Thursday, 16 January 2014

JAZZ ICONS #9: Lee Morgan

LEE MORGAN, c. 1963

I ran over there and said I was sorry.  And he said to me, he said, 'Helen, I know you didn’t mean to do this.  I’m sorry too.'   I can remember the cops throwing me out.  I went into hysterics and I don’t know.  It seem to me like everybody must have left. And I don’t know where the girl went.  I ain’t never seen that girl since.  I think she thought she was next.   But she never entered my mind. You know, it’s a funny thing, she didn’t enter my mind. When that gun went off it snapped me back to reality to what I had done.
From a 1996 radio interview conducted by 

The death of Lee Morgan at a New York City nightclub called Slug's Saloon on 19 February 1972 brought an untimely end to what had been, by any standards, an impressive and amazingly prolific career.  The fact that Morgan was shot by his common-law wife –– a woman twelve years his senior named Helen More who had been instrumental in reviving his career after he successfully overcame his addiction to heroin (if not to cocaine) – only highlighted the tragedy of what was universally acknowledged as being a major loss to the jazz world.  The trumpeter, who was only thirty-three at the time of his murder, had already become a major figure in the style of jazz known as 'hard bop' and had even scored a hit with his 1963 soul jazz track The Sidewinder –– a song which remains a soul jazz dancefloor favorite to this day.

The Sidewinder (1963)
LEE MORGAN (trumpet); JOE HENDERSON (tenor saxophone)
from the 1963 Blue Note LP The Sidewinder


Edward Lee Morgan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 10 July 1938, the fourth child of Otto Ricardo Morgan and his wife Nettie.  The city was a fertile breeding ground for jazz talent –– it was the birthplace of John Coltrane, Benny Golson, 'Philly' Joe Jones and Jimmy and Percy Heath, among others –– and also boasted a thriving club scene, making it relatively easy for the young, prodigiously talented trumpeter, nicknamed 'Howdy Doody' by his friends, to find paying gigs for the quartet he formed while still a student at Jules Mastbaum High School for the Arts.  By this time, Morgan had been playing the trumpet, as well as dabbling with the vibes and the alto saxophone, for approximately four years, having been given the former instrument by his sister Ernestine as a gift for his thirteenth birthday.  By the age of seventeen he was a proficient enough on what soon became his preferred instrument to sit in with the bands of touring big name musicians such as Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt and Clifford Brown.  Brown in particular became a crucial formative influence on his trumpet style – so much so that he was considered, by critics and fans alike, to be Brown's 'heir apparent' following the elder musician's death in an automobile accident in 1956.  

By then, however, Morgan had joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers along with his high school friend, the bassist James 'Spanky' Debrest.  He didn't stay with the Blakey group for long, preferring not to sign a long-term contract with the drummer so he could accept an offer to join the big band of trumpeter and bonafide bop legend Dizzy Gillespie.  Until 1958, when economic circumstance forced Gillespie to break up his band, Morgan would balance the work he did with it with a busy recording schedule which saw him record his first album as a leader for the Savoy label and appear as a sideman on sessions by John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin and many of his fellow Blue Note artists.  (He had, shortly after the release of his debut LP Introducing Lee Morgan, been invited to join Blue Note's incredible roster of established and emerging jazz talent.)  Morgan's virtuosity was matched only by his popularity and inventiveness.  In 1957 alone, the trumpeter appeared as either leader or sideman on an astonishing eighteen different recording sessions.  Nor was his schedule any less hectic in 1958, when he was invited to re-join Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.  Allegedly, Blakey lured him back to his group by offering to supply him with heroin, a drug to which he quickly became addicted –– an addiction that was to plague him, personally and professionally, for the remainder of his life.

Since I Fell For You (1957)
LEE MORGAN (trumpet) ; SONNY CLARK (piano)
DOUG WATKINS (bass) ; ART TAYLOR (drums)
from the 1957 Blue Note LP Candy

Morgan's addiction had become so all-consuming by April 1961 that he was fired by Blakey and forced to return to Philadelphia, where he spent several months lost to the jazz world, his only concern when and where he was going to score his next fix.  (So complete was his obscurity that he allegedly heard a local DJ play what it called a 'Memorial Tribute to the late Lee Morgan' on a Philadelphia radio station one evening.)  Eventually he drifted back to New York, where he soon found himself visiting the 53rd Street apartment of Helen More, a well-known hangout for musicians where they could always depend on finding a hot meal and a free drink as long as they agreed not to turn her home into an injecting room.  'I met Morgan through Benny Green,' Helen remembered in the one and only interview she granted in 1996, 'the trombone player, who I was messing with at that time.  Benny brought him around there.  And I met him and we talked.  And I looked at him and for some kind of reason my heart just went out to him. I said to myself "this little boy," you know.  And I looked at him and he didn’t have a coat.  I asked him why didn’t he have a coat.  He just had a jacket.  I said, "Child, it’s zero degrees out there and all you have on is a jacket. Where is your coat?"  And he told me he didn’t have a coat “cause it was in the pawn shop.”  He had pawned his coat for some drugs.  I told him, "Well, come on, I am going to go get your coat!"  He said, "You’re going to get my coat?"  And I said, "Yeah, and I’m not going to give you the money!  Because you might spend it on drugs.  We are going to go and get it!" '  

