TURK MURPHY 1915-1987
Date Posted: 2006-12-21
(Ed note: We always welcome contributions from our readers and somehow Richard E Hall knew we were planning a West Coast issue, or maybe this was a lucky guess. His observations on Turk Murphy’s music are well taken and I’m sure most of would have an opinion about some of the sides, or have favorites not shown here.)
Melvin E “Turk” Murphy was born in 1915 in the peach/pear orchard country north of Sacramento, in he small town of Palermo. He grew up in the nearby larger towns of Marysville and Williams. he was introduced to music at an early age by his father and grandfather both musicians, and was soon playing in the high school and various other town bands. He started on the trumpet, but was soon intrigued and challenged by the slide trombone, primarily by the need to play counterpoint (to the melody), the traditional role of the trombone (in addition to melody and improvisation, as with all other instruments.
At age eighteen Turk left “the valley” in search of a professional musical career (1933). He was soon playing with bands led by Merle Howard, Val Bender, Will Osborne, Mal Hallett, Paul Lingle and finally, in 1940, with Lu Watters. The 1930’s were rough depression years, so in between these stints, Turk was forced to keep life and limb together (off and on) by working as an auto and motor repair mechanic, at which, surprisingly, he was extremely skillful. Most of the other members of the Lu watters band had to fill-in with outside work of one kind or another. Besides Turk, some of the early members of the band were Bob Helm on clarinet, Paul Lingle or Wally Rose on piano, Bob Scobey on trumpet, Pat Patton or Benny Johnson on banjo, Bill Dart on drums, and Clancy Hayes, vocalist and banjo. Watters, a trumpeter, always used two trumpets in his bands to achieve the King Oliver sound, (Turk did not agree with this, so used only one trumpet in his bands.)
No sooner had the Lu Watters band gained considerable success (1941), when World War II intervened and the members were scattered throughout the services. Very sad timing! The good news is that Turk, Lu Watters and most of the original musicians returned to San Francisco after the war (Turk was in the Navy) and reformed in early 194§. They too the name Yerba Buena Jazz Band (after an island in San Francisco Bay) and started with a very popular stint at the Dawn Club on Annie Street in back of the Palace Hotel. Later they played at Hambone Kelly’s in El Cerrito and the Big Bear Tavern in the Oakland hills. They were a huge success, and for forty years San Francisco was never without a jazz band that rivaled the best ever assembled in New Orleans itself.
Lu Watters retired in 1950 and Turk was quick to reform as Turk Murphy’s San Francisco Jazz Band. It should be noted that Lu and Turk were not clones. Both played and promoted “traditional New Orleans ensemble-style jazz” (a la Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams, Kid Ory, etc), and neither liked the “Dixieland” description. However, their differences appeared principally in the use of drums and trumpets. Turk always felt that Lu Watters’ bands were frequently “too thumpy” due to drum overkill, to the point where frequently Turk’s bands were drumless.” He also felt that a single trumpet was best, as opposed to Watters’ frequent use of twin trumpets. Personally, I agree with Turk on the drums, but must side with Watters on the trumpets. Twin trumpets do have a unique sound, but their absence will not detract from the enjoyment of “The Best of Turk.”
Turk was an avid student of what he called traditional New Orleans jazz. He collected a huge library of sheet music, and one by one he would prepare his own arrangements, using charts, sketches, outlines. Once mastered by the band, the paperwork was put away, and thereafter, as is typical of New Orleans jazz bands, all performing was without sheet music.
Although a very congenial person, Turk was a tough task master and sought perfection. Although he encouraged improvisation, there were limits. Once, during a rehearsal, a new musician performed a very innovative solo with his own flourishes. When finished, Turk quietly leaned over and said; “If I wanted it played that way, I would have arranged it that way.” Thereafter it was played Turk’s way.
So from 1950 until his death in 1987, Turk Murphy and his band continued in the New Orleans jazz tradition, making it the longest-running band in that idiom in the US(& the world). When not on tour or attending a jazz festival, his band would be performing in a San Francisco location, the most prominent of which were Easy Street, Italian Village, Earthquake McGoon’s, Pier 39 and the New Orleans Lounge in the Fairmont Hotel.
He finally received a well-deserved accolade, a special tribute at Carnegie Hall, New York, in January 1987 with great support from his friend and admirer Jim Cullum (& his jazz band). Sad to say, Turk died four months later.
