The Underdog

Jazzman Turk Mauro rode high in New York, Paris, and the south of France -- now he's hanging on for dear life through a South Florida streak of the blues

Last November it looked as if jazz musician Turk Mauro's life couldn't get worse. His dad was dying, his career was sinking, he had gambled away what money he had, his marriage was in jeopardy, his health was failing. What else could go wrong?

Plenty. Fate seems to have taken a perverse interest in Turk Mauro.

It was a few days before Thanksgiving at a club date at O'Hara's on Las Olas. A warm evening. Turk played sax for O'Hara's house band, accompanied by Don Coffman on bass, Silvano Monasterios on piano, and Danny Burger on drums. They were a tight, hard-swinging jazz quartet joined that night by a local jazz singer named Beverly Barkley, noted for her blues-inflected delivery that draws on Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald.

Joshua Prezant
Joshua Prezant

Barkley had worked with members of the band before, but she'd never met Turk. They didn't get along.

Turk, age 56, is a fireplug of a man, with thick arms, meaty hands, and curly black hair going gray at the temples. With his beard and moustache, he looks more like a teamster than an internationally recognized jazz musician. Maybe it's his lineage -- his dad was a truck driver. Turk smokes, he drinks, he swears freely in a thick New York accent.

And he lives for his music. Nothing -- not friends, family, money, or a career -- has ever been more important than the music. It's taken him high, and it's brought him low. But a stable existence isn't the point. "Let's put it this way," he says. "I think most people who are performers will tell you they are only really happy when they are playing."

Barkley, who did not respond to inquiries from New Times for this story, apparently did not take well to Turk's style that November night. She thought it unprofessional when Turk and Burger lit cigarettes on stage, and during a set break, she told Turk so. He got angry and rude, as he recalls, pointing a finger at her and saying, "You're in trouble now, you're in trouble now."

Burger intervened, working out a compromise so that when Turk was on the bandstand, Barkley would take a seat in the audience, and vice versa. For the next two sets, that was that.

But about 2:20 a.m. Sunday, as Barkley finished her last song and stepped off the bandstand, Turk did something he struggles to comprehend to this day: He got up from his table, walked to the stage, and punched Barkley in the face. She is a large woman, and she dropped, as Burger describes, "like a sack of sand."

Eight months later, sitting in his doublewide trailer home 150 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, Turk puts what perspective he can on the night.

"I snapped," he says. "I just fucking snapped. Why it happened had to do with the pressure of taking care of my father, of being so badly in debt and trying to hold my marriage together, of having very bad dental problems which caused me not to be able to play as well as I would like to."

Of course you're supposed to feel deep, soul-searching remorse after something as wildly antisocial as punching a woman in the face. And indeed Turk cops to some measure of regret, though it's tough to tell whether he's sorry about hurting her or embarrassed by his own actions. Probably both. "I did the stupidest possible thing I could do," he says.

Turk has thought a lot about that night, and his conclusions are still evolving. Sometimes he has no explanation; other times he tries to put himself in Barkley's shoes. "She must have had something going on that night too to get so angry," he says. This last idea occurred to him after weeks of court-ordered anger-management classes.

At his core, though, Turk is just a guy who's more emotional than cerebral, more hot-tempered than coldly calculating. "I'm a romantic," he says, and he lives the way he plays. And he's not above admitting a certain sense of satisfaction in the quick dispatch of this particular problem. "[Afterward] I went back and sat in the back [of the club] and said, "That will teach you to fuck with me.' People told me that is what I said, and that is what I thought I said." Turk Mauro, real name Mauro Turso, was born in New York City on June 11, 1944, the son of first-generation Italian Americans. His father, Dominick, was a truck driver by trade and a tenor saxophonist in a swing band called the Royal Jitterbugs on weekends. His mother, Angelica, worked factory jobs in places that made processed and packaged coffee and spices. By Italian standards it was a small family -- just Turk and his younger brother, Ron.

As a kid Turk accompanied his father on gigs. But it was at age 11 that he fell in love with jazz after seeing a 1955 broadcast of Louis Armstrong at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Turk immediately went to the basement and fished out a clarinet. "As soon as he finished playing, I went down, put it together, and started to mess with it," he says.

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