Renowned Toledo jazz musician Clifford T. Murphy dies at 87
Clifford T. Murphy, one of the most revered jazz musicians in a city known for producing many great ones, died Wednesday in ProMedica Toledo Hospital from multiple health issues. He was 87.
Mr. Murphy’s ailments included diabetes and kidney disease, the latter of which resulted in kidney dialysis treatments three times a week in recent years.
Both legs were cut off below the knee because of serious infections, starting with his left one in November, 2014.
Eleven months later, his right leg was amputated as well. But his health rapidly went downhill after a traffic accident Oct. 3, which left him with a broken femur. He returned to his residence at Merit House, 4645 Lewis Ave., following a month of hospitalization, but the ordeal and the ensuing complications exacerbated his decline, his daughter, Deborah Murphy, said.
“We're happy about him no longer suffering and being in pain,” she said. “He finally let go.”
Mr. Murphy was a bassist who impressed people by how effortlessly his unusually large, bear-like hands glided across his instrument’s strings. But to hundreds of musicians — many of whom went on to play professionally across America — Mr. Murphy was the more calming, gentle, and reassuring half of a duo that for several decades took it upon themselves to teach young people how to play jazz through real-life nightclub experience.
Mr. Murphy and his longtime musical sidekick, jazz pianist Claude Black, performed together from the late 1940s until Mr. Black died of cancer in 2013. Much of it was at the now-defunct club called Murphy’s Place in downtown Toledo that Mr. Murphy and his partner, the late Joan Russell, operated for years. The Murphys — the house band anchored by Mr. Murphy and Mr. Black — played as many as six nights a week.
Michael Whitty, who played trombone and piano on and off with those two since 2000, said he put plans to move to Florida on hold until Mr. Murphy stopped performing in 2016. Mr. Whitty, who now lives in the Tampa area, said he felt so indebted to Mr. Murphy that he told him he would carry his bass and “carry him, if necessary” to gigs after Murphy’s Place closed just so his aging mentor could continue to perform at other venues, such as the Toledo Club.
“I'm just happy that he doesn't have to suffer anymore,” Mr. Whitty said. “He was a beautiful human being. He was encouraging to anyone who wanted to learn the art form.”
He said he was impressed how Mr. Murphy “was all smiles” and “acted like nothing was wrong” even when people knew he was in pain recently, adding that he “didn’t dwell on the negatives.”
Sean Dobbins, a Detroit-area drummer and Wayne State University faculty member, said he turned down his chance for a University of Michigan music scholarship to instead perform with Mr. Murphy and Mr. Black at Murphy’s Place after high school, adding that he knew in his heart it was an important hands-on opportunity he couldn’t pass up. He played in a trio with them for eight years, from 1993 to 2001, and continued to come back to sit in with those two in subsequent years.
“That was my university. That’s where I learned to play,” Mr. Dobbins said.
Jazz has had its share of drug abuse over the years. Mr. Dobbins said Mr. Murphy encouraged him and other aspiring musicians to stay away from drugs and “build the person before you build the musician.”
“Young people wanted to be around him because he genuinely cared about them,” Mr. Dobbins said. “He was always accessible. He was always answering questions. Clifford made people feel confident.”
Toledo-area jazz vocalists Lori Lefevre Johnson and Morgan Platt Stiegler also recall him fondly.
“Clifford was a kind and gentle big bear of a man who left a huge legacy of jazz in our community. He was a mentor for so many young jazz players, offering support and encouragement, a big smile and a warm hug,” Ms. Lefevre Johnson said. “I was blessed to sing with Clifford [Murphy] and Claude Black at Murphy’s Place where I learned so much about jazz, about performing, and about love and support for your fellow musicians. Clifford was a musical giant full of love for the music and for all who were lucky enough to share the stage with him. He could play any jazz standard in any key and play it right.”
Ms. Platt Stiegler described him as “a gentle soul, an otherworldly musician who was cut of a different cloth than others.”
“A light came from him that one cannot describe but would know it to see it,” she said. “Some would call it a positive energy, others a creative energy. Clifford was steady and calm and peaceful. He embodied jazz, art and God’s love.”
