Turk Plays Carnegie Hall
A Wild Idea
An enthusiastic and warmly sentimental audience filled Carnegie Hall and overflowed onto the stage to greet Turk Murphy, the 71-year-old trombonist who was a pillar of the traditional jazz revival in California almost 50 years ago, and who was making his Carnegie Hall debut and his first appearance in New York in more than a quarter of a century.
-- John S. Wilson, The New York Times, January 12, 1987
A Fantastic Night of Jazz
On Saturday, January 10, 1987, the high energy of Turk Murphy’s hot jazz rocked the famous white and gold auditorium of Carnegie Hall. Murphy’s original compositions, “Annie Street Rock,” “Red Flannel Rag,” and his arrangement of “Mack the Knife,” a smash hit for Louis Armstrong in the 60s, brought cheers from the audience. It was standing room only. Chairs had to be set up on stage behind the musicians to seat the overflow audience.
It all started with a ‘wild idea’ to put on a show—a show at Carnegie Hall, a notoriously difficult venue to book, especially for a traditional jazz concert. On the spur of the moment, when San Antonio bandleader Jim Cullum first heard Turk Murphy was not well, he was struck with the thought of presenting Turk in concert at Carnegie Hall. Within minutes, Jim picked up the phone and began to set things in motion.
Taking advantage of a West Coast engagement to overnight in San Francisco, Jim Cullum stopped by the New Orleans Room to mention his idea to Turk.
"Turk, I have an idea, and I want to see what you think about it." And, Turk lit up like a Christmas tree!
Soon the faxes and fast mail packages began to fly back and forth between Texas and California.
The SFTJF Collection is full of documentation with details of the negotiations over set lists and hall contracts, stagehands, and details of the party the night before the concert.
Of course, Jim knew that when you go out on a limb and do something like this, you never know exactly what may happen. Anything can go wrong and often does, but that did not stop the show.
In walked an angel to back the show.
The Candy Man Can
Enter Charles N. Huggins. Drummer, traditional jazz fan and President of See’s Candies, also known as ‘Chuck’ Huggins.
In a postcard in the Collection dated August 4, 1986, Turk introduces Mr. Huggins to Jim Cullum and his idea for a concert at Carnegie Hall. Turk writes:
Jim has been a longtime friend and has a great band. He was here briefly and has a wild idea about a three band concert at Carnegie Hall. The bands would all be full-time professional groups.
A few days later, Jim called Chuck and, as Jim says:
When I put on my salesman hat and explained my idea to present Turk at Carnegie, Huggins didn’t hesitate for a minute to join a small group of investors to guarantee a shortfall, should one arise.
Everyone’s fondest hope was simply to break even.
No need for worry. The day before the concert, a bright red ‘Sold Out’ banner splashed across the marquee in front of Carnegie Hall.
The Stuff of Fairytales
To stand onstage in the storied concert hall, in front of its tiered balconies rising to the ceiling, filled with enthusiastic ticket holders nestled in red velvet seats, is the dream of any musician.
For Turk Murphy, nearing the end of his career, it must have been the stuff of fairy tales. He shared the magic with a capacity crowd of 3,000 friends and fans—many had traveled to New York from California, or further, to witness the historic moment, to say thank you to the man who had given them so much through his music—and to have a rollicking good time.
At the end of the concert, we had rehearsed Bay City, Turk's theme song. He'd written Bay City. It was a beautiful blues thing. This unique piece. So, John Sheridan, our pianist, made this big arrangement for all three bands. We lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, across the stage, and played this piece. Turk went into the middle, and we played it.
Well, there were standing ovations throughout the night, but this long, long, long ovation for Turk was just amazing, at Carnegie Hall. And it went on, and on, and on.
— Jim Cullum
Welcome Back from Carnegie
Two days after his triumph at Carnegie Hall, Turk Murphy was back at work at the New Orleans Room in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. He confessed to a reporter that he hadn’t been feeling well the night of the show in New York. Turk said, “Being there was more than enough to keep you awake. I felt like there was a hot poker down my neck. But it came off well.”
No I never dreamed I’d play Carnegie Hall. I’d always considered it beyond the reach of this music. Jazz belongs in a room where you can talk to people and they can talk back.– Turk Murphy, SF Chronicle, January 15, 1987
Browse images and audio of Carnegie Hall