The Trumpet That Listens
by MARK ALLRED
“Every listener to jazz has had a few experiences so startling that they are literally unforgettable. One of mine took place during an engagement the Dizzy Gillespie big band had at Birdland in 1957. My back was to the bandstand as the band started playing Night In Tunisia. Suddenly, a trumpet soared out of the band into a break that was so vividly brilliant and electrifying that all conversation in the room stopped and those of us who were gesturing were frozen with hands outstretched. After the first thunderclap impact, I turned and saw that the trumpeter was the very young sideman from Philadelphia, Lee Morgan.”
–NAT HENTOFF, from the liner notes, Leeway, Blue Note.
Lee Morgan, a leading hard bop trumpeter and composer, recorded prolifically from 1956 until a day before his death in February 1972. Originally interested in the vibraphone, he soon showed a growing enthusiasm for the trumpet. On his thirteenth birthday, his sister, Ernestine gave him his first trumpet. In 1956 at the age of 17, he began recording for Blue Note Records, eventually recording 25 albums as a leader for the company, with over 250 musicians. Productive from the very beginning, in 1957 he released 5 albums under his name alone. During the early sixties it was not unusual for Lee Morgan to release 4 records a year.
Morgan’s primary stylistic influence was Clifford Brown, who gave the teenager a few lessons before he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at 18. Morgan remained a member for a year and a half, until economics forced Dizzy to disband the group in 1958. It is easy to hear the Cifford Brown influence in Morgan’s early recordings. Clifford Brown cast a larger than life shadow on many trumpet players before he died much too early from a sudden automobile accident. After the untimely death of Clifford Brown, Morgan was compared and viewed, at least by the critics and record labels, as the probable successor to Brown’s legacy.
Morgan quickly found his individual trumpet voice and style which led to him being the designated sideman for John Coltrane’s Blue Train (1957). He played a trumpet with an angled bell (given to him by Gillespie) and delivered one of his most notable signature solos on the title track. That was the only song where Coltrane’s solo was back to back with Morgan’s.
Joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958 further developed his talent as a soloist and composer. He toured with Blakey for a few years, and was featured on numerous albums by the Messengers, including Moanin’, which is one of the band’s best-known recordings. When Benny Golson left the Jazz Messengers, Morgan persuaded Blakey to hire Wayne Shorter, a young tenor saxophonist, to fill the chair. This version of the Jazz Messengers, including pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt, would record 9 releases including the classic The Freedom Rider album. Morgan established a friendship with Shorter that led him to play trumpet on Introducing Wayne Shorter in 1959. Lee Morgan formed the short lived jazz ensemble, The Young Lions, in 1960 that included Timmons and Shorter and recorded a single album for Vee Jay Records.
The drug problems of Morgan and Timmons forced them to leave the band in 1961. According to Tom Perchard, a Morgan biographer, it was Blakey who introduced the trumpeter to heroin and the addictive monkey on his back eventually obstructed his career as well as wreaked havoc in his personal life. During this time he fought to get himself clean. From this low point he returned to New York in 1963, reestablished the Blue Note affiliation and, at year’s end, recorded his greatest commercial success, The Sidewinder. The title cut was so popular that the Chrysler Corp. used it in an automobile ad shown during the 1965 World Series. That was probably equivalent to the half time Super Bowl ads shown today.
“Lee is justifiably proud of the way this session turned out. The rhythm section was as stimulating as he expected, but the special pleasure of the occasion was the opportunity to share the front line with Joe Henderson.
‘Now that I’ve worked with Joe, I’m eager to get together with him again; he’s very efficient in every way. And maybe next time I can get him to do some of the writing too.’ – Lee Morgan
That will be something to look forward to; but in the meantime these five buoyant interpretations of Lee Morgan themes offer rewarding evidence of Lee’s own development as composer and soloist, and of Joe Henderson’s value as a thoroughly able aide.”
–LEONARD FEATHER, from the liner notes of The Sidewinder.
Historically, Lee Morgan was once THE CHOICE session trumpet player equally for both the budding super star and the seasoned underrated jazz musician. He seemed to almost shine brighter when playing with other artists considered equal or higher caliber to him. Perhaps that came from his peerless work ethic. Morgan was able to listen and absorb what would allow him to successfully play off of or respond to the talents of the musicians he was immediately working with. By the same token Morgan seemed to inspire an all out effort from those who reciprocally played on albums where he was designated leader.
