This Is Hip - The Life Of Mark Murphy
Book Review by Willard Manus

The consummate jazz singer Mark Murphy gets the respect he deserves in THIS IS HIP, Peter Jones’ astute, deeply-researched biography. Murphy had a long career in jazz, one that lasted from 1955 to 2015 and earned him both professional and personal satisfaction in lieu of recognition from outside the jazz world. He was an artist rather than a popular entertainer, and while he sometimes yearned to become famous he confessed that he wasn’t sure he would have liked it. “Because this way I have a lot of freedom, musical freedom. I call my own shots.” Jones reminds us, however, that Murphy did get several important breaks in his career. “He...recorded for two big, mainstream record labels at a time when jazz was at its zenith in popular culture,” the author writes, then points out that Murphy didn’t help his cause when he refused “to take career direction from managers and other business insiders.” His non-conformist stance cost him dearly over the years, but he never regretted it. Miles Davis was the musician Murphy most admired; he wanted to make his voice sound like Miles’ trumpet, especially in the “Birth of the Cool” sessions. He also venerated Peggy Lee, a singer who taught him that sincerity was the key to a great recording. “Her best ones,” he said, “turn out to be those where she was just herself. She gives deep readings to fascinating songs...She is always able to dig something out of herself.”

Lee in return was interested in him, “a tall, handsome, talented young star in the making.” A well known sexual predator, Lee invited him to visit her at home, where she made a pass and was rebuffed, largely because Murphy was gay and
unable or unwilling to perform.

Murphy stayed in the closet over the years, even though he did have a longtime male companion, Eddie O’Sullivan. He never came out publicly, feeling it would have a negative effect on his career. His friends kept his secret and that allowed him to keep working and taking risky chances, such as recording “Bop for Kerouac,” an album of tunes and readings inspired by Kerouac’s iconic novel, ‘On the Road.’ On it, Murphy sang, scatted, recited, and even played a little piano.

“It remains his greatest achievement on record, and an album that I play to this day,” said James Gavin in Stereo Review Magazine. “It has all the best of Mark.”

To survive, Murphy sang all around the world, in clubs large and small, working with hundreds of different musicians, recording for dozens of foreign labels. He also taught jazz singing (and scatting) in colleges and high schools, and tutored young singers like Lily Dior. Wherever he went he sought out and supported adventurous, progressive, subversive music–-even “acid” jazz.

“He was an eccentric beatnik-cum-hippie whose distrust of the straight world of business was such that it restricted his career, even as it allowed him artistic freedom,” Jones writes. “He did not popularize his art. His unpredictability, his unwillingness to compromise in the struggle between art and entertainment, was the thing that condemned him to obscurity, but also the thing that made him great.”