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At age 12 he played for the first time with his father's band. By 14, he had taken up the alto sax and was making good money playing weddings and backing up rock 'n' roll bands in and around New York City. He dabbled in football and baseball, but jazz came first. "Music was part of everything," he says. "That's all we ever did."
Turk joined the musician's union at 15. Too young to get into the legendary jazz clubs like the Metropole, he'd hang around nearby restaurants instead, hoping to run into jazz musicians he idolized. That's how he met Henry "Red" Allen, a trumpet player who became his mentor and got him his first jazz gig at a lounge in Glendale, New York.
Turk graduated from high school in 1962. Lacking any other viable option, he went to work in the mailroom of a bank. It wasn't long before a call came in and he found himself playing sax in the rock band Lou Dana and the Furys for almost a year.
His first marriage, in 1965 to a woman named Christine, lasted ten years before breaking under the strain of Turk's constant touring in the late '60s. "I was always away from home," he says.
They had two daughters, Jennifer, now 33 years old, and Laura, 31. Both spent summers from 1969 to 1972 with their dad when Turk and his brother played in the house band at a hotel in the Catskills. But the marriage fell apart, and Turk lost contact with his daughters -- he once went ten years without seeing Laura, then ran into her when she was 19 and working at an auto parts store. He hasn't seen or heard from Jennifer since she was 9. He has an artist's pragmatism about missing his daughters' lives. "I was so enthralled with the music and so busy, it was OK [to be away from the kids]. Sometimes I missed them, and sometimes I was glad to be free to do what I wanted to do."
In 1975, while playing at a New York club called Sonny's, Turk met Billy Mitchell, who at the time was the straw boss for Dizzy Gillespie's band. Mitchell got Turk a couple of two-week engagements with Gillespie. That gig led to a permanent spot with Buddy Rich's band, a job Turk held on and off until 1979.
Meanwhile he played around New York City enough to establish a reputation and meet the right people. His melodic-yet-aggressive playing straddled the line between the swing he grew up listening to his father play and hard-bop that had come of age in the '60s. He claims allegiance to both schools, but his heart is clearly with the swing-era players -- Zoot Sims and Gene Ammons are two of his idols. A player who uses his horn to get a visceral, rather than intellectual, reaction, Turk "just kicks ass," says drummer Burger. "You don't get a lot of guys playing like that anymore. You just don't."
He's also a perfectionist when it comes to the music, notes long-time friend Richie Finocchiaro. "You always know where you stand with him," Finocchiaro says. "He will let you know. He doesn't hide anything. That's his life, that's what he does."
Some people thrive on that kind of candor, and some people don't. Either way, Turk doesn't care. "I love the guy," says fellow sax player Eric Allison, "but he's a handful. You just never know quite what will happen next if you are hanging around Turk."
He picked up that moniker gigging around New York City. A bastardization of Turso, the nickname sounded good, and it seemed to fit a guy who played hard and fast, so it stuck.
Turk put out his first record, The Underdog, in 1977. It sold well for a jazz record -- about 10,000 copies to date -- and it put him on the map as a player with chops. When the Blue Note, one of New York City's most famous jazz clubs, opened in 1981, Turk was the evening's featured soloist.
But his second album, The Heavyweight, went nowhere. So began a dry period in the mid '80s, when nobody wanted to record him and the phone wasn't ringing. He took a series of odd jobs, driving taxis and limos, working construction. If Turk couldn't play jazz, he wasn't going to play at all. "I would rather work at manual labor than at jobs I don't enjoy playing," he says.
In 1987 Turk went to see his friend Sonny Rollins play in New York. After the show Rollins noticed Turk's rough, callused hands, which were beat up from two years of manual labor. Turk had given up playing altogether. Rollins suggested Turk try Paris.
Coming from a jazz player of Rollins' stature, the advice carried a lot of weight with Turk. "The first chance I got, I got on a flight," he says.
He had $1200 in his pocket. He gave one of his daughters $1000, leaving just enough to cover four days in the Hôtel La Louisiane, where jazz greats like Miles Davis and Lester Young stayed while in Paris. As the money ran out and Turk was trying to decide between paying his bill and getting something to eat, the phone rang. A record producer who knew Turk from gigging in New York was on the other end. "He says, "Oh, you're here,'" Turk recalls, still a little stunned by the timing of it all. "He says, "We need you right away for a recording. I could pay you $500 and pick up your hotel room.' From that point on I had nothing but good luck."America gave birth to jazz, but it's always been a bastard child here. The swing era of the late '30s and early '40s stands as the only time jazz could rightly be called "popular" music.