Turk’s compositions include the following:
Little John’s Rag
Something for Annie
I Am Pecan Pete
San Francisco Jazz
Little Enough (Chauncey’s Tune)
Minstrels of Annie Street
Red Flannel Rag
Mesa ’ Round
Turk’s Blues (Social Polecat)
Duff Campbell’s Revenge
In addition, Turk arranged hundreds o scores, the most famous of which is “Mack the Knife,” used by Louis Armstrong on a 2 million+ copy hit.
So let’s get on with “The Best of Turk.”
These numbers come from a variety of different sources ranging over the Murphy band’s almost forty-year discography. Numbers are listed chronologically (or chronogically for those of you who buy Classics CDs):
1. TROMBONE RAG, composed by Turk Murphy, and there’s a story to this one. There was another trombonist in San Francisco who kept imitating Turk’s style and improvisations. So Turk, quite angered, decided to compose a difficult tune that this ”second rater” would be unable to play. So he wrote the music of “Trombone Rag” (in 1945, while still with the Watters band). But when it came to playing it himself, he had his problems. It was only after considerable practice that Turk mastered his own composition. However, these difficulties insured that his imitator would probably be stumped, and he was. “Trombone Rag” remains an exceedingly tough nut for any trombonist to crack, as the casual listener might detect. Also note a fine piano solo by Wally Rose and the super trumpet of Bob Scobey. (1/19/50, GTJ-12026)
2. WAITING FOR THE ROBERT E LEE
By L Wolfe Gilbert & Lewis F Muir, a classic minstrel-show tune, that also qualifies as a march. This number showcases the trumpet talent of Bob Scobey, the excellent background support provided by the Murphy trombone, and the fine solos by Bob Helm on clarinet, Turk on trombone and Bill Newman on banjo. (1/19/50 GTJ-12026)
3. BYE AND BYE is a spiritual that was part of the basic repertoire of turn-of-the-century New Orleans bands. A brief note about spirituals: They were not a product of Africa, but were created by the black slaves, a result of their fusion with the Christian religious influence of their European masters. The slaves could not read or write, so the spirituals were passed along (verbally) from one generation to the next, the composers long forgotten. As a result, almost all spirituals are shown as “Traditional” in lieu of the composer’s name.
There are at least three ways to play a spiritual: as a dirge on the way to the cemetery, as a march leaving the cemetery or as a lively dance tune at the reception. Turk’s rendition here is as a syncopated dance tune. Enjoy the solos by George Bruns, tuba; Pat Patton, banjo; Don Kinch, trumpet; and Bill Napier, clarinet. Also note Turk’s arrangement that includes “church music effect” midway and at the end. As usual, Turk’s trombone support is superb.
4. MINSTRELS OF ANNIE STREET, a rag, is another tune composed by Turk Murphy in about 1945 while a member of the Lu Watters band. A San Francisco columnist once labeled the Watters band “the minstrels of Annie Street,” for the Dawn Club, the cradle of West Coast jazz, was at 20 Annie Street. In this jaunty rendition Turk and trombone remain in the background while excellent solos are performed by Wally Rose on piano Bob Helm on clarinet, and Don Kinch on trumpet. (7/10/51, GTJ-12027)
5. CAKEWALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME was co-written by one of traditional jazz’s most talented and prolific musicians, Clarence Williams. He was a contemporary of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, etc. This is one of Turk’s best recordings and it will be understandable if you can’t sit still for this one. It features the sensational voice of Claire Austin, a native of Sacramento. Also, enjoy the fine opening chorus by Bob Short on cornet, as well as the great solos by Bob Helm on clarinet and Turk on trombone. (4/1/52,GTJ-12027)
6. LITTLE JOHN’S RAG Turk wrote this rag in 1950 to celebrate the arrival of “little John,” the son of his good friend Lester Koenig, founder of Good Time Jazz Records. It’s an A-B-C-D-A rag, and a jaunty one it is! It features fine solos by Bob Helm on clarinet, Wally Rose on piano, Don Kinch on trumpet, Turk on trombone, and good support from George Bruns on tuba. (7/10/51, GTJ-12027)
7. WOLVERINE BLUES was written by the prolific Jelly Roll Morton in 1924. (It’s not a “blues” song at all) This is a great showcase for the fabulous talents of Bob Helm on clarinet and Wally Rose on piano-- plus good tuba from Bob Short and banjo from Dick Lammi. Note- no drums in this ensemble and no trombone- Turk is on the washboard.) (4/1/52, GTJ-12027)
8. KING CHANTICLEER by A S Brown-Ayer, is an old novelty tune that emerged from San Francisco’s “sporting district” of the early 1900’s, the Barbary Coast (centered around Broadway and Columbus Streets) It’s extracted from Turk’s 1953 LP “Barrelhouse Jazz.” The fine trumpet opening by Don Kinch soon leads into a superb banjo solo by Dick Lammi. The balance of this lively tune features Kinch again on trumpet and Bob Helm with his usual great improvising on clarinet. (1/20/53, Columbia CL-595)
9. THE TORCH is another one taken from “Barrelhouse Jazz”, from 1953. The composer is unknown (to this writer). Turk loved vocalizing and showed it by the number of novelty songs in his repertoire. He particularly liked the stories dealing with gambling, drinking, womanizing and partying, although his personal life dealt with very little of the above. Turk was called “gravel-voiced,” and I suppose that’s true. He certainly was no Eddie Fisher or Steve Lawrence! But his personality, flavor and timing always produced a wonderful result-- enjoyment.
