BAY AREA ARTISTS SING OUT (BAASO)
A brimming cup of cheer with Jim Murdoch, the musician clown
November 6, 2007
By Jean Bartlett, Managing Editor
When I first heard Jimbo the Clown enter the performance hall, he was playing the “Libiamo” waltz from La Traviata on accordion. It’s a melt-away song, utterly transporting with its warmth and good cheer, very much like this clown man himself. At the end of his mime performance, Jimbo played and sang one of his own compositions “waltz to the sea” from his 2006 CD release of the same name. This song stays with you like an old lullaby, rocking you back and forth long after the clown has gone home.
In talking with musician, composer Jim Murdoch about his life as Jimbo the Clown, legendary mimes and jesters who came before him, stroll between sentences like a coveted walk along Clown Alley. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, the Fratellini Brothers of the Cirque Medrano in Paris, Lou Jacobs and his pint-sized Chihuahua Knucklehead – they are all on the same pages as those that performed this ancient craft back in the days of Pharaohs. Murdoch explained that he is a part of a tradition that is as old as civilization.
“Clowns have been around in all cultures, forever,” said Murdoch. “In other cultures their role is understood to be in spirituality and healing. They are a way to bring people back into balance, within nature and within themselves.”
“I first started performing as a clown back in 1978. I performed with my teacher, Bobby Morris, who was a professional clown. We got a job in Santa Barbara to do our clown show right downtown on State Street. We had a two-ring circus. He did tricks with a chair and I had a ring where I juggled and played the harmonica. We also performed a courtship melodrama, a tightrope act and sang about our beloved dog. That’s where it all began.”
Born in Helena, Montana, Jim’s family moved to California when the artist was two. Growing up in Southern and Central California, Jim didn’t have any particular affiliation with clowns other than: “I remember watching Red Skelton, Art Carney and Jackie Gleason and totally enjoying them.” His household, however, was definitely musical.
“My mom studied the clarinet and the violin as a kid. My dad had also studied the violin and he loved to sing and to dance. My sister had a xylophone which I played melodies on and I had a Mickey Mouse guitar. My parents asked me if I wanted piano lessons but after seeing my friend being almost dragged to lessons, I didn’t want that for me.” Among the music choices, a bit of clown study did sneak in. “From watching old W.C. Fields movies, my older brother taught me how to juggle.”
Murdoch headed off to UC Santa Barbara and obtained his degree in Sociology. He also took a piano class for non majors in his senior year. “I had been playing the guitar with my friends all through high school and college and I thought; it’s time to check out the piano. The opportunity to study music seriously was the beginning.”
Serendipity also stepped in when Jim took a summer class on mime. “Over the next few years I was able to branch out.” One class lead to another and eventually Jim took a clown workshop. “After graduation I worked part-time, practiced piano eight hours a day and eventually volunteered at organizations in need of a musician and/or a clown.” The guitarist and pianist would also learn to play: flute, dulcimer, accordion, harmonica and castanets.
In choosing his clown makeup, Murdoch was very familiar with the different types of clowns. The Auguste clown has the most exaggerated make-up and movements. The whiteface clown is the classic clown, wearing makeup not to disguise features but to reveal them. The character clown is someone who plays an identifiable character like a policeman or a nurse. There is also the hobo clown. Jim chose his version of the classic clown: “In the tradition of the European mime, I wanted it simple, just enough makeup to exaggerate the drama so everything is visible.”
In 1980, Murdoch moved to San Francisco and apprenticed with the Pickle Family Circus for 18 months. Along with the rest of the company, apprentices set up bleachers, took the show down and participated in all aspects of circus work. In addition, Jim performed in a clown skit with lead Pickle Family clown Larry Pisoni and three other clowns. “Larry played the tuba,” said Jim. “I played my small accordion. Each clown in the skit played a different instrument and we all did a hat routine, which of course created purposeful friction.”
In the spring the Circus would travel to venues within a day’s drive. In summertime their cars headed up through Northern California, to Oregon and on up into Washington.
“We each had a tent. We cooked together and of course performed together. It was a wonderful time,” said Murdoch. “It was like car camping.” The experience enabled Jim to go out on his own.
“For me, there is something appealing about a clown as a mythological creature, an archetype. To be able to use that in live performance is very rewarding. This archetypal figure is a symbol of transformation of how beauty and art can enrich people’s lives. And that is what my clown show is about – kids being able to come up and participate. They get to express themselves with creativity and have fun and their parents get to see it.”
In his clown show, Jimbo has kids help him fish and juggle and play different musical instruments. He also tickles their funny bone as he displays his musical acumen on a Godzilla-size harmonica, a teeny-tiny harmonica, and a just right harmonica. His frequent dusting of volunteer stage hands is met with giggles and his music inspires lots of free form dancing.
“I never use my audience to make fun. I just want them to realize they are creative and that it is fun to be creative, in spite of what our art teacher or music teacher says.”
Maybe that’s why after each clown performance the 6 foot 5, size 13-shoed Murdoch receives many warm hugs around the knees. “That’s about as high as the three and four year olds can reach,” said Murdoch. “And knee hugs are a wonderful thing.”
