaseline all over it.
LJN: I believe he lived in London for quite a while. What’s the story there?
PJ: Yes, he was based in London for ten years when it was at its most ‘happening’ – the Swinging Sixties. He became pretty successful: played at Ronnie Scott’s many times from 1964 onwards, worked with Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey, made three albums here, was constantly on BBC Radio. He even appeared on TV with Benny Hill and a couple of puppet children’s presenters. And he did some acting. He was once cast as Jesus Christ.
LJN: Where else in the world will the book have resonances?
PJ: Almost anywhere, I would say. There were very few countries Mark didn’t work in. Apart from the US, he spent a lot of time in the UK, Holland, Austria and Germany. He performed behind the Iron Curtain in the ’60s, including Poland and Czechoslovakia, as it then was. And later in Japan, Australia, Indonesia – even South Africa during the apartheid era, when he performed for black audiences.
LJN: Are you planning another book?
PJ: Writing this one has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. But I need a rest now. I’ve got a few ideas for another book. One of the people I’d like to write about is notoriously irascible, so I doubt whether I’d get any co-operation. But we’ll see!
Peter Jones is a regular contributor to LJN
Mark Murphy sings Our Game from the album Once To Every Heart (2005) – with Till Brönner
Gilles Peterson – ‘Why Mark Murphy Matters’
This is Hip: The Life of Mark Murphy at Equinox Books