This song is a sad lament sung by this poor ‘ole bachelor looking for some party action. (“carrying the torch”), but the gang has “left him flat.” The theme is very similar to that oldie, “Gee, But I’d Give the World to See That Old Gang of Mine.” Anyway, Turk sings the part of this lonesome creature and his sad plight. It’s one of two Murphy vocals selected here, the other being “Saloon,” another poignant heartbreaker.(1/19/53, Columbia CL-595)
10. DUFF CAMPBELL’S REVENGE, dedicated to a friend of Turk’s (who recently celebrated his 90th birthday with a jazz concert). This must rate among Turk’s best compositions, written in the difficult key of five flats. “Duff Campbell” is difficult to play, but it sure has bounce and drive. After the standard introduction (Kinch), there are fine improvisations on clarinet (Bill Napier), trumpet again, on piano (Clute) , trumpet again, on trombone (Turk),ending with an “all together now.” (October 1957, Verve MGV-1013)
This marked the first appearance of Pete Clute on piano in the Murphy band. Wally Rose, the great pianist for Lu Watters and Turk for 25 years, decided to retire in 1955. Rose selected and coached Clute for the Murphy assignment. If there is any drop-off in quality, yours truly can’t detect it. Listen for yourself.
11) STORYVILLE BLUES
12) JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE
13) BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN
14) HIGH SOCIETY
The next four tunes are taken from what can easily rank as Turk’s greatest LP album. They’re from a three-day “New Orleans Jazz Festival” in 1955. In selecting these four tunes, it was difficult to omit such supers as “Papa Dip,” “Canal Street Blues,” “Memphis Blues,” “Pineapple Rag,: and “Floatin’ Down to Cotton Town.” For this outing, Turk invited the great Doc Evans to be guest cornetist. Doc temporarily gave up leading his own band to make this appearance. Listen for his clear and beautiful horn. Then there are the Murphy standbys: Dick Lammi on banjo and Thad Wilkerson on drums. The two “new kids on the block” are not to be overshadowed by anyone. They are the two Stanford “Whizkids” (both attended “The Farm”), Pete Clute on piano and Bill Carter on clarinet. The latter is a mystery to the writer. He shows up on this great album long enough to be rated as my favorite clarinetist! (Now this is something, considering the fine work of Bob Helm). But then Bill Carter, only twenty at the time, disappeared. He appears on no other Turk Murphy record I can find, though he wrote the definitive book on Preservation Hall. In any event, let’s see what you think of Carter’s reed.
11. STORYVILLE BLUES is credited to ragtime pianist/composer Tom Turpin. Written in 1897, the year that prostitution was legalized in New Orleans. Parenthetically, this event created an enormous demand for musicians in the Vieux Carre and was the major reason for New Orleans’ position as the ‘cradle of jazz.” The rest of the story is that the bordello district was given the name “Storyville” after alderman Sidney Story, who introduced the legalization ordinance. This infuriated Mr Story, and his rage only intensified when this fine melody was given his name. Anyway, let’s listen. Instead of the opening melody being on trumpet, this starts with Turk on trombone, and very effective it is; then followed by Doc Evans on cornet, Pete Clute on piano, back to Doc with a cornet obbligato, Bill Carter on clarinet (like it?) and a final chorus with all hands. (10/7/55, Columbia CL793)
12. JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE is a spiritual and therefore the composer is “traditional” (unknown). Although first written as a hymn, Turk plays it here as a syncopated dance tune. It was frequently played by the New Orleans street bands at funerals as a slow dirge on the way to the cemetery and/or as a march when leaving the cemetery.
