Lee Morgan, one of the most brilliant trumpeters of the 1950s, became another victim of the violent times we live in when he was murdered during an engagement at Slug’s, a jazz club in New York City, on February 19. Morgan was reportedly shot and his murder is reminiscent of that of Al Killian, also a trumpeter, in 1950. Lee Morgan was 33 years old.
This fine musician first rose to prominence with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band in 1956. Obviously Dizzy thought highly of him because he highlighted the young man and his work on That’s all a date from 1957 shows that at 19, Lee was already a formidable soloist.
Born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1938, Morgan studied trumpet privately and at Mastbaum Tech. In school he doubled the alto horn and by the age of 15 he was already playing all over town with bassist Spanky DeBrest and others. Morgan’s earliest and most enduring influence, one might almost say exclusive influence, was Clifford Brown. As a young boy, he heard Brown many times and indeed often sat with him. Lee also expressed his admiration for Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Thad Jones and Art Farmer.
While with the Gillespie band, Morgan moved to New York and was soon signed to Blue Note Records. His first album for the label, ‘Presenting Lee Morgan’ (BLP 1538), was cut on November 4, 1956, with a quintet including Clarence Sharpe (alto), Horace Silver (piano), Wilbur Ware (bass) and Philly Joe Jones ( drums). It boasted some scintillating solos from the young horn player and served to broaden his growing reputation.
Thereafter Morgan was heard on record with all the hard boppers and he found his natural musical home when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958. He had played with Blakey two years earlier but now he was really ready for such a group. This first association with the drummer lasted until 1961 but was often resumed during the 1960s.
After his first Blue Note contract expired, Morgan continued to record for Roulette, Veejay, but he later re-signed with Blue Note and made some of his best albums for that label in the late 1960s. Lee also recorded for Savoy in previous years. His biggest commercial success was the album “The Sidewinder” which made the Billboard charts in 1963, but it was by no means his most creative recorded work. For that, look to Art Blakey, including a 1961 set on Impulse, and Blue Note collections under his own name like “Candy” (a remarkable quartet rendezvous with Sonny Clark) and “The Sixth Sense” , a great effort of the last few days.
His two Vee-Jay albums ‘Expoobident’ and ‘Here’s Lee Morgan’ are remarkable and on each he is associated with the excellent Clifford Jordan (tenor). These two, along with a different rhythm section, also teamed up to create ‘Take Twelve’, a rewarding Jazzland session that features four of the trumpeter’s appealing original tunes. Two other albums featuring Morgan that should be in everyone’s collection are John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and Johnny Griffin’s “A Blowing Session,” both on Blue Note.
Morgan’s life has not been without personal problems. For years he struggled with drug problems but apparently overcame these difficulties, which had interrupted his career several times in recent years. His recordings were sometimes uneven, no doubt because of his physical blockages, and he then fell back on repetitive “soul” shots. But when he was doing well, few of his contemporaries could match his technical genius and invention.
Recently, he had been actively involved in ventures such as College Black Artists, the Jazz and People Movement, and the Harlem Jazzmobile. He was one of the men who led protests in New York television studios over their refusal to give exposure to black musicians. He had become an activist.
Lee Morgan was a good musician rather than a great one. He was not an original stylist but he made a significant contribution to jazz over a period of 15 years. His mercurial trumpet will be missed, especially by those who came to jazz in the hard bop era when Morgan was a young man with a funky horn.