By Steve Proizer
Prodigy, post-Parker junkie, died by homicide at a young age (1938-1972). No matter. The myth must not oust the player. Musically, Lee Morgan was a muthahfucka.
Whatever influences he brought to the music – funk, modal, latin, free – Lee has always sounded like Lee and the quality of his playing has always been superb (apart from a period of choppy issues resulting from a drug-related dental debacle).
The mid-1950s Philadelphia in which Morgan grew up was an active and supportive jazz scene. He started playing the trumpet at age 13, and by 14 he was playing in sessions, first at the Heritage House Jazz Workshop and later in Music City. He crossed paths with Clifford Brown, whom he hung out with for about two years, until Clifford died on the road. He played around town with fellow teen bassists Spanky DeBrest and McCoy Tyner. Jess McMillan’s authoritative article on Lee’s days in Philadelphia says that when Chet Baker came to town, 15-year-old Morgan cut him off – “knocked him out of the room completely”.
Dizzy Gillespie also did the Music City Club sessions, and when he heard Lee, who was then 18, he recruited him for his big band.
From the start, Lee’s unique and instantly recognizable tone was present: slightly harsh, slightly burnished, generally aggressive, but sometimes slipping towards sensuality. There were times throughout his career when he played things that could have been played by someone else – passages from Bill Hardman or Donald Byrd, or repeated phrases with small variations, a la Clifford. But then you add the rest of its vocabulary – half-valves, spitting notes like swear words, deft ornamentation, trills, fake fingerings, lightning-fast triplets – and you have grammar and vocabulary. distinctive. Put it all under the umbrella of Morgan’s tone and even a fairly typical hard bop pattern sounds different to the ear; unique and original.
Just a few arbitrary examples.
Morgan’s first album as a frontman, and indeed his first recording, was In effect for Blue Note in November 1956. Horace Silver on piano, Wilber Ware on bass, Clarence Sharp on viola and Philly Joe Jones on drums. The first tune is a ballad, the second is a burner. Here is “The Lady:”
Next is “Reggie of Chester”.
His approach to ballads suggests to me a strong Clifford influence. This doesn’t just mean a note choice, but modulating one’s pitch to fit those choices. In “Reggie”, he is clearly on solid ground. Morgan’s tone and syntax are solid – the influences seem like afterthoughts.
In April 1957, Morgan recorded several tracks with Gillespie’s big band which ended up on an LP titled Vertigo in Greece (last 3 pieces of side 2). why they called it Vertigo in Greecewho knows, although it did give Diz a chance to put on his Zorba.
Here’s Lee, taking a nice solo on “That’s All.”
At this point, Morgan started recording, often. Five albums were released under his name in 1957. One of them was The Cook. Just One of These Things”, from this LP, should be heard:
Here’s Lee burning through the beat changes on CTA, also in 1957. Sonny Clarke on piano, Doug Watkins on bass and Art Taylor on drums.
There’s so much material…I’m going to wrap up with a really nice Latin piece that Lee wrote called ‘Ceora’, from a 1965 version. With it are Hank Mobley tenor, Herbie Hancock, piano, Larry Ridley, bass, Billy Higgins, drums:
FOR TRUMPET PLAYERS: There are a bunch of transcriptions of Lee’s solos that you will enjoy playing available on Jeff Helgeson’s blog: jazztrumpetsolos.com.
Steve Provisor writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a jazz musician and blogger here.