Of all Turk’s recordings I rate this as “numero uno.” It has everything; drive, verve, improvising, superb talent on the solos, outstanding arrangement (by Turk) with religious effect, all devoted to a wonderful melody. Can’t be beat! The sequence is: once again Turk takes the opening melody with a trombone/piano duet, then a trombone/cornet (Evans) duet; followed by great solo improvising, Pete Clute on piano, Bill Carter on clarinet; then a staccato version of the melody (with a spiritual effect) with all instruments; next Doc Evans blows another fine cornet obbligato, then Turk, on trombone, finishing with the traditional :all together now, and loud!” Magnificent! that should be way up there on your list. No. 1? (10/7/55, Columbia CL-793)
13. BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN was written in 1926 by Louis Armstrong and Percy Venable as part of the Sunset Cafe Show in Chicago. It’s a real stomper. (You can certainly hear Thad Wilkerson on drums- that must have been a real workout). For this recording, the well-known trombonist and composer, Santo Pecora, sat in with the band and took the second chorus. Done in traditional style, the cornet (Doc Evans) takes the first chorus on melody, then Santo on trombone,Pete Clute on piano, Doc on cornet, Turk on trombone followed by the “all together.” (10/8/55. Columbia CD-793)
14. HIGH SOCIETY This is one of the most traditional of New Orleans marches. Some other great marches are “South Rampart Street Parade,” “The Billboard,” “King Zulu Parade,” “the Second Line,” and “Bourbon Street Parade.”
So let’s listen to the old standby, written by Porter Steele in 1901. There will be a trombone/cornet duet by Turk and Doc, a trombone/clarinet duet by Turk and Bill Carter, then Doc’s buildup on cornet to the feature solo by Bill Carter and his magnificent clarinet. This one rally does it- listen carefully- wow!-now do you wonder why I like him? A great final chorus completes this side. (11/4/55, Columbia CL-793)
15. NEW ORLEANS SHUFFLE
16. MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS
Murphy always strove for music highly suitable for dancing and these two numbers prove the point. They are from the album “New Orleans Shuffle.” The personnel are as follows: Dick Lammi on banjo, Bob Helm on clarinet, Bob Short on tuba, Birch Smith on trumpet and features a guest appearance by the versatile pianist Don Ewell. You’ll like his style.
The introductory theme on “New Orleans Shuffle” is a trombone/banjo duet (Murphy/Lammi), then improvisations of piano (Ewell), trumpet (Smith), clarinet (Helm) the introductory theme is then repeated, followed by the final chorus, that blends into the fading intro theme.
“My Honey’s Lovin` Arms” demonstrates the fine improvising talent of these musicians. After the trumpet melody chorus, listen to renditions in this order: piano, clarinet, trumpet, tuba (a rarity), and trombone, then concluding with all instruments. Was that danceable? - or what? (3/29/56, Columbia CD-927)
17. ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE is typical of the novelty tunes and lyrics Turk loves so much- and so did his audiences. (This old tune must have been the inspiration for the later tune, “Second Hand Rose”). For this number, Thad Vandon leaves his drums to ably handle the vocal. Also note the lilting piano of Pete Clute and his coordination with clarinetist Jack Crook, plus fine support from Eddie Johnson, trumpet, Frank Haggerty, banjo, and Bill Carroll, tuba. A fun song- what? (1959, An Evening at McGoon’s)
18.STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE By Lil Hardin Armstrong, 1926, features as guest cornetist the great Ernie Carson (bandleader, vocalist and composer in his own right). This rendition epitomizes the brawny sound of jazz served up by Turk Murphy- if it doesn’t spell D-R-I-V-E, someone can’t spell.The sequence starts with cornet (Carson) on the melody, then improvisations on piano by Pete Clute and clarinet by Bob Helm, leading o a fabulous “Armstrong-type” chorus in “stop-time” by Carson. After fine improvisations on trombone/piano duet by Murphy/Clute, Carson has the strength to return for5 a concluding wild chorus. Only one word left: WOW! (5/2/61, RCA Victor LSP-2501)
19. BIG BEAR STOMP was composed by Turk’s former bandleader, Lu Watters and named for an old roadhouse (Big Bear Inn) in a canyon east of Oakland and the scene of many all-night sessions in the 30’s. There is some turnover in the band’s personnel, but no lowering of quality. Note that throughout the rendition the theme of an Indian war dance appears and reappears. A major role is performed by Leon Oakley on cornet, greatly embellished by solos on clarinet (Phil Howe) and trombone (Turk). Solid rhythm support comes from Pete Clute on piano, Carl Lunsford on banjo and Jim Maihack on tuba. (1972, GHB BCD-91).
