It's about 15 minutes into my phone conversation with jazz vocalist Margaret Murphy-Webb. She's energetic and engaging and boasts an infectious laugh, and every once in a while she calls me "baby," which I like a lot. And then, knowing that the artist is pursuing a music degree at Chicago State University after nearly 30 years of performance, I ask her if, because of tuition and other costs, she has to supplement her income with any additional jobs.
"Oh, baby, you don't know!" she exclaims. "I'm a Chicago police officer! August 1 will be my 20th year!"
I actually did not know this (nor, for the record, would any other visitors to MargaretCMurphy.com, where that information is noticeably absent). I apologize for my ignorance and ask if it's cool to mention her career in print, and she says, "Oh yeah! I just assume people know, but I try not to tell people. That's dirty laundry." She laughs. "But they don't boo me when they know I'm a police officer!"
Of course, I'm betting that the musician doesn't ever deal with booing, given her gorgeous phrasing and vocals, and her presence that the late, great jazz saxophonist (and Murphy-Webb's former mentor) Von Freeman said "reminds you of Betty [Carter] and Billie [Holiday] in that, from the moment she steps onto the stage, she has the audience enraptured."
Born in Gary, Indiana, Murphy-Webb (a mother of three who is married to Chicago bassist Chuck Webb) moved with her family to the west side of Chicago when she was a year and a half old, and the artist remembers music being ever-present during her formative years.
"My mother and her sisters have beautiful, beautiful voices," she says. "My mother had eight sisters, and they were all gospel singers, and growing up, my siblings and I all had to learn how to play piano. But nobody ever really wanted to do anything except sing in the church. Except me."
Still, even though Murphy-Webb admits that she "wished it all through high school - wished that I could make some money singing," she had always leaned toward more pragmatic options. "I thought I might be a veterinarian. And for a while, I wanted to be a stewardess. Well, you don't say that anymore ... . I wanted to be a flight attendant. But I'm afraid of planes, so that got thrown out the window."
By her early 20s, however, while also working other jobs, she found herself occasionally serving as a substitute singer at local clubs, "and I started dating a musician. You know, that's how all trouble starts. And his singer could not make a gig, so he asked me if I could just learn a couple songs, like 'Fly Me to the Moon' and 'Summertime' - you know, those standard jazz tunes. And I'm like, 'Yeah, okay.' And I did the songs and I loved them so much, and jazz just seemed to fit me.
"I loved the harmonies," Murphy-Webb continues. "I loved the saxophone. But I realized, early on, that I was not a belter. That I didn't have that Aretha Franklin/Patti LaBelle thing happening. And that's when Vince Willis - he's a keyboardist here - told me to go see Von Freeman, because I wanted to learn how to sing jazz. Willis said, 'Von Freeman has a jam session at the El Matador. Why don't you go over there?' And that's how all this really started."
Recalling her first visit to the El Matador club, Murphy-Webb says, "I went to see Von, and all these singers were getting up there and the musicians were playing, and Von's personality was just overwhelming. And I just sat in the back. I was afraid to sing, so I just listened, and I kept coming back - I think I went there four or five times before I finally got up the nerve to speak to him.
"And when I did, he said, 'Well, baby ... .'" She laughs. "People tell me I act just like him now, and I probably do. He said, 'Well, baby, come on and do something! Do you know a song?' And I knew 'Watch What Happens,' and I knew my key, so I sang 'Watch What Happens.' And I sang it every Tuesday for about four or five months until Von finally pulled me to the side and said, 'Baby, you need to learn some more songs. If you learn some more songs, I bet I can get you some gigs.'"
With that, says Murphy-Webb, she decided to begin her jazz training in earnest, embarking on a professional relationship and personal friendship with Freeman "that lasted over 30 years, until he passed away" in 2012.
"Von was very, very, very instrumental in my career," she says, "because I'm gonna say that 90 percent of the songs I know, Von taught them to me. And he loved Billie Holiday. Everybody associates her with 'Hush Now' and 'God Bless the Child,' but Von taught me a lot of her tunes that people don't do, like 'You're My Thrill' and 'I'm a Fool to Want You.'"
