MELVIN EDWARD ALTON 'TURK' MURPHY, trombone
b. Palermo, CA 12/16/15 d. San Francisco, CA 5/30/87
Turk Murphy was born in a small town south of Chico in Northern California.
His family encouraged his interest in music, and Turk's first instrument was a short cornet which originally belonged to his father.
Later Turk received his first trombone, also purchased by his father, and taught himself to play.
After study with a local music teacher and graduation in 1933 from Williams High School, where he excelled at athletics, 'Terrible Turk' joined the Merle Howard Orchestra.
Turk toured the country during 1935 and 1936 as a member of bands led by Val Bender, Will Osborne, and Mal Hallett.
Turk and Lu Watters first crossed paths in Reno.
Turk met many of the musicians he would later play with while on the road, including Bob Helm. In addition to playing trombone, Turk was an asset to traveling bands due to his mechanical skills and love of cars.
Touring in the 1930s was hard work even for a young musician.
The first time I saw Bob Helm I had auditioned for the band he was playing with in Stockton, California, and he said how lucky I was that I did not survive the audition because they went out and did the worst tour he had been on in his life.
The Yerba Buena Jazz Band
Tired of touring life and bored silly playing tea dances, Turk moved to Oakland, California in 1937 where he, Lu, Paul Lingle and other like-minded musicians began collecting records, studying music theory, and teaching themselves to play in the traditional New Orleans style. Before joining the Yerba Buena Jazz Band with Lu Watters in 1940, Turk led an early version of the Bay City Stompers and also played in a small band run by Lingle. Turk and Lu played together regularly at the Big Bear Tavern jam sessions in the Oakland Hills, moving to the Dawn Club as the Yerba Buena Jazz Band under Lu Watters.
There were several smaller bands that tried to get going before the Yerba Buena band did but never got past playing a concert for the Hot Jazz Society of San Francisco. They just didn't have the charisma and the unique individual sound that the Yerba Buena band had. There's some very good musicians who played in those bands, but the Yerba Buena was the right combination of the right people at the right time, playing the right music, and that's why they made it, and Turk had to realize, "This is something special. I want to be a part of that."
I will always remember it a special privilege to have played with such wonderful guys and musicians and will always be thankful that Lu knew so well the way he wanted to go.
The War Years
Just as the Yerba Buena Jazz Band was receiving national attention and steady audiences, World War II intervened. Turk enlisted in the Navy in 1942, working at Alameda Naval Air Base as a mechanic. Turk continued to play, performing with many jazz notables, including the legendary Bunk Johnson. Most of the YBJB musicians left for the war, but the YBJB continued at the Dawn Club with substitutes like Bill Bardin and Benny Strickler.
When Turk finally left the Yerba Buena band, for some time he'd had a vision in his head of how he thought the music ought to be. With Turk's band, you don't hear the four-four on top. There's a lot of two in the left hand of the piano. There's no drums. The tuba emphasizes the first and third beat, but generally the banjo players do not play four-four: they'd accent the second and fourth beat. That was like a cymbal beat. It's a totally different rhythm sound than Lu.
- Hal Smith
Turk's band has a greater impact than so-called Dixieland-style bands. It uses a lot of surprise dynamics, building up from very soft notes to louder, then louder sounds. Appraisers say Turk's organization is unified and the horns play together. There is greater stress on ensemble work than in most bands. But there is no doubt the horn of Turk leads the way for the rest of the group.
- Dick Hemp, The San Francisco Chronicle, Jan 29, 1950, p. 12 This World.
Turk on His Own
Turk formed his own band in 1949. They toured nationally with multiple residencies in New York City, making their San Francisco home base the Italian Village club (1952 - 1954), The Tin Angel (1955 - 57) and Easy Street (1957 - 59).
In that era, in the early 1950s touring, record sales, were all part of what you had to do to be a national band leader.
The Turk Murphy Jazz Band recorded extensively, and their records for the Columbia label increased the popularity of the band nationally, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. Turk’s recordings were well received critically and frequently reviewed in jazz publications like DownBeat, The Record Changer, and others. Turk was often in the top of popular jazz related polls as well.
We were sort of surprised to come into New York and find that our records had preceded us and made such a definite move towards establishing a style to be called San Francisco.
He worked his way into making big records for Columbia, with wide distribution. Some of his records were very good selling records, so he became more of a national figure, with more going on, for a lot longer, many more years, than Lu Watters did.
As his band toured the country, Turk began using the term 'Traditional Jazz' to describe the style he worked in when he composed, arranged, recorded, and performed.