20. SALOON This is the second of two vocals by Turk in this selection. As previously related, both are very sad heartbreakers. This one Turk called a “prohibition lament,” i.e. the disappearance of the saloon, the fre e lunch counter, etc. (“the world is not in darkness”). Being a barroom ballad, it will naturally feature the piano on which Pete Clute does a very realistic job of recreating a player piano. (1972, GHB BCD-92)
21. MAPLE LEAF RAG, the first great rag composition by the first great rag composer, Scot Joplin (about 1894). This version is a classic and my second favorite of all of Murphy’s works- #1was “Closer Walk.” Turk’s trombone and Pete Clute’s piano are featured and they rate A-1 for speed, accuracy, coordination and musical effect. Be aware that changing notes on a slide trombone is by the movement of one arm, not by the much easier, and therefore faster movement of many fingers on many keys, as with the clarinet or cornet. So listen up! This is an A-B-A-C-D rag.Turk takes the first two themes (A&B), demonstrating his mastery of the trombone, turning the lead over to Pete Clute on piano, who returns to theme A. This graceful piano theme leads to some fine improvising on clarinet by Phil Howe on theme C.This is followed by the final theme (D) with “all hands.” Superb! (1972, Atlantic SD-1613)
22. MY HEART was composed by Louis Armstrong and was the first number recorded by his Hot Five. This was taken from a live recorded from the Heidelberg Jazz Festival. Note how, after a clever introductory cornet solo (Leon Oakley), the whole band jumps on the first chorus (effective!) The two feature improvisations on this record are great: first by Bob Helm on clarinet, then Pete Clute on piano. (The other shorter solos by Oakley’s cornet and Murphy’s trombone are not too shabby). And throughout there is fine support from Carl Lunsford on banjo and Bill Carroll on tuba. (June 1973, MPS 827 828-2)
23. PANAMA by W H Tyers, also from the Heidelberg Jazz Festival. Turk has arranged this one in the typical traditional jazz format, staying with the melody on cornet several times around. This is followed by three fine improvisations: Bob Helm on clarinet, Leon Oakley on cornet and Turk Murphy on trombone. Then the final chorus with a very effective crescendo for the final time around. As usual, the rhythm section is superb. (June 11973, MPS 827 828-2)
24. BULL TROMBONE, by Henry Fillmore. The tune was found in Turk’s vast collection of jazz manuscripts and exhibits his ability to come up with the unusual. This is actually a rag (A-B-A-C-B), played in marchtime. The outstanding feature is the effectiveness of twin trombones. The talented Bill Carroll puts down his tuba (he overdubbed the tuba later), picked up his trombone and matched Turk blow for blow. Excellent! Leon Oakley on cornet blended beautifully on the various themes. Background and/or tempo were nicely provided by clarinet (Bob Helm), piano (Pe e Clute) and banjo (John Gill). Check that delicate piano on theme C.
(December 1978, GHB BCD- )
25. CARELESS LOVE (traditional) is a bit of very old European folk music, thus the composer is unknown. It was frequently played by New Orleans bands in the blues tradition, and that’s what Turk does here, using his own arrangement. The vocal is beautifully rendered by his friend and vocalist of many years, the extremely talented Pat Yankee. So sway along with this one. (1979, Bainbridge BCD-501)
26. THE GIRLS GO CRAZY is from the same album as the preceding number. Its a toe-tappin’ trombone rag that has been handed down from musician to musician (so composer is unknown) Bunk Johnson handed it down to Turk in San Francisco in 1944. It’s a five theme rag, with all musicians playing theme A in stop-time. The clarinet (Bob Helm) takes B. All hands play C. Piano (Clute) and banjo (John Gill) take D, followed by trumpet (Chris Tyle) and trombone (Turk) onE, all with fine improvising. All hands come back and finish up with a bit of C, D, and E. My toes are still tappin’ How about yours? (1979, Bainbridge BCD-501)
Hope you enjoyed the story and music of Turk Murphy and his bandsmen.