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Turk Murphy 1915–1987

Melvin Edward Alton “Turk” Murphy was born in Palermo, California, December 16, 1915, and began playing in San Francisco dance bands as early as 1930. He played with the Will Osborne and Mal Hallet orchestras during the middle 1930’s, and in 1939 teamed with the legendary Lu Watters. He joined Waters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band which began a steady engagement at the Dawn Club in the basement of the Monadnock Building on Market between Third and Annie streets. The Watters band also included pianist Wally Rose.

Murphy served in the Navy during World War II, but did play some engagements, including his San Francisco recordings with Bunk Johnson and Watters on December 19, 1941. Another set was recorded with Johnson, again in San Francisco, during the spring of 1944.

The Yerba Buena Jazz Band broke up in 1950, and Murphy jobbed around with various orchestras until January 1952, when he opened with his own band at the Italian Village at Columbus and Lombard, in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Later, in 1960, he opened his first “Earthquake McGoon’s” on Broadway, named for the then-popular Al Capp cartoon character. McGoon’s was, at one time, located in the William Tell Hotel on Clay Street, above Montgomery. It then moved to the Embarcadero below Mission, and finally, to Pier 39 where it closed in 1984. From 1984, until his death, Turk and his band played in the New Orleans Room of the Fairmont Hotel. Churchill Street, a narrow lane that runs between Broadway and Vallejo, was renamed, by the Board of Supervisors, "Turk Murphy Lane" after his death.

Here is how the Turk Murphy Jazz Band sounded in 1953, while the group played at “The Village.”

Personnel are: Bob Helm, clarinet, Turk Murphy, trombone; Wally Rose, piano; Dick Lammi, banjo; Bob Short, tuba.

RealAudio is required to hear “Take Me to the Land of Jazz,” with vocal by Turk, and a wonderful piano solo by Wally Rose.

This cut is from the CD Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band at the Italian Village San Francisco, and is available through:

San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation
650 California Street, 12th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 522-7417

Turk was very helpful to new bands, and young players. In 1982 he wrote the liner notes for the South Frisco Jazz Band’s Live from Earthquake McGoon’s album. He praised the band, which plays the San Francisco-styled sound, and then wrote:

I have always found it very moving to hear a good band operate with four horns in the manner of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. I would like to be able to use this instrumentation but it is forbidden by something that always rears its ugly head, economics, so we [the Turk Murphy Jazz Band] continue with a six piece group. Few people realize the thought and effort that goes into the making of this kind of sound. The horns must realize there are lines to follow and of course there are limitations as to register and complexity of pattern. The cohesion and compatibility of thought displayed by the South Frisco Band are absolutely essential in using this instrumentation.

In the past I have probably said more than was necessary about the limited material of many ‘dixieland’ groups. I have also been a little too vocal on the matter of bands in which the front line is made up of soloists. In these cases there is an ensemble made up of three or four solo instruments devoid of any attempt at playing together. Too many musicians consider the playing of an ensemble as something that must be endured in order to burst into self expression which would be, of course, a solo. They will never know the pleasure and satisfaction that can be had from adding an imaginative and supportive part of an ensemble. At this point my soap box caved in.

In listening to the straightforward front-line ensemble on this record one would never be conscious of the constant juggling of harmonic parts. Whoever is playing lead is the only member of the front line to escape this ever-changing puzzle as the lead remains reasonably constant. It is necessary for the trombone to play a part that is generally in the higher register and of a more sustained and legato nature. The all-time master of this line was Honore Dutrey of the King Oliver Band. If the trombone were to play a lower part, he would conflict with the bass or tuba. In the middle register he would make the second cornet (or trumpet) less effective, and if he were to play an intricate high-register line he would give the poor soul playing clarinet an absolute fit. The second cornet or trumpet, contrary to popular believe, does not phrase directly or play a part constantly parallel to the lead; his part is a mixture of direct harmony, contrasting syncopation and fills. The success of filling out the harmony of a given tune by all instruments is dependent on knowledge of the harmonic pattern, a reasonably good ear and a bit of luck.

The purpose of this particular instrumentation is the attainment of a full sound and, in this case, a sound that is very exciting. Without the talent and desire to play in this matter the result is more of a jumble than with the usual three horns. In some bands, the use of two cornets or trumpets is for the purpose of juggling the lead; in this way of thinking, one can back off so as to come in strong later. In this manner is is possible to run the clarinet and trombone into the ground. If this is the way to go, the obvious outcome would be two clarinets and two trombones, then three cornets, then two tubas, etc. Do you suppose this is the way the big bands started?

Turk Murphy

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