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

If Americans pay little attention to their native music, however, the French can't seem to get enough of it. Paris in the '80s was alive with nightlife and jazz -- Stan Getz playing at one club, Milt Jackson a few blocks away, Art Blakey at a third.

As a hard-bop player who could also swing, Turk was in demand. He had all the work he could handle, money in his pocket, and a beautiful apartment on the fourth floor of a 400-year-old building in the Marais district. He put out three records in Paris: Live in Paris, Love Songs, and Jazz Party. Ron Turso came over to play and record with his older brother. Their father, Dominick, flew over to spend time with his boys while they played festivals in the south of France. Life was as good as it got for a New York City kid who grew up wanting to do nothing but play his horn. "It was the happiest time of my adult life," he says.

Plus he was on the kind of lucky streak that cons you into believing that fate is always benevolent and that you deserve the breaks coming your way.

Scene of the crime: Singer Beverly Barkley dropped like a "sack of sand"
Scene of the crime: Singer Beverly Barkley dropped like a "sack of sand"
Turk (left) blows sax with a lounge group circa 1964
Turk Mauro
Turk (left) blows sax with a lounge group circa 1964

Like the time he was in a taxi, reached into his pocket, and came up with only 12 francs. The fare was already up over 25 francs, but when the cab driver stopped and turned on the light Turk found a purse with 80 francs in it. Or the time he left a club and stepped on a wallet with 400 francs, about $80 then, inside.

"I took the money, and I put it in my pocket," he recalls. "I walked out, and there is a mailbox right in front of the place, so I opened up the mailbox and threw the wallet in just like they do over here." He walked a few blocks and ran into a beautiful young woman who happened to be lost. "I got my saxophone on my back, and I live about five blocks from this club, and I turn the corner and practically bang into the girl, who looks at me, sees the Mets hat I'm wearing, and says, "Are you American?'"

"I said, "Yes, I am.' She says, "Oh good. I can't get on the Metro. It's closed. God am I in trouble. Can you lend me some money to take a taxi home? I got to get home or my father is going to kill me.'"

"I said "I don't have any money,'" he recounts, a wolfish grin spreading over his face.

He did happen to have a beautiful apartment just a few blocks away. "She made all the moves," he says. "I just said, Wow what a fucking lucky streak I am on. All right."

But luck never holds forever, and a man who becomes addicted to it is in for a bumpy ride. Turk's winning streak ended in 1991.

That year he met and married his second wife, a Greek student. Only weeks into the marriage, both realized it was a mistake. Turk was 46. She was 22. They quickly got divorced.

About the same time, Europe went into a recession. People stopped going out to nightclubs, and the work dried up. "It went from the point where it was packed every night to just nothing, playing to empty rooms like I had played so many places in the New York area." He hung around for two and a half years, like a ghost unwilling to leave a happy home, then moved to Florida to help take care of his father. Turk met his third wife, a Dutch national named Marieken, before leaving Paris in 1994. They were married in Fort Lauderdale in August of that year.

His mother had died in 1990, and by 1994 his father was a walking compendium of afflictions brought on by hard living: lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, stomach ulcers, congestive heart failure, diabetes.

There wasn't much of a jazz scene in South Florida then; there's even less of one now. Still, Turk found work gigging with locals at hotels and country clubs and played with O'Hara's house band. He split his time between Hollywood and his father's trailer in Brevard County. Caring for Dominick was a full-time job; when Turk played he'd have to pay someone $70 a night to stay with his father.

Whenever he wasn't playing or looking after his dad, Turk was gambling. The man who used to jam in Paris now spent his days in the smoky pall of the Seminole casino in Hollywood, maxing out his credit cards to put $1 coins in the video lotto games. Twice he won $10,000, but ultimately he lost $23,000. "I was desperate to get even. I was chasing jackpots," he says. "It was a very, very bad period. I got depressed, and my wife was getting angrier and angrier."

And he had health problems of his own. In early 1999 he had an attack of diverticulitis -- inflammation of the colon -- that put him in the hospital for five days. Six months later, while shopping at Publix, his colon burst. "When it hits you," he says, "you hit the ground. It must be what it's like to have a bayonet stuck in your groin." Emergency surgery saved his life but temporarily left him with an open wound in his side and a colostomy bag.

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