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Bill Murphy playing alto saxophone on the stage
Madison, Miss., resident Bill Murphy (pictured) discovered a talent for the saxophone during middle school and fostered his musicianship into a decades-spanning career in the industry. Photo courtesy Bill Murphy

Music ‘Saved My Life’: Madison County Composer and Conductor Speaks on 50-Plus Years of Band Connections

Night after night, a young Bill Murphy waited for his older brother, Allen Murphy, to return home and head straight to his room, where Allen would sit on his bed and remove his euphonium horn from its case. For roughly two hours a night, Allen practiced his instrument while Bill stood nearby to watch all the way through.

Seeing his older brother pursue something with such passion moved Bill deeply, he says, especially since it provided him something to look forward to and take comfort in amidst a volatile home life rife with physical abuse.

“I was frankly amazed that he could come home and practice with such dedication in spite of everything,” Murphy says. “I ultimately have the music he showed me to thank for a sense of community I discovered that kept me from going down a trail many abused children can find themselves on—turning to drugs and alcohol or crime.”

Bill Murphy’s school life also proved to be tumultuous, as he began 7th grade in 1969, during the first days of mandatory integration in schools following the efforts activists worked tirelessly toward during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Murphy and a number of other white students rode buses to the formerly all-Black Stone Middle School in Melbourne, Fla., and tensions at the school often boiled over during his time there.

Stone faced frequent bomb threats, which would force students to relocate to the nearby outdoor fields while authorities investigated. Murphy also witnessed riots erupt outside the school, with police cars ending up turned over or burned.

‘Sense of Community, Shared Purpose’

Amidst the chaos, Murphy found sanctuary and community with the school band after he discovered a natural talent for playing the saxophone. Within his first semester, the budding musician found himself moved from the school’s beginner band to the advanced band. When he later moved on to Melbourne High School, he came under the tutelage of music instructor Andre Arrouet, who formerly served as band director and music supervisor for Brevard County, Fla.

“I consider the connections I made with Director Arrouet and all the band families I met at school to be what saved my life as a kid,” Murphy says. “As soon as I turned 16, I packed up a suitcase, left home and went out on the streets to get away. Those band families took me in at different times while I was working toward getting into college.”

Bill Murphy performing in the band
Bill Murphy (center), who graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance, served in the United States Air Force Band for more than a decade before moving on to become a music instructor in the Madison County area. Photo courtesy Bill Murphy

After graduating from Melbourne High School, Murphy enrolled at Brevard Community College in 1975. Two years later during the summer of 1977, he took a job performing with the Walt Disney All American College Band at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Later that year, Murphy joined the United States Air Force Band. Stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., he continued his education at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he received a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance in 1979.

During his stay at Keesler, Murphy went on to serve as director of the base’s jazz band. He later transferred to Travis Air Force Base in northern California and served as director of the Commanders Jazz Ensemble.

Murphy retired from the Air Force in 1994 and moved to Madison, Miss., where he took a job as a music teacher at Madison-Ridgeland Academy. While teaching, he spent three years organizing a series of “Summer Jazz Camps” in Ridgeland, where students regularly performed at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson. Murphy also spent several years teaching music composition at USM and at Murrah High School in Jackson.

Today, Murphy works as a private guard for the Mississippi Department of Transportation while continuing to independently write and record his own music. In July 2023, he plans to move to Orlando, Fla. to pursue a doctorate in music composition at the University of Central Florida, where he plans to put a new band together and work as a teaching assistant.

“The relationships I found while pursuing music were what hooked me and kept me going at it for more than 50 years—the connections I found through bands, the sense of community, the shared purpose that comes from working together as a group,” Murphy says. “Music and other forms of art like theater can do just as much to bring young people together and teach them these skills as any school or college athletics program.”

Murphy has a 35-year-old son named Joshua Murphy, who works as a software engineer in Dallas, Texas.

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