Almost every jazz musician in Vancouver has a story about pianist-composer Bob Murphy, who died of a stroke on Oct. 22, but one of the most memorable stories came from Mr. Murphy himself, which he told on his website.
At the age of 14, he made his professional debut at the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret, a club in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. That afternoon the band ran through a rehearsal with a man that young Bob assumed was the star of the show. When it came time for the evening performance, that man was nowhere to be found. Instead, an exotically dressed woman walked out onto the stage and started performing a strip tease. Off came one garment after another until the performer was down to a bra, G-string and heels. Finally, off came the wig, revealing that the star of the show was, indeed, the man from the rehearsal.
Welcome to life as a musician.
From that first teenage gig until his death at the age of 70, Mr. Murphy made a living from performing, recording and teaching music, and he came to be considered one of Canada's best jazz pianists. In addition to playing with the biggest names in Canadian jazz, such as Gil Evans, Mr. Murphy also shared a stage with Stevie Wonder, Louie Bellson, Dusty Springfield, John Handy, Sam and Dave, T-Bone Walker, Bo Diddley and Henry Mancini.
Robert Neil Murphy was born May 18, 1945, in Vancouver, the son of Margaret Murphy, a teacher, and Dalton Murphy, an accountant. His father, who played saxophone, clarinet, piano and guitar, got him learning music at the age of four, and young Bob studied classical piano, which was not his first love.
"When he was 13 or 14, he told my parents he wanted to quit the piano," recalled his younger sister, Margo Murphy. "My dad said, 'Okay,' but my mom said, 'Absolutely not! No Murphy is a quitter,' so he stayed with it. And a few months after that, he discovered boogie woogie and jazz, and not long after that he was playing gigs."
Vancouver old-timers will recall Mr. Murphy playing in such hallowed landmarks as Ronnie's River Queen, Isy's and the original Cellar, a tiny club in the city's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood that welcomed some of the biggest names in jazz. He was house pianist for a number of TV shows, including CBC's Let's Go and CTV's Alan Thicke Show.
In the 1970s, he often played at the legendary Gastown music spot the Classical Joint, usually in the company of propulsive drummer Al Wiertz, though that ended abruptly when the late Mr. Wiertz was banned from playing there because of the decibel level.
Mr. Murphy moved to Toronto in 1982, and during his time there he worked all the city's jazz rooms. He also teamed up with guitarist Pat Coleman to start a production company, composing and producing music for films and jingles for commercials. His time in Toronto ended in 1986, when he moved back to Vancouver.
Vancouver pianist-trombonist Hugh Fraser said Mr. Murphy's "artistic compass needle was set on true north. … He was uncompromising." Mr. Murphy was also known for his generosity, going out of his way to help other musicians.
"He would pick people up and bring them to his house, make coffee, buy some food, write the charts out, whatever it took," Mr. Fraser said.
"Instead of complaining about [the shortage of] places to play, he would actually talk [club owners] into moving a really expensive grand piano into a room and then hiring musicians to play there," Mr. Fraser said.
Vancouver drummer Buff Allen, who first played with Mr. Murphy in the mid-1970s, said he was always impressed by his friend's musicianship, but it was his personality that shone.
"To the world, Bob seemed cynical, flippant and kind of dark, because he loved dark humour," Mr. Allen recalled. "But that was really hiding a big marshmallow centre. He was a very tender, caring person, and people would phone him for advice. They'd call him to tell him they were depressed about this, or had problems about that. He would be interested in you as a friend, not just as a musician. He would care, and I think that's why his teaching career was so successful."
Mr. Murphy worked with many singers as an instructor and accompanist. He recorded with some of them, including his first wife, Joani Taylor. The Wall Street Sessions, an album he co-led with Ms. Taylor, received a Juno nomination for vocal jazz album of the year.
He has also had successful collaborations with Christine Duncan, Jennifer Scott and Melody Diachun. "Some of the best singing I've done has been with Bob," said Ms. Scott, a singer and pianist. "Our recording Something to Live By is still one of my favourite things that I've done, largely due to Bob's brilliance."
Vancouver vocalist Heather Soles, who was Mr. Murphy's student for the past two years, noted his skill at teaching improvisation. "He was determined to help me access that part of me that could do it. It was like there was a light that came out of him."
When it came to running the production company in Toronto, however, Mr. Murphy was less successful. "Bob hated it," Mr. Allen said. "He didn't think too much about the business end. To him, the music was paramount. He was often struggling [financially]."
He could also be absentminded. Former partner Jan Trerise recalled a time when the two were heading out of town for a four-day jazz festival, and Mr. Murphy was to arrange for someone to feed his mother's cat. When they hit the road, Ms. Trerise asked what arrangement he had made, and Mr. Murphy replied he had left lots of water, cat food cans and a can opener.
"Cats don't really have the opposable thumbs concept," Ms. Trerise laughed. Mr. Murphy had a deep love of animals, though, according to his sister, Margo, who recalled the long list of pets he had had, including snakes, lizards, mice (which escaped one day, prompting his mother's frightened guests to jump on the couch) and, briefly, an alligator that snapped at the family dog.
Bob Murphy leaves his wife, Monique Van Dam; children, Leigh Murphy and Brian Murphy; sister Margo Murphy; and seven grandchildren.
"He was Canada's finest pianist, an original," Ms. Scott said. "Nobody sounded like Bob Murphy, and he could help you find your voice, too. That's his greatest legacy."