Along with appearances on television or at libraries, schools and parks, Jim really enjoys being Jimbo at inspirationally named festivals and parties such as: the California Prune Festival (now the Dried Plum Festival), the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Hayward Zucchini Festival, the Reno Italian Festival, the Seattle Bumbershoot Arts Festival and the San Francisco Ballet Sugar Plum Parties. Though more of a bird watching event than a silliness gathering, Jim would love to perform at the Kern River Valley Turkey Vulture Festival because the name simply spells; fun.
One of Jim’s favorite visual Festival recollections happened at the Strawberry Festival in Oxnard. “It was in May and there were huge gourmet designer strawberries dipped in chocolate. One of the vendors was Jack Daniels and the company had a 20-foot inflatable Jack Daniels bottle and there was a deck in front of it. So at 10 in the morning, there were a bunch of guys dressed in black, wearing hats, smoking cigarettes and looking like Waylon Jennings, sitting there drinking their Jack Daniels with chocolate dipped strawberries. It was a sight.”
Along with being a clown, Jim the musician had a calling to work in community service. In the mid 1980s San Francisco’s World Arts West, then known as City Celebration, would send performers to bring entertainment to local convalescent hospitals and Jim signed on. “It was an arts organization that really helped continue the community service I began in college.”
“An amazing doctor, an oncologist Dr. Ernest H. Rosenbaum, really got the program going. One of his patient’s family gave a donation to start the program. I remember the first patient I went to see. The Nursing Supervisor and the Director of the Program gave me a nudge to take myself and my accordion and to go knock on doors and see how people would respond. The man on the other side of that first knock was a fellow who had AIDS. He was going to be transferred to Laguna Honda Hospital and he was nervous about the change. He told me he was from Louisiana. I told him I knew a Cajun song: “Te Petit, Ma Te Mignon” (You’re Little, But You’re Cute.) I played it and sang it and he immediately burst into tears because it was a way for him to have an outlet for his emotions.”
“Most of the time people don’t ask me to sing specific songs, just whatever I want. So I play what first comes to mind and people have a reaction and they tell me a story. Music opens a door.”
“There was an 80-year-old Irish woman who told me to play whatever I wanted and I played an instrumental. She told me it reminded her of her husband who was in the Merchant Marines and each time before he set sail, he would make this strong sailor’s coffee and the two of them would sit there in the dark and look out at the morning stars together.” This and other experiences with people in the hospital have inspired some of Jim’s compositions for his upcoming CD.
“I see how music can help alleviate suffering in the sense that music makes the place friendlier. People come there; they don’t want to be there. They are facing something very serious, something that is life threatening. To hear music is the opposite side, the balancing element. It is life affirming and positive. So suddenly everything is not just tragedy. It helps people relax and go through what they need to go through. It is true for the staff as well, if not more so.”
“As to how I feel about it – it goes back to what I learned from a book called “Black Elk Speaks” (1932 autobiography of an Oglala Sioux medicine man). Black Elk talked about how in the terms of healing, you are a companion accompanying someone during a difficult time in their life, whether they survive or not. To me, that clarifies what my role is. I can be a witness and a companion who is present with that person. That is where the gift is. You don’t make wishes for them, you just be there with them.”
Murdoch generally does not appear as Jimbo the Clown at the hospital. “Except on Halloween and then I show up not as Jimbo the Clown but as Jimbo the Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgeon – hoping to help the ‘other’ doctors.”
When not in costume, or working at Mount Zion, you might find Jim playing guitar at a Napa winery or in a San Francisco cafe, or playing Celtic music at a local venue or maybe even teaching the flamenco to Chinese American senior citizens at a retirement community in San Francisco.
Despite Jim’s adventures with writing silly songs on guitar in his college days; it wasn’t until he was on his own as a clown in the 90s that the songs really began to flow. “I would stroll and make things up on the spot. And I started composing from improvisation. But I waited for a while before I recorded it. I wanted to build my song vocabulary from more life experiences.”
“One of my friends said the more personal music is the more effective it is. I think that is really true. And if I may quote Carlos Gardel (Argentinean legendary singer recognized as the King of Tango): “I like to leave a little piece of my heart in everything that I do.”
Jim’s 2006 CD “waltz from the sea” takes the listener for a joy ride through Murdoch songs of sea, and tango, Appalachian dulcimer, flamenco and more. He’s an incredibly skilled musician, with elegant notes of virtuosity showing up all over the place. His words and his music are very easy and rhythmic and playful on the ears. It’s like that sensational innate childhood recognition: that we can sing every day.
Come January, Jim will head into the recording studio with a whole new batch of songs. He’s bringing good musical friends with him and at the time of this interview, sharing an early draft of several compositions. The tunes are crossover folk, thoughtful, melody reverent and fine; a musical soufflé well worth waiting for.”
As to those who are looking for clown tips. “Shop at Astrid’s Rabat on 24th in San Francisco where they can order you great socks,” said Murdoch. “Read the book called “Silent Clowns” by Walter Kerr which is very informative and interesting. Pursue a course of study that inspires you.”
As to whether Jim Murdoch is who he wanted to be when he grew up, the clown musician man answers: “I didn’t know this was what was going to happen. But yes, life makes sense.”
(To purchase his CD, find out his schedule and to learn more about Jim Murdoch and Jimbo the Clown, visit the artist’s website at: http://www.jimmurdoch.org/clown.html.)