Friday, January 7, 2011

Lee Morgan: Incandescent, Incendiary & Insouciant

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

 “Wherever the Jazz winds blow, you’ll find Lee Morgan blowing straight ahead and swinging. He blows with unflagging zest tempered with superb control. Add to this, a few more Lee Morgan fundamentals such as a sense of good taste and perception, and you have clues to his charismatic powers. From his debut as a teen-age trumpeter, Lee Morgan’s style and sound have always abounded with a warm joi de vivre.”
- Dr. Herb Wong, San Francisco, CA

“[Until his death in 1972 at the tragically early age of 33], …  Lee Morgan was a prime contender for the title of the quintessential hard bop trumpet player. … He will be remembered chiefly as the man who took on the mantle of Clifford Brown (with more than a little influence from Fats Navarro - although that is implicit in Brown anyway - and Dizzy Gillespie, including adopting the latter's trademark upturned trumpet for a time), then went on to develop his own distinctive voice from those models.

He cast the definitive mould for hard bop trumpet style in the process, ….”

Morgan was always capable of both fireworks and a genuine expressiveness, and wrote some of the most memorable compositions to emerge from this genre.

At his best, he was simply incandescent.”

- Kenny Mathieson Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-1965 [pp. 143-44].

[I thought I'd take advantage of YouTube's continuing liberalization of music copyright privileges with a re-posting of this feature on Lee, which had been without the inserted video for quite some time.]

There’s the word I was looking for – “incandescent” – as in bedazzling, brilliant, bright; then there is lucent, lucid or luminous; or how about radiant, refulgent or resplendent!

Other words that come to mind when I think of how best to describe the music of Lee Morgan are incendiary as in “explosive” and insouciant as in “carefree” and charming, but never to the point of indifference.

At times, one gets the feeling that Lee Morgan doesn’t play the trumpet, he attacks it! Sturm und drang seems an apt phrase to associate with Lee’s music: it’s always full of action, excitement and the free range of emotion.

Although his early fame was, in part, based on records he made with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and a series he did for Blue Note in the 1950s, I first heard Lee on recordings that he made for VeeJay Records, a relatively obscure label based in Chicago.

A DJ friend-of-the-family gave me a fistful of VeeJay demo’s [short for “Demonstration Copies” – do they still send these out?] including The Young Lions [VJ-001 with Lee joined by Frank Strozier on alto saxophone and Wayne Shorter on tenor; how’s that for a front line?], Here’s Lee Morgan [VJ-005] and Expoobident [VJ-008], both of which find Lee paired with Clifford Jordan on tenor.

All three albums were recorded in Chicago in 1960, by which time the Jazz critics were asserting that Lee’s style had “matured,” this concerning someone who had reached the ripe old age of twenty-two!?

You can hear one of the tracks from these VeeJay recordings on the following video tribute to Lee.

Lee uses a number of stylistic devices to give his trumpet playing added power and pep. Among these are a half-valve technique, pecking and squeezing notes through the horn, and a heavy reliance on staccato phrasing  - all of which served to create a super-charged tension in his solos.

In many ways, Lee’s approach to trumpet was a lot like Dizzy Gillespie’s and yet it was uniquely different.

Author and commentator Alyn Shipton explains the complimentary/complementary relationship between the Gillespie and Morgan styles this way in Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie:

“More notes are implied rather than played: there are half-valve effects, momentary hesitations and speed-ups, all of which personalize the playing…. [When] Lee Morgan came into the band … Dizzy had a trumpeter of comparable individuality to his own, and Morgan’s contribution to …  ‘That’s All,’ despite a furious tempo, proves that it was not necessary to play similarly to Dizzy to hold down a trumpet chair in his band.

Morgan’s buzzier embouchure, squarer phrasing, and entirely different approach to the building block motif that ends his solo [on ‘That’s All’] displays a new kind of musical imagination at work. It’s one that draws on Dizzy’s approach, to be sure, but does not depend on it for survival.” [p. 287].

More similarities and distinctions between Dizzy and Lee can be found in this excerpt by bassist Paul West in Dizzy memories, To Bop or Not to Bop [paragraphing modified]:

"Lee Morgan and I joined the band at the same time, and we were the two babies in the band. We were the two youngest in the band. Lee was eighteen, and I think, at that time, I was twenty-one. This was the greatest thing that could have happened to Lee Morgan at that time, his association with Dizzy. He was the baby, and he was very cocky and very happy-go-lucky and very comical. He was almost like a baby Dizzy. When you heard Lee play that solo on 'Night In Tunisia* he was aspiring to be that kind of Dizzy, the artist, the per­sonality.

Basically, this is one of the big differences between Lee Mor­gan's playing, and a lot of the younger musicians, trumpet players. Lee's playing had a lot of character, a lot of personality. He wasn't trying to prove how skillful he was, how highly technical his ability was, but he used that technical ability and skill to bring out his per­sonality, his character, and this is typical of Dizzy's playing. Dizzy is not just a technician who aspires to try to convince somebody that he is technically astute, but he uses his technical ability to bring out his personality.

His playing has personality, it has character, it's not just exercises, and that's the basic difference. And this, I think, is one of the things Lee got from Dizzy as well as Brownie, whom he loved and adored. The relationship between Dizzy and Lee was one of master and student, and you can see that.” [pp. 436-37]

Lee Morgan was the kind of Jazz musician who made you take notice: he played stuff that turned your head around.  Even experienced listeners like critic and writer Nat Hentoff were impressed as he described in the following reminiscence from Jazz Is:

“Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was at Birdland in New York. Coming down the stairs I heard a crackling, stunning trumpet cadenza, brilliant in content as well as in its reckless virtuosity. And yet, it wasn’t Dizzy. I looked on the stand and there was a teenager from Philadelphia, Lee Morgan, for whom Dizzy had just opened the door to the Big Apple. [p.47]

This first hearing of Lee Morgan made such an impression on Nat that he described it again in his insert notes to Lee’s The Gigolo [Blue Note CDP 7 84212 2 paragraphing modified]:

“With certain musicians I associate certain striking events. Sarah Vaughan scat singing at three in the morning at Minton's years ago. Sonny Stitt one night in a club long since disappeared suddenly stunning the audience, stilling all conversation, with a solo that literally turned heads. And Lee Morgan, not yet twenty at the time, at Birdland in the late 1950's. He was in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and although I'd heard about Lee from friends in Philadelphia, I'd never heard him play. The band was into A Night in Tunisia, and the arrangement had a long break—a cadenza really—in which Dizzy usually exploded into a musical equivalent of the Aurora Borealis.

But that night, the thin, jaunty kid from Philadelphia took over that challenge, and in front of Dizzy himself, Lee split the sky. In a manner of speaking, of course. But the impact was such that you knew something had happened you'd never forget. In the years after, and into now, Lee became one of my favorite musicians.

… My favorite musicians are those who make me feel, especially those who can make me feel good as well as vulnerable, sanguine as well as mortal. That's why I loved Billie Holiday so much—she could make you feel like the first day of spring and also like it is having Christmas lunch alone in a self-service cafeteria. She had range.

What I've also dug about Lee is that he can plunge into blues, soar with crackling high spirits, and play his horn on a ballad …. All done with authority, with crispness, with a strong sense of self.”

In other writings about Lee and his music, Nat uses phrases like “carefree ebullience,” “dazzlingly technique” and a style that is “brisk, witty and strutting with confidence”  - all of which seem to me to be particularly apt descriptions of Lee’s style of playing.

Commenting about Lee in his Blue Note Records: The Biography, Richard Cook asserts that “Morgan’s early flowering is a salutary reminder to many who think the getting of wisdom in Jazz is the preserve of older hearts and minds. … the history of the music is full of players who were already masterful at an indecently early age and Lee Morgan is only one of many.

… the Morgan of these first [Blue Note] dates did have much development to come, even as one listens back to this early music and wonders at the elusive brio of this brilliant young man.” [p. 95]

Fortunately for me, I was eventually able to catch-up to Lee’s early Blue Note recordings especially after the nice folks at Mosaic Records reissued them in a boxed set entitled The Complete Blue Note Lee Morgan Fifties Sessions. And although this limited edition is now sold out, most of Lee’s recordings from this nascent period in his development are still available as individual Blue Note CDs.

Bob Blumenthal, one of our favorite Jazz writers, prepared the insert notes that accompany the Mosaic set and he along with Michael Cuscuna, one of the label’s founders, have allowed us copyright permission to reprint the following excerpts from the booklet.

© -Mosaic Records and Bob Blumenthal. Used with permission, copyright protected, all rights reserved.

“After more than a decade during which the jazz world has been inundated by teenage and even a few preteen "young lions," it may be difficult to appreciate the sensation that Lee Morgan created in 1956. Today we tend to shrug when another 18-year-old phenomenon steps forward (usually with a recording contract from one of the multinational major labels); but teenage trumpeters with any level of facility were less common when Lee Morgan was 18, not to mention teenage trumpeters advanced enough to not only sit in the trumpet section of Dizzy Gillespie's big band but also to assume solo duties on Gillespie's signature piece, A night in tunisia. Morgan was indeed exceptional, and the subsequent flood of young musicians blessed with facility but not half of Morgan's soul only emphasize what rare gifts he possessed.

What has not changed is the mythic nature of Morgan's tragically short career. His early start was balanced by his premature death from gunshot wounds inflicted at Slug's Saloon in New York by his common law wife, months before the trumpeter's 34th birthday. In between were enough reversals to inspire a movie — international acclaim before becoming an adult, then obscurity at age 24; renaissance on the back of a catchy blues tune that became a popular hit, followed by general indifference as the music Morgan favored was eclipsed in the public eye by the rock boom of the late '60s. The present set, which collects the six albums that Morgan recorded for Blue Note between 1956 and 1958 (and which includes three alternate takes, two of which are previously unissued), are among the highlights of Act One, where the young trumpeter causes an initial sensation on the national jazz scene, then proceeds to create music that only solidifies his enfant terrible status. One can imagine other opening scenes for THE LEE MORGAN STORY — Gillespie, on the bandstand at the Newport Jazz Festival, introducing Morgan's Tunisia feature, as he does on the live recording of the event (reissued on Verve 314 513 754-2), or the earlier image of a skinny junior high school kid's legs, observed through the street-level window of a basement jazz club in Philadelphia where the touring bands performed and Morgan hung around to catch the sounds. Without question, however, this is the music that would reveal why Lee Morgan, the Gillespie sideman, turned so many heads.

We may assume, from the sketchy biographical infor­mation that survives regarding Morgan's youth, that he took full advantage of his proximity to several great musicians. He was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1938. Leonard Feather has alternatively reported that either his father or his older sister played piano for a church choir. He began his trumpet studies with a private instructor, and continued them at Mastbaum Technical High School, where he also played the alto horn. A jazz fan from the outset, Morgan soaked up as much live music as he could, and there was plenty to be heard in Philadelphia, which had produced the Heath and Bryant brothers, Bill Barron (soon to be joined by his brother Kenny), John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Cal Massey, Bobby Timmons and many others among the second and third wave of modernists. By the age of 15, Morgan was leading his own professional group on week- end jobs, with bassist James "Spanky" DeBrest as his partner, and taking part in Tuesday night workshops at the Music City club that brought him into early contact with Miles Davis and his primary early influence, Clifford Brown.

Things really started to happen for Morgan in the summer of 1956, after he graduated from Mastbaum. First, he and DeBrest subbed with the Jazz Messengers when Art Blakey arrived in Philadelphia short two musicians. "Spanky stayed on," Morgan explained to Leonard Feather in the notes to his first Blue Note album. "I could have stayed too, but I didn't want to sign a contract, so I left after two weeks. Then very soon after that, Dizzy came back from his South American tour. I'd met him a couple of years before at the workshop and he knew about me. He needed a replacement for Joe Gordon, and I needed some big band experience, so it worked out fine." The Gillespie job brought Morgan into close contact with some new and inspiring musical friends, and one invaluable hometown associate. Benny Golson, nine years Morgan's senior, had already amassed playing and writing experience with various rhythm and blues bands as well as with Tadd Dameron, Lionel Hampton and Johnny Hodges, and had joined Gillespie as Ernie Wilkins's replacement prior to the South American tour mentioned by Morgan. Golson's reputation, at least as a composer, was starting to build, thanks primarily to Miles Davis's 1955 recording of STABLEMATES, which Golson had penned for the band trumpeter Herb Pomeroy led at the Boston club The Stable. Soon to be acclaimed as one of the major jazz voices of the late '50s, Golson's image was built in no small measure on the 14 compositions he contributes to the first four Lee Morgan Blue Note albums. So this boxed set can also be seen as an essential Benny Golson package, even without such classics as STABLESMATES, ALONG CAME BETTY, BLUES MARCH or KILLER JOE.

One more individual, through his absence, was critical to the early emergence of Lee Morgan, and that is Clifford Brown. The brilliant young musician, who promised to overshadow all of his fellow trumpeters for decades to come, had died in an automobile accident on June 26, 1956, and his death triggered a search for the new Clifford much in the way that Charlie Parker's passing the previous year sent producers and managers scurrying to find the new Bird. Morgan was the primary beneficiary of this attention, as Cannonball Adderley had been a year earlier; and, like Adderley, Morgan was recorded early and often. Fortunately, Alfred Lion brought Morgan into the rarefied environment of Blue Note Records, and showed his commitment to the young trumpeter by recording him as a leader six times over a period of 15 months, giving full exposure to Morgan's instrumental talents while presenting him in some of the most intelligently conceived small-group programs of the period.


Lee Morgan's career as a leader on Blue Note temporarily ends at this point. His career as a Gillespie sideman ended as well, with the breakup of the big band in January 1958. Morgan remained active in New York, however, and participated in several excellent recordings during 1958, most of which were on Blue Note. A week after the final candy session, he paired with Hank Mobley for the tenorist's quintet album PECKIN’ TIME, where the cover design gave the misleading impression that Morgan was the co-leader. Also in February, Morgan participated in another Jimmy Smith jam session (currently collected on THE SERMON CD), which included a feature on the Ellington-associated ballad FLAMINGO. Tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks, another participant in the Smith jam, used Morgan on his own Blue Note debut as a leader, which is included on the COMPLETE BLUE NOTE RECORDINGS OF THE TINA BROOKS QUINTETS (Mosaic 106). Some of the heady Monday night action at Birdland, with Morgan joined by several Philadelphians (Ray and Tommy Bryant, drummer Specs Wright and saxophonist Billy Root) plus Mobley and Fuller, was recorded and released on two Roulette albums.

A more permanent and vastly more influential conclave of Philadelphians was on the horizon. Benny Golson, who had also been freelancing since leaving Gillespie, was asked by Art Blakey to serve as musical director for a new edition of the Jazz Messengers in the summer of 1958. The saxophonist had to look no further than his hometown for the rest of the personnel — Morgan, Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt. Blakey returned to Blue Note to record the band on October 30; and the resulting album, containing the hits MOANIN', ALONG CAME BETTY and BLUES MARCH, launched a new era for the Messengers.

By 1960, Lee Morgan had become the musical director for the Jazz Messengers, developing into a composer of considerable strength and bringing Wayne Shorter into the fold. (The complete output of that edition of the band can be found in THE COMPLETE BLUE NOTE RECORDINGS OF ART BLAKEY’S 1960 JAZZ MESSENGERS on Mosaic). As a leader, he made LEEWAY for Blue Note in 1960 as well as two albums for Vee-Jay, one for Riverside and half an album for Roulette.

In the summer of 1961, he took himself off the scene for almost two and a half years to deal with personal problems, not the least of which was heroin. When he emerged in November 1963, he returned to Blue Note where he participated in Grachan Moncur's evolution before cutting his own album THE SIDEWINDER. After the release of that album, Morgan, Blue Note and jazz itself would never be the same. But that story, and the highs and lows that followed, are for another day. Now is the time to enjoy the first chapter in the professional life of this extraordinary musician.

Bob Blumenthal
August 1995”