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The Underdog
Joshua Prezant

The Underdog

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

All of it was on his mind that night at O'Hara's.

Turk had a drink before he left his Hollywood apartment and arrived at O'Hara's about 9:20 p.m. The show started 20 minutes later. He doesn't like to arrive early to shows. He got there, put his horn together, joined his bandmates on stage, and started playing. About 10:20 p.m., after a few opening tunes including his standard "Secret Love," Turk and Burger lit cigarettes on stage while Coffman introduced Beverly Barkley. She stood out front with Coffman and Turk behind her, Burger to her right and Silvano Monasterios to her left. Coffman recalls that the band was really on that night. "Better than normal," he says. "I thought Turk was playing exceptionally well and we were being well received."

As Barkley stepped to the microphone, she commented about the cigarettes and waved her hands in the air to dissipate the smoke. Then they played the first set, which lasted until 11 p.m. At the break Turk and Burger went out the back door for a smoke. Barkley came out a few minutes later, mad as hell.

"I was outside, just breathing the air, when she comes out in a rage saying, "You always smoke on the bandstand?' and whatnot," he recalls. "I was unnecessarily nasty right back to her. I said, "Yes I do,' something like that, you know. We had a few words about it, nothing more. She said something like "We'll see about that' and all this kind of thing."

Barkley went back inside. Turk followed her, shot her a dirty look, and walked away. Then she followed him, catching him in a hallway. "She started to berate me, cursing at me, taking personal potshots at me," he says.

Turk lost his temper and stuck his finger in her face. He recalls saying, "You're in trouble now, you're in trouble now." By that, he says, he meant he was going to complain to the O'Hara's management. Which he did.

Barkley apparently took the comment as a personal threat and reported it to O'Hara's owner Kitty Ryan. (Neither Ryan nor any other O'Hara's employee returned phone calls for this story.)

Burger came up with the idea that Turk and Barkley rotate stage time. When she sang, he was offstage, and vice versa. The band cranked off two solid sets that way, playing until well past 2 a.m. Sunday.

Turk sat with friends or at the bar, stewing. "Let me put it this way," he says, "the way she talked to me, I had never been talked to like that by anybody in my life. I was 55 years old at the time, and I was completely shocked by her berating me over such a little thing like that, how angry she was about it." He had four drinks that night -- a lot, given the fact he hadn't been drinking at all because of his recent surgery.

Barkley was up last. Turk watched her from a nearby table. Her penultimate number was Aretha Franklin's "Respect." As she finished and stepped from the bandstand, Turk got up from his table, strode the ten feet to the stage, and punched her in the left side of her face with his right fist. She fell backward. Turk turned, picked up a nearby chair, and held it as if he were going to hit her with it, but somebody in the crowd stopped him.

A Fort Lauderdale cop working security at the front door that night saw everything. In her report she wrote that Turk "suddenly lunged at the victim and knocked her to the ground." Then while she was still on the floor, he "grabbed a chair and stepped toward her as if to hit her with the chair."

That night in jail, nursing a bruised thumb, Turk tried to re-create the scene, to remember every detail. To this day he can't quite do it. "I have spoken to a lot of people," he says, to try to reconstruct the night.

He threw the punch; that's not in question. What he's really trying to discern is the truth at the dark heart of that night: Did he or did he not call Barkley a "nigger" during the attack?

She says he did. Barkley's lawyer, Thaddeus Hamilton, says it happened this way: "He rushed the stage, called my client a nigger, and hit her. As a result my client was injured, and that's it."

Turk figures he didn't. But there's that uncertainty. For the last eight months, he's called everyone he knows -- friends, relatives, witnesses, enemies -- and asked them candidly: Could I have done something like that?

Burger and Coffman say they didn't hear any such slur, and they were on the bandstand. Heidi Lee Rosenbaum, a drummer who happened to be sitting in the front row watching the show that night, says she didn't hear anything either. After Turk attacked Barkley, says Rosenbaum, other audience members pulled him away and shoved him toward the bar. "He said, "That will teach you to "f" with me,'" she recalls. "That was it." (Monasterios, who was also on the bandstand, could not be reached for comment.)

People who know Turk characterize him as something of a hothead. But that doesn't make him a racist.

"Yeah, he has a temper," says pianist Billy Marcus. "But I will stick up for him. He is dead right about it. It is not racially motivated in the least. I know him. He has worked all his life with black people. Some black people are his heroes."

Burger, the drummer, says: "We have all worked together for a lot of years. I think in our realm he is the last one to have any problem with [race]." He adds, "He is volatile, and he plays that way, but that is his character. Turk is Turk. Sometimes he's grumpy."The Sun-Sentinel quoted O'Hara's manager Todd Whitt saying Turk "would never work in this town again." So far he hasn't. Not because no one would hire him; in fact Turk turned down a gig at the Anne Kolb Nature Center. He wasn't sure how the audience would react. "I backed out of it. I said, "You better get somebody else. You might get some picketing or trouble.'"

Or maybe people would have come out in support. But that would have been just as uncomfortable, he says, because "what is there to support? This isn't a thing like "Did he do it or didn't he do it?'"

