September 2005


Muse, 1981

In 1981, when he made his definitive album,
Bop for Kerouac (Muse), Mark Murphy called San Francisco home. But he was living the vagabond life depicted in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a novel he’d read in the ‘50s, when he was a scuffling jazz singer renting a coldwater flat in Manhattan. He’d been lugging a suitcase ever since as he took his world-weary ballad singing and wild bebop all over the globe.

Before recording his eighteenth LP, he thought of the growing interest in the jazz-loving Kerouac, whose Benzedrine-fueled, rambling prose was like a bop solo. “A lot of people put him down – for one thing because he was good-looking and they were jealous, and for another because they didn’t understand why he was considered an innovator, because they weren’t. I thought, why should I do another bebop album and leave out the man who recreated the bop era for us all?”

The result was an aching portrait of the Beat life and one of the most moving vocal albums in jazz. In song and in readings from
On the Road and The Subterreaneans, it evokes the midnight-blue, hothouse atmosphere of the ‘50s jazz clubs, where a pinspot cut a ray through the smoke and lit on Bird, Lester Young, or Sonny Stitt, blowing each solo as if it were their last. As always, Murphy is as much storyteller as improviser, and the craggy velvet of his voice opens the door to an emotional place where hardly any other male jazz singer has dared to go.

Mingus, Joni Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration with the bassist, Murphy borrowed “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a slow, bluesy portrait of Young that takes in the sting of racism and the pain (and ultimate triumph) of those who spoke a musical language few understood. Alto saxophonist Richie Cole, with his icy wail, is to Murphy what Young was to Lady Day: a shadow voice that follows his every swagger, dip, and glide.

Other songs capture the loneliness of the transient, self-involved Beat lifestyle. “You Better Go Now” finds Murphy singing of one-night stands cut short before anyone can get too close. In “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” the album’s searing finale, poet-lyricist Fran Landesman, a friend of Kerouac’s, wrote of a scene she had seen too often: “All the sad young men, sitting in the bars/Knowing neon lights, missing all the stars.” To preface it, Murphy, as vocally expressive as Montgomery Clift, reads
On the Road’s closing, in which the main characters continue to grope for the meaning of life. “Nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody,” Murphy intones, “besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”

The album helped make him the embodiment of an era that forever attracts those who search of truths they can’t find at home. “I never knew it would create such excitement,” he says of
Bop for Kerouac. The Beats are nearly all gone, but Murphy, at 73, is still on the road, restless as ever. - James Gavin