Freeman also instilled in Murphy-Webb the confidence to pursue a professional music career, even though - as suggested by her 20 years on the Chicago police force - it continually dovetailed with her pursuit of other means of income.
"I started working at this club called The Other Place, which is gone now, on 75th and King Drive," says the Chicagoan. "That was my first paid gig. But I also had a job as a medical assistant at that time, so I would go to The Other Place and work from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. for $30.
"Man, it was a rough gig," she says with a laugh. "But there was music there every night, and the place was always packed, and people loved it because you could work out your stuff - work out your tunes. So I got the chance to play with a lot of Chicago musicians, and meet a lot of musicians ... . That was my debut. That little hole in the wall."
By age "28 or 29," she says, Murphy-Webb graduated from hole-in-the-wall bookings with the formation of her own jazz quartet that performed throughout the Chicago region. And by the mid-'90s, during a year-and-a-half stay in Arkansas, the artist even performed for President Bill Clinton at a charity ball in Little Rock - nearly 20 years before she performed for another president, Barack Obama, at a fundraising event in Chicago. ("He has a truly magnetic personality," she says of our commander-in-chief. "Oh my! When he swept on stage and said to me, 'May I use you microphone?', my husband was playing bass and had to say, 'He's using your mic, Margaret. Just hold yourself together.'")
Yet Murphy-Webb's musical career - which has led to frequent concert and festival engagements, her 2007 solo CD In Full Bloom, and last year's concert tour in Paris - was briefly sidelined in 2008, when the musician was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
"When I had my biopsy," she says, "I was told, 'We'll give you your results in a couple of days so don't worry about this, but I have to tell you, this is a large tumor.' So I was all set for a mastectomy, and I was fine with that. I wanted to live a long life. But thankfully, it didn't happen. I ended up with just having a lumpectomy, and now, on my left side, I'm 16, and on my right side, I'm 58."
Laughing, Murphy-Webb continues, "And I'm happy to be here. But when I was going through chemo, I was just sitting at home, and I was just ... . I couldn't work. I felt sick. But I wanted to learn how to play piano. So I decided to sign up for piano, and the advisor at the music department at Chicago State said, 'You know what? While you're recuperating, just get a music degree.'
"Baby, he made it sound so easy!" she adds, laughing again. "And it was not easy. But it kept my mind off being sick, and it kept my mind off the medication. And now that I'm okay and I've got this clean bill of health, I'm going to enjoy my life. I'm gonna be happy, and I wanna try to make everybody else around me happy."
At present, a big part of what makes Murphy-Webb happy is her hosting of a weekly jazz jam (with partner Anderson Edwards) at the Chicago venue The 50 Yard Line - the venue that used to be called El Matador, and the jam that used to be hosted by her mentor Von Freeman.
"Oh, baby, the jazz jam has to go on!" she says. "Mike Ross, on guitar, is one of Von's babies, and James Perkins, on saxophone, is one of Von's babies, and it's so exciting for us that we've all known each other for 30 years, and we can still come together on Tuesdays and have this jam session.
"Some nights," she continues, "it's disheartening because we'll have eight people in the room. But then the next week we'll look up and there'll be 50 or 60. How do you know? But I remember times with Von, we would all be sitting there, and sometimes, it'd just be the musicians, me, and a couple singers, and that was it. And we would just jam like the room was full of people. Sometimes that's just as good."
And, of course, Murphy-Webb has her upcoming engagement - her first - at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.
"I was so ... oh my goodness, I couldn't believe it!" she says of the opportunity, "I was at a gig when I got the call, and I was changing clothes, and I was told, 'We would love for you to come.' And I was just like, 'What? You want me to do what? You're where? Is it is Mississippi?'
"But eventually I was like, 'Oh yeah! I'll be there!' And we're making a family thing out of it. We're spending the night, and we're gonna see all the other acts, and my daughter's bringing her kids. And I gotta bring my A game!" I'm presuming that's not the name of her gun.