One of Toledo’s best-known blues guitarists, Patrick Lewandowski said Mr. Murphy used to sneak sandwiches to homeless people through the Murphy’s Place kitchen doorway.
“Joan would get mad about it, but he did it anyway,” said Mr. Lewandowski, a founding member and longtime music director of Tent City, the biggest annual event of the homeless awareness group, 1Matters.
Dave Gierke, Toledo School for the Arts development director, said Mr. Murphy and Ms. Russell “were one of the first to embrace” the fledgling charter school’s commitment to the downtown area when it began holding classes in 1999.
He described Mr. Murphy and Mr. Black as “mentors and surrogate instructors to our students and the impression still exists within our alumni.”
Ken Zuercher, a retired TSA music instructor, said Mr. Murphy was especially supportive of young musicians.
Antar Martin, a jazz bassist in San Diego, is one former TSA student who said Mr. Murphy and Mr. Black “were the building blocks to what led some of us to become professional musicians.”
“They really did open all of our eyes up to the world of jazz. Even more than 2,000 miles away, that influence of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Black is still felt,” Mr. Martin, 34, who played for years in the Navy’s jazz band and is now a freelance musician, said.
Mr. Murphy was born Feb. 5, 1932 in Toledo.
He attended Robinson Junior HIgh School, where he played football and basketball, then went on to Scott High School but did not graduate.
His parents allowed him to enter the military in 1949 at age 17, before the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. He was stationed in Japan before being sent over to fight in Korea.
An Army infantryman, Mr. Murphy earned two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars.
In a 2017 interview, he told The Blade that his father, the Rev. Robert Murphy, had a great influence on him as a child.
Being in the church choir whetted his appetite for music, he said.
An aunt wanted him to play saxophone.
“But all I heard were bass tones,” Mr. Murphy said back then.
He bought his first bass after returning home from Korea, riding a bus downtown with his mother. It was so big he couldn’t get it through the bus doorway. So he carried it two miles home.
For years, local jazz historian-photographer Doug Swiatecki visited Mr. Murphy on a weekly basis while working on a book he is doing about Toledo’s jazz history. He said he is devoting an entire chapter to Mr. Murphy and finds himself trimming because there is such a deep connection.
One thing many people probably don’t know: As a young boy, probably 8 or 10 years old, Mr. Murphy sat inside the home of Toledo’s Art Tatum — widely viewed as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time — to hear him practice later in his career when he came back to town from New York.
Mr. Swiatecki said he’s aware of only one other musician alive today, Toledo-born jazz pianist Stanley Cowell, who has a connection to Mr. Tatum.
He said Mr. Murphy was inspired to become a bassist by the great Ray Brown, a bassist who was once jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s husband and a member of her band.
“Clifford is emblematic of the history of jazz,” Mr. Swiatecki said, referring to an era in which masters “learned from their elders.”
“You could use the word ‘icon.’ He was literally and figuratively a giant of jazz. But these words fall short,” he said. “The guy was just loved by everyone.”
Perrysburg native Ray Parker, a bassist who performs in some of New York’s finest jazz clubs, said he has always been in awe of Mr. Murphy’s large hands and his “warm and generous” spirit.
“He was one of the cornerstones for years,” agreed his father, Gene Parker, a multi-instrumentalist who was a 1980 National Endowment for the Arts recipient and University of Toledo’s jazz studies director from 1993 to 1995.
Mr. Parker, 76, of Perrysburg, has also taught jazz at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, and at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is show in a 2014 YouTube video interviewing Mr. Murphy and performing with him.
Plans are being made for a funeral service at 11 a.m. on Dec. 7, preceded by several hours of visitation the night before. Locations have not been confirmed yet. Arrangements are being handled by the House of Day Funeral Service, 2550 Nebraska Ave., Toledo.
The Toledo jazz community has honored Mr. Murphy with annual birthday celebrations each February for several years now.
Ms. Platt Stiegler summed up her thoughts with these words:
“Fly high and rest easy, Clifford,” she said. “We love you. Jazz loves you. Music loves you.”