Kurt Elling Remembers Mark Murphy 3.14.32 – 10.22.15
I first heard Mark Murphy sing at a little place in Minneapolis called the Artists' Quarter. It was 1987 or '88. I don't know whose idea it was among us provincials to undertake hours of snow-driving from our little college in the dead-of-midnight winter, risking icy roads to spend money we didn't have on a singer that few of us had even heard of. But I know why he suggested it, pushed for it, wrangled our trip into being: Mark inspired that kind of commitment, that kind of loyalty.
I also know I was indelibly “Marked” by what I heard that night. Singing with another in a lifetime of under-rehearsed pickup bands, Mark stuck to standards. But he nonetheless created arrangements and segues on the spot; offered cosmic, zany spoken-word passages and crazy scatting; and laid us out with his signature take on “Never Let Me Go.” After that, I did whatever I could to catch another freewheeling set or cop an all-too-rare pressing from the Chicago vinyl stores. I remember one night during grad school I even set an alarm so I could bootleg a live set broadcast from Las Vegas. At 3 a.m. On my cassette recorder.
I met Mark a few years later at a master class he gave at the Green Mill. His response was supportive but not substantive. So a year or so after, I flew myself out to San Francisco, naively hoping for the Secret Key to Everything. I showed up on his doorstep clumsily — without having confirmed my appointment, and without a place to stay. He took me in like you do an unexpected cousin and let me sleep on the couch. I was tongue-tied by my vast array of Deep Questions. Mark was kind but reticent. It was awkward. We barely spoke. I don’t think I actually sang. But as I was leaving the next morning, Mark dug through his closet and gave me an old sport jacket as a gift. That was as close to advice or mentoring from Mark as I ever got. But I’m still proud of that jacket.
What pulled me in (along with so many others)? First, Mark was an artist of spontaneity, adventure and edge-of-the-seat thrills. Also, he was a bona-fide hipster, equally as distinctive and quotable offstage as on. But his ballad work closed the deal: Mark was a profoundly dramatic singer whose sets brought out the rumination and the ecstasy and the agony in any song he sang. His performances were raw and real, as though he were vividly reliving some deeply personal backstory. He was an articulate guide to caverns of the Lost Soul. I don’t think anybody could touch Mark when it came to heartbreaking ballads.
These qualities could put him at odds with some listeners. Mark sacrificed musical precision if it helped him broadcast emotion. His scatting was … idiosyncratic. And when it came to spontaneous-thought performance, not every audience was ready to bounce around the cosmos, let alone the savage back alleys of the hipster subconscious. If you weren't “hip” yourself (or willing to pretend), this persona might appear as just plain weird.
But for all who loved Mark's individualistic glory, these things made him a hero. He had so clearly sacrificed to do his thing: living on the road by himself, saving cash on hotels by staying in a small RV he drove, enduring professional obscurity. He was our world-weary-wise mentor — a guru of old-school survival.
One night, while leading the “Four Brothers” tour (featuring Mark, Jon Hendricks and Kevin Mahogany, c. 2003-5), as I prepared to do my lyric on Joe Zawinul's “A Remark You Made” — which Mark had heard several times — he interrupted my own introduction to ask if he could introduce it instead. I remember the words exactly, and can hear Mark saying them with his unique verbal timing: “You don't know the thing Kurt is about to sing…. But I promise you … if … you … listen … he will … mesmerize you.”
It was a sweet moment, but the praise was misdirected. It rightfully belonged to Mark. If you listened … he would mesmerize you.
Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.