Like many of my contemporaries, I discovered Mark Murphy while searching for records to collect and DJ with during the late 1980s and early 1990s. And it was during this time that many of my age group discovered his releases for Muse Records, a label he was with from 1973 until the mid 1990s – just before the label was sold. But Murphy’s story extends far and wide and it’s here that author Peter Jones has shaped what will be known as the reference point for the history of vocalist Mark Murphy.
Born in Syracuse, New York state in 1932 into a musical family of Irish Protestants who were descendents of early American settlers, Murphy had a very unique career within the jazz world with ‘This Is Hip’ covering every aspects of his life, from his childhood and upbringing to his subsequent music career, his personal and working relationships, including an abundance of information that would never known to the wider public unless published here. Many of his 40+ albums are discussed in-depth in relation to their wider cultural context: their inception, recording and ultimately their reception, especially his early works and many of the Muse releases. Generally, the book’s narrative is chronologically ordered with no stone left unturned.
For the uninitiated, Mark Murphy, who died aged 83 in 2015, had a long but disjointed career as a vocalist, pianist and sometime actor, which began in the early 1950s, but it’s his distinctive flexible baritone jazz vocals and original approach to the genre that resonated with many music listeners. He was a vanguard who did not fit the typical jazz crooner mould – still the characteristic that most people today associate with male jazz vocalists. Murphy was essentially a jazz beatnik who aligned himself more with novelist and poet Jack Kerouac than Sinatra. Being a crooner is essentially a career based on compromise; sing certain songs in a certain way without much room for creativity. But Murphy was the archetypal jazz artist – he would perform the same songs differently, use improvisation incessantly and he even created some jazz standards of is own, such as his lyrical interpretations of Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ (1975) and Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments’ (1978).
For many UK readers of a certain generation, the one aspect of the book which will particularly resonate is the examination of Murphy’s resurgence in popularity in the 1980s within UK club culture when DJs like Giles Peterson, Colin Curtis and Patrick Forge were playing ‘Milestones’ (1961), ‘Why and Now’ (1967) and ‘Empty Faces’ (1973) to young, knowledgeable and enthusiastic jazz crowds at venues such as Dingwalls in Camden and various jazz club nights around the country. Murphy commented at the time that he identified with the ‘acid jazz kids’ and their association with ‘underground culture’, as he also considered himself an outsider and a rebel within the jazz community.
The book has many highlights but this tenureship with Muse Records is particularly interesting. Muse had an extensive catalogue of heavily distributed records aimed primarily at a younger, hipper audience during the fragmented jazz scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Here, Murphy was able to insert his creativity and ensure greater control than his time with his previous recording contracts (he recorded with Decca, Capitol and Riverside). One fascinating detail identified within the book is that Muse recording artists only had six hours studio time to record their albums, although, he possibly only received individual flat fees rather than publishing royalties for these records.
Murphy was uncompromising throughout his career including regularly turning down lucrative professional opportunities he deemed undeserving of his time or ability, and this unyielding approach to his life is discussed at length. And thus, the high and low points of Murphy’s life and career in many ways relate to the broader history of jazz. A fringe genre that can be difficult to monetise, a culture that was sidelined during jazz’s decline in popularity with the new rock and pop music of the 1960s and the folk consciousness of Bob Dylan et al. But Murphy found a worldwide home and was a relentless traveller who lived in numerous cities in Europe and performed in more countries than most of his peers. And although real commercial success eluded him, Murphy managed to carve a 50 year or so career derived from jazz and was Grammy nominated six times, although he was never financially rich by any means or driven by monetary gains and its benefits.
Author Pete Jones is obviously a dedicated Mark Murphy enthusiast, but his research possessed more of an academic approach than the usual sensationalist tactic acquired by many biographers. The inclusion of two additional appendices and an extensive discography at the end of the book highlight this. The author did not regurgitate known tales but examined and reexamined these and questioned many of the stories and ‘self-created myths’ regarding Murphy throughout the book. His life was so extraordinary that false tales were not required to make Murphy seem interesting – his life was totally unique. Mainstream acknowledgment may have escaped him during his lifetime, but with the passing of time, Murphy will hopefully be recognised as one of the true great voices in jazz.