By Colin Hogan
It was a little over a month ago that one of the most celebrated people to ever come from Fulton, N.Y. passed away. There was no obituary sent to the local papers, as he hadn’t lived in the area for many years, but his death certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
Newspapers like The New York Times, the Washington Post and London’s The Guardian all featured their own obituaries of Mark Murphy — a legendary jazz vocalist and native Fultonian. He passed away on Oct. 22 in Englewood, N.J. due to complications of pneumonia, according to his manager. He was 83.
While his career caused him to live most of his life in places like New York City and London, Murphy was born in Syracuse on March 14, 1932 and raised in Fulton, surrounded by a family of musicians. He began taking piano lessons as a young boy, and, by the time he was a teenager, he was singing in his brother’s six-piece jazz band.
In 1953, he graduated from Syracuse University and moved to New York City to begin his singing career. It was only a few years later he released his first album, “Meet Mark Murphy,” which was followed by several others.
The big-name critics in the jazz universe can’t overstate his significance in the genre. Over the course of his career, he was nominated for six Grammy Awards and named the Male Vocalist of the Year several times in Down Beat magazine. Jazz critic Will Friedwald once wrote that Murphy was a major influence “on virtually all the well-regarded singers of the current generation.”
Among his contemporaries, he was highly regarded for evolving the jazz singing model through the use of unique vocalizations and unconventional harmonic structures.
“He was a frontiersman. There’s no other way to put it,” said jazz singer Nancy Kelly, who resides in central New York. “He did things musically that were very uncommon among vocalists, particularly his use of harmonics – things the untrained ear might hear as discordant. I get speechless sometimes because I’m so blown away by him.”
Murphy didn’t just inspire singers like Kelly, though; he helped them. His friendship with Kelly grew over encounters in central New York and, the next thing she knew, he was trying to put her on one of his records and joining her on stage at Birdland.
“Whenever Mark would come up here in the summer for a little while we would hang out and talk jazz. We got to be good friends. Sooner or later he started coming to my gigs in New York,” she said. “Turns out there is no bigger compliment than when the person you idolize validates your work.”
Jean-Pierre Leduc, Murphy’s agent who also penned his Washington Post obituary, said “there’s no male vocalist working today who comes close” to Murphy’s legacy.
“Mark was an innovator. He didn’t really hit his stride, by his own admission, until he was about 40,” Leduc said. “But those successive 40 years saw him involved in wonderful recording projects, as well as countless very memorable concerts.”
Leduc says it wasn’t just Murphy’s unique style and “supremely gorgeous instrument” that carried him to success. He also knew how to make use of the text.
“What made Mark different was that he had the understanding of the lyric,” Leduc said. “He lived a full life, and was therefore able to interpret the lyric.”
Allan Howe, a cousin and a fellow jazz musician, said Murphy leaves “a wonderful legacy and tons of sorrow” behind him, particularly among the performers he worked with.
“If one surfs YouTube and types in ‘Mark Murphy,’ one will find testimonials by so many people about how Mark affected them,” Howe said.
Howe recalls a family reunion held in Fulton a few years ago, which he described as a showcase of “all the diverse musical talents in the family.”
“Carol Fox and the Fulton Music Association sponsored a Murphy-family musical reunion held at G. Ray Bodley (High School) a few years ago. It featured a large number of all us Murphys, Howes and Bidwells,” Howe said. “Afterwards, we had an informal jam session at the family cottage in Fair Haven, with Nancy Kelly joining us.”
When Howe started to play a blues tune he had written, he was delighted to hear Murphy and Kelly begin to vocalize over the bass line.
“Mark’s signature tune is ‘Stolen Moments,’ and that was surely one of them,” Howe said.
Howe said those few family-gathering moments in which he got to perform with Murphy were some of the most gratifying experiences of his musical career.
“The experience of actually playing with Mark was so intense that I rushed from the stage afterwards and passed up the chance to play another,” Howe said.
And despite the acclaim he garnered over the decades, he always maintained a boyish excitement for the opportunity to share his art.
“Mark was a complete gentleman, and I will always treasure the time we worked together,” Leduc said. “Even in his last years, he was like a kid. Nothing was more exhilarating than telling him I had confirmed concerts in Istanbul, Paris, Berlin and London.”
Above all, Murphy will always be considered a true “singer’s singer.”
“He will remain a source of inspiration and truth, and will forever be a gold standard for all those who continue to seek to understand jazz singing,” Kelly said.