A Legendary Revival

Illustration for article titled A Legendary Revival

Certain birthdays are special for almost all jazz fans. On April 7, the mental iPod almost always lands on Billie Holiday classics in honor of Lady Day's birthday. Ditto April 29 for Duke Ellington, May 26 for Miles Davis, September 23 for John Coltrane, March 9 for Ornette Coleman and October 10 for Thelonious Monk.


On July 10, the sounds in my head will be singly devoted, but I may not have the entire jazz community with me. That day marks the anniversary of Lee Morgan's birth. The trumpeter led a brief and dramatic life, and since he crumpled to the ground in February 1972, shot dead by his common-law wife outside a New York nightclub in between sets, his music has faded further and further from view. He was 33. Once a leading jazz star, he's now a cult figure in a niche music genre. He would have been 70 this year, and it's high time for a revival.

"Lee Morgan was the first jazz musician I heard that made people scream," said cornetist/vocalist Olu Dara, who heard Morgan in New York in the early '60s.

"Morgan was the only trumpeter that scared me," said Dave Douglas, one of the current greats on the instrument. "There was drama in almost every solo. He was reaching for note after note with well, practically a desperation, and you were never really sure he was going to hit the note but he always did."

Drama was Lee Morgan's stock in trade. He took up the instrument at 14 when his sister gave him a horn as a gift. Barely three years later, Morgan was leaving his native Philadelphia to go on East coast tours with bands led by established masters like Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie. Morgan so impressed Diz that sometimes Gillespie let his young charge take the featured solo on the master's signature tune, "A Night in Tunisia."

Right after his high school graduation in 1956, Morgan signed to Blue Note Records and began working on his debut recording. Jazz is no stranger to prodigies, but in contrast to most young fast trackers, Morgan's early recordings excelled in ballads. He brought great emotional depth and tenderness to tunes that most youngsters rely on technique to get through. Morgan's virtuosity made him a first-call trumpeter at the Blue Note label and as a sideman he contributed mightily to two of the label's all-time classic recordings, Coltrane's "Blue Train" and Jimmy Smith's "The Sermon." Then in 1958, Morgan joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and a year later became its musical director.

The 1959-'61 edition of Blakey's band ranks among the most important jazz groups of its era. They made powerful music; it didn't just swing, it swaggered; one minute it was elegant and seductive the next it was forcefully propulsive and Morgan was at the center taking searing solos that screamed both insolence and longing. Yet Morgan fell prey to drug addiction and in late 1961, he left the band abruptly to return home and clean up.


In July 1963, Morgan was listening to a Philadelphia jazz radio show and heard a memorial broadcast dedicated to him. That effectively ended his convalescence and hastened his return to the jazz scene. Morgan had not written much music before his departure, but he composed incessantly during his down time. He was eager to hit the studio and began recording frequently later that year.

The first release from these sessions was The Sidewinder, the title track was a cool, finger-popping summer groove tune. To the delighted surprise of nearly everyone, it became a fluke hit, climbing the pop charts in 1964. Then the song was licensed for a Dodge ad that ran often during the World Series and "The Sidewinder" already an improbable hit, did the impossible, it scaled the pop charts for a second time.


Blue Note Records was in financial trouble at the time (all jazz labels had suffered declines due to the incursion of rock-and-roll), but the hit revived the imprint. Much of Morgan's other late '63/early '64 output was shelved in search of another hit. Records like "Cornbread" and "The Rumproller" followed and while neither crossed over to the pop charts, both title cuts were state of the art, edgy groove jazz (why they aren't widely sampled in hip-hop is a mystery to me). Although these records may have been conceived as gropes at commercial success, Morgan and his sidemen played with fire and urgency. At a time when jazz was being pushed to the margins commercially and avant-garde sounds were splintering the jazz community, Morgan wanted to show that he could still move the crowd.

Morgan chafed at the shelving of what he regarded as important works, and finally the release in 1966 of Search for the New Land proved his point. The title track is an extended probing composition, a meditation on race relations. The ebullience that marked his earlier work is gone, replaced by ruminative solos. An indication of an emerging social conscience was evident in his ode to African liberationist "Mr. Kenyatta." "The Sidewinder" was Morgan's hit, but "Search for the New Land" is his enduring artistic triumph.


Morgan was one of many jazz musicians who believed it was high time for their music to get institutional respect. He was an activist for the cause and helped lead sit-ins on TV talk shows (which were often done live) to make the point. Because of his work and that of many other activists like Max Roach, jazz is a thriving field at many leading colleges and universities.

Unfortunately Morgan never shook his demons. His recording output in the late '60s became uneven after a drug dealer punched out Morgan's front teeth, making trumpet playing all but impossible. He was also a noted womanizer, and in the early '70s, he was widely rumored to be having an extramarital affair with Bobbi Humphrey, now a jazz great, but then a teenaged flute player in Morgan's band. Morgan's common-law wife, Helen, went to Slugs on the Lower East Side one night to confront him about it. She brought a gun and pulled it on him; it went off. Morgan died en route to the hospital.


The case was pled down to involuntary manslaughter, and Morgan's wife received only a probationary sentence. However, with Morgan's death, so too died much of his music. Several sides of his work, mostly from that late '63/early '64 period were finally released in the late '70s, but in an era that canonizes so many jazz greats, Morgan, indisputably one of the eight finest trumpet players in jazz history, has gone largely ignored.

Part of his invisibility is owed to the fact that Morgan wasn't much of a band leader. He was an integral part of the great Art Blakey band, but under his own name, Morgan was more apt to put together groups for great recordings rather than lead a band for many years at a time as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman did.


Morgan's unsavory personal life counts against him. Many jazz deifiers seek to position the music as the anti-hip-hop, yet Morgan was hardly an up-standing citizen. Miles and Trane and many others struggled with their drug addictions and won. Morgan, despite the examples of Holiday, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, lost. I think that the jazz demimonde doesn't want any more tragic figures.

Still, Morgan accomplished more artistically in 16 years than many jazz musicians do in decades. He isn't the man you'd want your daughter bringing home, but he is a trumpeter you should hear on your iPod, CD player or even better, your turntable. His music was heard and loved by millions in the '60s, and it shouldn't be just the domain of a coterie of jazz fans today.


Martin Johnson is a New York writer.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter