When I first heard Mark Murphy’s rendition of “You Go to My Head,” the lead track on Songs for the Geese, I remember being in absolute awe of his unique style and completely free rhythmic phrasing. His nimble voice jumps from low gravelly tones to soaring high falsetto with ease, leaving behind a trademark sound that is difficult to imitate. He has the ability to be vulnerable and soft in one moment, and then boisterous and booming the next, leaving his audience on the edge of their seats. Mark’s artistry and love of jazz music is evident on over forty recordings.
Mark was raised in Syracuse, New York by a very musical family. He began piano lessons at age seven and went on to study music and drama in university. He began emulating and interpreting Nat “King” Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, playing in bars around campus. Upon moving to New York, Mark released his debut record Meet Mark Murphy (1956), gaining attention from mainstream jazz outlets as an up-and-coming crooner. With the release of Rah! (1961), featuring Bill Evans, Blue Mitchell, and Wynton Kelly, Mark began trademarking the vocal acrobatics that we associate with his sound today. He was also a talented lyricist—check out his work on Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.”
Mark knew that he might never be a household name, but his fearless, improvisational style influenced many young jazz vocalists and jazz music itself. One of his most well-known protégés, Kurt Elling, praised Mark on many occasions for being one of the leading innovators in vocal music. “For new people coming to Mark’s table, he is such a potent flavor,” Kurt Elling said to Jazz Times a few years back. “It’s a very distinct and powerful spice, and not everyone’s ready for that.”
This past October, we said goodbye to one of the greatest vocalists and lyric writers of jazz history. Mark Murphy’s unforgettable voice will resonate with jazz lovers long after his passing.