As you've probably read in a handful of other places, saxophonist Frank Morgan died of kidney failure this past Friday morning, December 14th. He'd been diagnosed with colon cancer after a recent European tour, which he completed in spite of earlier concerns about his health. And, in a way, this triumph mirrors his many other life accomplishments in the face of adversity. His heroin habit and prison sentences kept him out of the public eye for three decades before he made a comeback in 1985. He continued playing (contrary to medical predictions) after suffering a stroke in 1998. And his output was never more healthy and prolific as it was in his later years, even though his physical health was in decline.
The Minneapolis native began as a guitarist under the tutelage of his father, Stanley Morgan, who later became the owner of the Casa Blanca on Los Angeles's main jazz artery, Central Avenue. Stanley once took young Frank to see Jay McShann's band in Detroit, and according to Frank:
When Charlie Parker stood up to take his first solo, my father said that I turned and said to him, "That's it for the guitar, Pops." [from an interview with Jazz of Enchantment ]Stanley introduced Frank to Bird, who suggested the young Morgan start on the clarinet before playing alto sax. By age 14, Morgan was playing at Central Avenue's famed Club Alabam. At 15 he had an invitation to join Duke Ellington's orchestra, which he had to decline because his father wanted him to finish school.
Unfortunately, Morgan's drug habit kept him in and out of prison from the mid-'50s until the mid-'80s. He was even able to play while incarcerated in San Quentin, however, in a band with Art Pepper and Frank Butler. Morgan certainly painted a peculiar picture of prison life in the liner notes of the 1991 reissue of his debut album:
They had clubs and civic organizations that would come over the Bay Area and pay $7.50 a head to tour the prison and hear us play. They would see the gas chamber and everything. This was every Saturday night and we had our tuxedos on, and they were very humane to us, at least for that evening.Because he was so often trapped in the penal system, Morgan apparently didn't really get to experience New York until playing the Village Vanguard in 1986. He'd only made his sophomore album, Easy Living, the previous year.
But the stories of Morgan's sidelined career and finding himself again shouldn't obscure his art. He's an incredible player, if incredibly underrated. His buoyant, lyrical bop lines were thickened with a unique warmth. Because of his similarities to Bird, or because of his brief career, Morgan may not be widely regarded as influential, but his music certainly was beautiful and well worth remembering.
Photos (from November 2007 on his European tour, courtesy of Keep Swinging)
Jazz of Enchantment (a site with interview features on artists with ties to New Mexico. Morgan made his home in Taos for some time.)
NPR (an obituary, plus past interviews with Terry Gross and Marian McPartland)
[photo from NPR Music]