Jazz community mourns loss of Murphy’s matriarchWritten by Kristen Criswell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Within the Toledo jazz community many have stories about Joan Russell.
The 77-year-old was a fixture of the community for many years. She was a mentor, friend, jazz supporter and the driving force behind the jazz club Murphy’s Place.
On Jan. 2, Russell died from complications following a stroke. She leaves behind a legacy of support for the music and music community she loved.
“She was a part of the scene right there along with us,” said Claude Black, longtime friend of Russell’s and pianist with The Murphy’s. “It grew on her like it did on us. It becomes a part of you when you’re around it so much. Gets in your system and your spirit becomes a part of the music and that’s what happened to her. Her spirit became a part of the music.”
Black said Russell reflected her love of jazz by running Murphy’s Place, which she co-owned, and bringing jazz legends to the club from time to time.
Born in Warren, Mass., Russell lived and traveled throughout the country before settling down in Toledo. Prior to entering the music industry, Russell taught at both Maumee Valley Country Day School and Scott High School.
Russell met her longtime partner, jazz bassist Clifford Murphy, 38 years ago and for years traveled with him and The Murphy’s as the group played jazz around the country.
Russell was the “rock” of The Murphy’s when it traveled, said Glenda Biddlestone, who met Russell in the early ’80s when she was a singer for the group.
“Joan held it all together. She’d let all of us play and took care of the business,” she said.
Russell sewed costumes and would go ahead of the group and rent a house for them all to stay, Biddlestone said.
Russell continued with her hardworking spirit, when she and Murphy settled down and opened Murphy’s Place in 1991.
Russell worked in the kitchen cleaning dishes, prepping food and cooking. Russell also maintained the business end of Murphy’s.
“She loved that club and worked hard to make it a success,” said Ramona Collins, jazz singer and regular performer at Murphy’s Place. “There was no one like her. Joan had her own way of doing things. She was tireless.”
Russell worked hard at Murphy’s because she wanted a place to hear Murphy play and a place for people to come and enjoy jazz, Collins said.
Murphy’s stage served as a place for many young musicians to practice their craft and Russell gave that to them, Collins said.
“She dedicated a lot of time to those young musicians,” she said.
Kim Buehler, another singer at Murphy’s, said Russell was a musical parent to many young jazz musicians.
“She affected so many of us,” she said. “Even though she wasn’t a musician, she knew her stuff and would call you on your crap if you were being lazy.”
Buehler said Russell would often come out of the kitchen to check on things, but if an act was really good she’d stay and listen.
“If she stood at the end of the bar with her apron on, you knew you were doing really well,” she said.
Her son, William Russell, said when he returns to town people often tell him the role his mom has played in their lives.
“I am who I am because of my mother. I have been given a great gift,” he said. “So many other people got what I got. I can’t tell you how many people have told me about how my mother served as one of their instructors, mentors and even as one of their mothers.”
In addition to running the club, Russell also had her own music label Sophia Records. The small independent label produced records for Black, Murphy and even one for David “Fathead” Newman, William said.
“My mom leaves a very long shadow. I think she contributed greatly to the jazz community of Toledo and did it for the love of jazz,” William said.
Russell is survived by her son William, daughter Martha Petrovick, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Russell is also survived by her partner Murphy, his five children, 14 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
A celebration of Russell’s life is scheduled for Jan. 16 at Murphy’s Place, 151 Water St. The celebration will feature tributes and jazz music.
Memorial contributions can be made toward the preservation and support of the local jazz tradition through Joan Russell Jazz in care of Fifth Third Bank.