Turk always looked at his band and his repertoire as a large body of literature that paid tribute to King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, the greats, so he didn't like the term [Dixieland], so he coined the term “Traditional Jazz” in order to separate it from what was being played for example by the Eddie Condon's band in New York.
Earthquake McGoon’s Club
In 1960, Turk opened his San Francisco nightclub, Earthquake McGoon’s, at 99 Broadway. The second Earthquake McGoon's, at 630 Clay Street, operated for sixteen years before moving to two other locations and closing in 1984.
McGoon’s was an ideal jazz club. Turk made it into a beautiful jazz club. We had a very strong crowd, especially toward the weekends, and they all became friends; everybody knew each other and they danced. There were so many great moments just watching the crowd enjoy the music.
McGoon’s was a San Francisco fixture with regular audiences who came to dance and listen, as well as being a must-visit stop for tourists and visitors. Turk designed the multi-level Clay Street location himself, and he worked tirelessly to maintain the club and promote it.
Turk was the kind of guy, he'd fix the plumbing and he'd build this and build you that, but he saw to it that that club ran right, was staffed, and he was always working on promotion.
McGoon's actually admitted minors. They had a balcony, and if you were a youngster, you could come and sit in the balcony, sip on a Coke and watch the Turk Murphy Jazz Band play … He wanted to perpetuate the music by having young people hear the band.
Turk was was a success at both music and business, and his band appeared regularly on local and national radio and television, including twice on the Ed Sullivan Show. Turk even had an endorsement with Conn trombones. Turk was a prolific composer and arranger, writing for popular programs such as Sesame Street, for the stage and screen, and for his own musicians. Turk’s music was true to the New Orleans idiom, but he had his own recognizable sound influenced by a wide range of music, especially the classical composer Kurt Weill. Turk’s arrangement of Weill’s “Mack the Knife” was recorded by both Lotte Leyna and Louis Armstrong, a huge hit for Armstrong.
By the 1970s and '80s, Turk had come into his own as an arranger and composer, and he really established a sound. And I think that the biggest difference from the band's point of view sonically, was that Turk insisted on the band playing his arrangements basically as written.
The Turk Murphy Jazz Band
Turk employed a huge number of musicians in his band over the years, and he was a loyal supporter of the San Francisco Musician’s Union. Turk Murphy Jazz Band members played to a high standard and lost their jobs if they failed to perform to Turk’s satisfaction or were unreliable, but they were well taken care of financially. Long tenured musicians such as cornetists Leon Oakley and Bob Schulz, vocalist Pat Yankee, and clarinetist Bob Helm played with Turk for many years and contributed to the stability and identity of the band. At McGoon’s, Turk also employed musicians like Clancy Hayes, Eubie Blake, and others as intermission acts between sets played by the band.
Through written materials and business records, I have found he really looked out for his people. He always made sure they got a living wage.
He would not work for people who wouldn't pay him the best fees, and he wouldn't work for people who would ask him to do things that were outside the bounds of what the Musicians Union would want.
I really think that he believed in the nobility of the profession, of being a professional musician. Although he was very tough on his people, I don't think he ever questioned for one second that musician's right to a living.
During his more than 50 years performing, arranging and composing, Turk and his band were recognized both nationally and internationally. In the 1970s, the Turk Murphy Jazz Band travelled internationally to great acclaim.
The Europeans were crazy about Turk, all the way down to Australia as well. We made two trips to Europe and two to Australia. Traditional Jazz became the key word. There were posters all over the place, like a rock band. We did TV shows; we were totally accepted. We recorded live in Heidelberg; you can tell by the audience how much they liked us. When we got out there, the crowd went wild. We were “burning up the iceberg.”
Turk at Carnegie Hall
Turk received presidential letters of commendation as well as local and state proclamations in his honor. A street was named after Turk in San Francisco, and many articles were published recognizing the unique longevity of his career. In 1987, Turk was featured in a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, the last major performance of his life.
I bridged the gap between these people who have now gone and the present day, and I managed to put down almost everything they taught me.
After Turk’s death, cornetist Bob Schulz took over leadership of Turk Murphy Jazz Band, fulfilling Turk’s previously booked gigs and accepting new work for a short period.
Turk’s wife Harriet was a bass player, and they had one son, Carson. Turk's passion for the preservation and promotion of traditional New Orleans jazz is represented by the meticulous records, recordings, scores, and research that he pursued relentlessly till his death of cancer on May 30, 1987 in San Francisco. Thanks to Turk's foresight and dedication, his legacy lives on not only in the archive of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation at Stanford University, but in the continuing performance practice of traditional New Orleans jazz around the world.
Explore Turk's two scrapbooks by clicking on the images below.