Soon afterwards, the trumpeter moved in with Helen More, who began calling herself 'Helen Morgan' and describing herself as his wife although they never legally married.  It was Helen who convinced Morgan to enter a rehab program, insisting that he could play again –– despite having lost several teeth after being beaten up by a drug dealer to whom he'd owed money –– if he stopped using heroin.  The trumpeter took her advice and Helen soon began approaching club owners on his behalf, finding him gigs she made it a habit to accompany him to, becoming in the process his protector, confidante and, in time, the most reliable critic of his music.  
Helen's influence on his life and outlook was so beneficial that his career re-blossomed during the early 1960s, with the recording of The Sidewinder in 1963 marking the beginning of what was to be another extremely busy, highly productive period for him.  Morgan would go on to produce some of his best and most memorable work during the next seven years, including the 1964 album Search For The New Land which saw him move away from his hard bop style into the 'new' modal territory being explored by his sometime bandmates and fellow Blue Note artists Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.  Through it all, Helen was at his side, booking the gigs and making the travel arrangements, ensuring that he stayed neat and clean and that the men in his band were paid what they were owed on time by unscrupulous club owners.  When the band was really cooking on stage, she would get excited and yell out 'Go 'head, Morgan!' from the audience –– a call that would spur him and his bandmates on to ever-greater heights of creativity despite the laughter it sometimes elicited from other patrons.  Helen didn't care.  She loved him and took pride in the fact that his resurgence would have been impossible without her. 

Search for the New Land (1964)
LEE MORGAN (trumpet); GRANT GREEN (guitar)
from the 1964 Blue Note album Search for the New Land

Unfortunately, the money Morgan made from The Sidewinder and other successful 'soul jazz' recordings like The Rumproller and Cornbread never lasted long.  By 1970 he'd developed a new addiction to cocaine –– an addiction that saw him disappear from the Bronx apartment he and Helen shared for days at a time and completely neglect his professional responsibilities, placing his career in serious jeopardy again.  Helen was understandably hurt by his behavior, as well as being deeply concerned about his habit of injecting the drug, fearing it might encourage him to begin re-using heroin.  The hurt was compounded when she discovered that he'd started seeing a younger woman behind her back –– a situation that once led her to swallow poison, so painful was the thought that she might lose him.  Despite these setbacks, Morgan somehow managed to maintain a punishing studio schedule which saw him release twenty albums under his own name prior to 1971 and appear on a sideman on at least a dozen others, including groundbreaking releases by Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner and the great Andrew Hill.  Miraculously, he also found time to co-found and briefly lead an organization called The Jazz and People's Movement, a group of like-minded musicians who chose to protest the non-inclusion of black jazz performers on popular TV talk and variety shows by 'invading' these programs, guerilla style, while they were actually on the air. 

Although she survived her suicide attempt, Helen stopped accompanying him to gigs and soon announced that she was moving to Chicago.  Morgan begged her to reconsider, which she eventually did, promising to stop seeing her rival if she remained with him in New York.  It was only a few nights later that Helen broke her own rule and went to see him perform at Slug's Saloon.  She entered the club to find him talking to the girl he'd promised to abandon.  She slapped him and they scuffled, during which time the gun she carried for protection allegedly 'fell' from her purse.  She left the club but returned a few minutes later, threatening its bouncer with the weapon until he agreed to let her back inside.  It was shortly after this that she shot Morgan, after first calling out his name to attract his attention.  He may have survived had the ambulance been able to reach him sooner, but the club was located in the East Village – a part of New York that ambulance officers were reluctant to visit at that time, given its high mortality rate and the fact that it was home to many a gun-wielding drug dealer.  Morgan died from loss of blood and Helen was arrested and charged with his murder, to which she was advised to enter a plea of 'Not guilty' by her attorney.  Despite this, she spent several years in prison before returning to her childhood home in North Carolina, where she died – as a beloved, churchgoing grandmother –– of a longstanding heart ailment in 1996.

The tragedy of Lee Morgan's life was that he was unable to permanently conquer his addictions.  Had he been able to do so, he would not have died such a grim and pointless death on the floor of Slug's Saloon that night and undoubtedly would have added even more stunning music to what remains one of the largest and most exciting discographies in the history of jazz.  He was that rarest of all creatures in jazz or, indeed, in any other style of music – a virtuoso capable of expressing emotion in a way that was playful, spirited and, when he chose to play a ballad, deeply affecting.  He had every gift a musician needs except that of self-restraint which, in his case, proved to be one gift too few.

Click HERE to listen to more great music by LEE MORGAN.  There are several biographies available, the latest of which is DelightfuLee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan by JEFF McMILLAN, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2008.

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere. 

LEE MORGAN, c. 1970

You might also enjoy:
JAZZ ICONS #3: Andrew Hill
JAZZ ICONS #5: Sarah Vaughan
JAZZ ICONS #1: Lester Young

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