He was a featured sideman on several early records by saxophonist, Hank Mobley, such as No Room for Squares (1964) and Dippin’ (1965). These two releases demonstrate the exceptional musical rapport these two musicians had with one another. Jackie McLean, another criminally under appreciated alto saxophonist from this era preferred Lee Morgan for several recording dates while Morgan in turn used McLean for no less than 6 different sessions during1960-67. Numerous recording sessions where musicians had requested the versatile trumpet of Lee Morgan included Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe; McCoy Tyner’s Tender Moments; Lonnie Smith’s Think and Turning Point; Elvin Jones’ The Prime Element; Jack Wilson’s Easterly Winds; Stanley Turrentine’s Mr. Natural; and Freddie Hubbard’s The Night of the Cookers.
As the turmoil of the sixties turned more volatile, Morgan became increasingly vocal, especially the last four years of his life, about the neglect of jazz by American society in general and the media in particular. In interviews he argued for government and media support. Along with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Lee Morgan was one of the originators and leaders of the “Jazz and People’s Movement” an organization that tried to bring awareness to the lack of fair representation for Black /African-American and specifically jazz music in the studio and music industry. Their demonstrations physically disrupted Dick Cavett’s, Johnny Carson’s, and Ed Sullivan’s television shows during their broadcast in1970-71.
This increased social awareness seemed to signal a new era for Morgan where self-indulgence gave way to communal concerns. The musical changes were there as well just a little less overt. He retained all of the earlier dedication, passion, and straight-ahead swing but now shared compositional responsibility among several members of his working quintets. His newer compositions, though subtle at first, became increasingly modal and free-form, stretching the boundaries of hard bop to early electrified fusion.
Morgan’s recording vigor and pace tailed off by the end of the ’60s, but he continued to tour with a regular working group that prominently featured saxophonist Bennie Maupin. (Maupin was also an original member of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.) These hard bop centered, lengthy modal explorations by his current band were well documented on the LP, now CD, Live at the Lighthouse recorded during a two-week engagement at the Hermosa Beach club outside Los Angeles, California in July 1970. It was later reissued as a three-CD set with a generous amount of extra material previously unreleased. This intimate small club atmosphere found the band comfortable in their music. The sound quality of the re-release is superb. All the members, especially Lee Morgan, showed a certain musical maturity and camaraderie that catapulted their sound far beyond the majority of many past recordings. The other members of the band on this occasion included saxophonist Bennie Maupin, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Jymie Merritt, and drummer Mickey Roker. This was truly an accomplished career highlight for Lee Morgan.
In the early hours of February 19, 1972, Morgan was murdered at Slugs’, a jazz club in New York City’s East Village where his band was performing. Following an altercation between sets, Morgan’s common-law wife Helen More (a.k.a. Morgan), shot him in the chest onstage, killing him within moments. According to an eye witness, Miss More (13 years his senior) walked out of the club just before the last set. She returned and the band was already on stage. Lee was on his way to join the band, but was talking with some people. He just started to get on the stage, when she entered and called his name. He turned around and she shot him in the heart. The club’s doorman grabbed her wrist and took the gun away from her. She started to scream “Baby, what have I done?” and ran to Morgan. She was arrested, tried, sentenced, and paroled by 1978. Helen Morgan reportedly never spoke publicly of the incident, until she granted an interview a month before her death. She died in Wilmington, North Carolina, from a heart condition, in March 1996 at the age of 69. Accounts of exactly what happened vary; whether they argued over drugs, infidelity, or the electric bill, whether she shot him outside the club or up on the bandstand in front of the audience, jazz lost a major talent. He was 33 years old.
Fortunately the Manieri Jazz & Swing Collection has at least 2 biographical books detailing the life of Lee Morgan. There you will find a deeper understanding than the usual short snippets found on the internet about this talented musician who was able to listen to what he heard. There are also several Lee Morgan CDs available in the collection as well as sessions he appeared as sideman for other musicians.
Here are just 4 recommended CDs that will start as a kind of sample of the jazz of Lee Morgan. There is so much more.
|The Sidewinder – Morgan, Lee||A Blowin’ Session – Griffin, Johnny|
|Mode for Joe – Henderson, Joe||Cornbread – Morgan, Lee|
Bibliography and resources:
- Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock ‘N’ Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books Ltd.
- McMillan, J.S., (2008). DelightfuLee: the life and music of Lee Morgan, University of Michigan Press