Marieken Turso, who also did not return calls from New Times, divorced Turk a few weeks after he got out of jail. She'd had enough of the gambling, he says, and enough of his jazz musician's lifestyle. She wanted him to get a real job. "She really pressured me to get out of music," he says. "She never understood my place in the music world and in jazz. She had no comprehension what it meant to me, that it was my whole life."

Their divorce papers tell the story of a lopsided financial ledger. Marieken is a tour guide, and she made $32,000 in 1998. She paid the rent and utilities, put gas in the car, and kept it insured. She had a retirement plan and some cash in the bank.

Turk put down "self-employed musician" as his occupation. His pay rate of $150 per night wasn't bad, but his gross monthly income came to only $300. Subtract $100 a month for food, $66 for a life insurance policy, $89 for credit cards, and $125 a month for "smoking," and that left him $80 in the hole.

He left Hollywood and moved north to Micco (about halfway between Melbourne and Vero Beach) to take care of his father full-time, who by then was in very bad shape. Though his dad had Alzheimer's, Turk is sure he knew about the trouble his son was in. "He had to know about it," says Turk. "How are you going to keep it from him? I'm calling him up from the fucking jail."

Dominick Turso died in early February.

Turk pleaded no contest to charges of battery and disorderly conduct and got one year's probation. He has to attend weekly anger-management classes and perform 50 hours of community service, which he serves at a church cleaning up after Wednesday night bingo. He's also required to have a job, so he worked 17 hours a week at a liquor store for $7 an hour until two weeks ago, when he got fired because business was slow. Since the divorce he's had to file for bankruptcy.

Then there's the lawsuit.

Barkley is suing Turk for hitting her and O'Hara's for failing to protect her. In the suit she claims that she told Ryan, the owner of O'Hara's, about Turk's "violent propensities" before the attack and that Ryan "failed to take the appropriate safety precautions to prevent this violent attack from occurring."

Turk lives in his dad's doublewide, in limbo until things sort themselves out. He had a line on a gig in Las Vegas that paid $2500 a week, but that hasn't panned out yet. He's been thinking about going home to New York to find work, and he's also sent off a demo tape to Verve records. Maybe they'll want to record him. Maybe not.

The good news is that he kicked the gambling habit on his own and has a paying gig Fridays and Saturdays at Heidi's Jazz Club in Cocoa Beach, about 45 minutes north of his trailer. He opened the first week in July.The gig starts at nine. Hanging around the trailer in shorts, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, Turk looks like another South Florida early retiree who watches too much TV.

At 7:20 p.m. he disappears into a back bedroom. Fifteen minutes later he's back wearing black dress slacks, a tan short-sleeve shirt, and shiny black shoes. Florida swing casual. And he wears it well, like a man as comfortable in high fashion as most are in jeans.

Turk packs his 45-year-old tenor sax into a soft case. On the way out the door, he pours himself two fingers of Grant's whiskey, then hops into his inherited Pontiac four-door for the drive to Cocoa Beach.

Heidi's is an intimate jazz room with a blond wood bar, modern art on the walls, and small, candlelit tables. Thirty people would be a big crowd. Turk is a known and welcome quantity. As he walks in people at the bar turn and call his name. A woman hugs him. It's 9:10 p.m., and pianist Ron Teixeira, bassist Jim Crutcher, and drummer Dave Dunscombe are eager to add Turk to the mix.

Teixeira and Turk agree that the band will start without him and he'll come in on the second or third song. Turk puts his sax together and puts it on a stand by the piano before heading to the bar for a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

Once the band is warm, Turk grabs his sax and kicks off the night with an up-tempo "Secret Love," his thick fingers working the instrument with dexterity. He's just loosening up and doesn't stray far from the melody, and he doesn't bear down. A week prior he snapped a bridge in his mouth in half while playing, and he's still getting used to the feel of the new one.

At the break he walks out to the parking lot for a smoke. On the bandstand he's in charge of the music, in command of his horn, and in the direct flow of a river of goodwill coming from people who appreciate his one real talent. Everywhere else things have been weary of late. "I'm tired of living," he says, meandering along A1A from the parking lot back to the club. "I've done it all. Why go through the same bullshit over and over again? I've fucked 100 women, been married three times, gambled away thousands of dollars…." His voice trails off, and Turk stares into the night.

But you can't play the way Turk plays unless you live the way Turk lives. Charlie Parker said it best: "There is no boundary line to art. Music is your experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." The quote tops the liner notes on Turk's Love Songs record.

Three minutes later he's back in the spotlight for the second set, blowing a perfectly raunchy blues number that could drift out of a roadhouse juke joint and into a delta night as easily as it spills into the streets of Cocoa Beach. Between runs he pulls the horn out of his mouth, turns to the band, and admonishes them with a withering look. "Blues! Blues!" he prods, not quite under his breath. They're not playing to Turk's liking. They're not swinging.

But Turk is. He's warm and loose, stomping his feet and throwing his head back as he fills the room with his trademark big, fat tones. When he sucks in a breath, it's audible 15 feet away over the sound of the band.

Divorce, death, bankruptcy, lawsuits, yesterday, today, tomorrow… What does any of it really matter? Right now it's 11:30 on a sultry South Florida evening, and Turk Mauro is just getting started.

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