Despite his somewhat limited output and even shorter life, Lee Morgan is considered one of the greatest trumpeters in jazz history. It’s his story.
On a freezing night in New York in 1967, one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time didn’t own a trumpet. He was in the pawnshop, with his winter coat and various other effects, all sold for heroin. Only three years after the release of one of the best jazz albums of the decade, Lee Morgan was in the beatings of drug addiction that had consumed him for almost 10 years. Even though he owned a trumpet, he was so lacking in practice and wit that he could barely play. That night, he met the woman who would save his life.
Helen Morgan was known in jazz circles as “the trendy little square”. She never dabbled in heroin but her apartment became a haven for struggling musicians, many of whom were drug addicts. That night, she said, Morgan came “ragged and pitiful…and for some reason my heart just flew out of him.
“I said, ‘My child, it’s zero degrees out there and all you have is a jacket. Where is your coat?’ »
“Faded away,” he said. She got the coat back, along with her trumpet. Therefore, she said, “he clung to me” while she “took full control.” Over the next five years, she helped the former prodigy become the musician he was meant to be. She would clean him up, bring him back to the top, and then end his life.
Rise of a jazz prodigy
A month after graduating from high school, Lee Morgan found a spot as a star soloist in Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary big band and shined enough to sign a contract with Blue Note Records. He recorded six albums in just over a year and was quickly revered as one of jazz’s finest trumpeters.
When Gillespie disbanded his orchestra in 1958, Lee was invited to join the Jazz Messengers, a quintet led by the notoriously militaristic Art Blakey. With Blakey, Morgan learned how to control an audience, lead them through a series of climaxes before leaving them exhausted and wanting more. He also recorded the iconic Moanin’ record, and above all, he learned to love heroin.
Habit forced Morgan to leave his New York home and sell his trumpet. Morgan spent the next two years stretching, his skills slowly dying. In late 1963, he visited the infamous Narcotic Farm, a hospital in Lexington, Ky., which housed a host of famous drug addicts of the period from William S. Burroughs to Chet Baker. Rumors swirled that he had joined the military or died, but a few months later Morgan was back in New York, ready to record.
The hospital hadn’t cured his habits but he taught him how to handle it long enough to record the song that would secure his legacy, The Sidewinder.
It was never meant to be a hit. When Lee’s band ran out of material during a Blue Note session in late 1963, Morgan disappeared into the bathroom. The group worried that he would come back too high to play, but he emerged with The Sidewinder, a strangled ten-minute blues number etched into a few pieces of toilet paper.
“It was like a gift from God” Morgan said in a 1968 interview with journalist Bob Houston.
By 1963, jazz was in decline, eclipsed by the mainstream’s focus on rock gods. Yet despite its limited release, The Sidewinder sold out so quickly that Blue Note struggled to press more copies. It reached No. 35 on the pop charts throughout 1964 – a virtually impossible ranking for instrumental jazz. It was the record that saved the careers of Blue Note and Lee Morgan.
Unfortunately, over the next few years Morgan drifted, working only a few days a month and the $15,000 he was earning soon disappeared.
According to McMillan, in 1967 the money was long gone and Lee Morgan was seen, “sleeping on the sidewalk outside of Birdland with no shoes on, sleeping on pool tables in bars, wearing a dirty suit over your pajamas, stealing a TV from a hotel lobby for quick cash .”
Within a year of meeting Morgan, Helen had taken his name and they were introduced as husband and wife, although they had never been married.
To Morgan’s friends, however, she was a godsend, saving him from years of torture. The couple moved to a Bronx apartment in the stately Grand Concourse, and Helen put Lee into rehab.
Soon, Helen became obsessive. She was like his mother and his manager, collecting his money, booking dates and paying his band.
“It was like Helen was addicted to him,” said Morgan’s niece. As Morgan got his life back on track, he became more involved in politics, campaigning for the rights of black musicians. He also began teaching at New York music schools and experimenting with flugelhorn, saying bebop and hard bop, “I’m sick of playing this shit.”
While it’s hard to say how clean Morgan really was at this point, he never stopped using methadone, which sometimes caused him to fall asleep on the bandstand. Additionally, Lee had started replacing heroin with cocaine – a change many people had made at a time when heroin was becoming incredibly scarce in New York City.
As Morgan grew more confident, he wanted more independence from Helen, but she just hung on tighter.
“Like I Did” she said. “You know, ‘I brought you back. You belong to Me.'” Even decades later, she wasn’t sure if she really loved him or considered him a possession.
“They were like rocky arguments, in public,” said saxophonist Bennie Maupin. “He spilled a bottle of champagne on his head one day, [yelling]’Bitch, get the hell out of here, leave me alone’, etc.
In 1971 he started seeing another woman. Soon, Helen stopped coming to see Morgan perform. The new lady had taken her place at the head table. Helen attempted to poison herself in a fit of depression but she survived. Then she started carrying a gun.
Slaughter at Slug’s Saloon
In February 1972, Lee and his band did a week-long engagement at Slug’s Saloon, a skinny bar in the depths of Alphabet City. On February 18, a blizzard whipped traffic through New York. En route to Slug’s, Morgan was turning a corner when they hit a patch of ice that got out of hand, crashing into the curb and totaling the car.
Rather than wait for a tow truck, Morgan grabbed his horn and drove the rest of the way through the snow. Billy Harper was already at the club and remembers Morgan visibly shaking himself at Slug. “Man, I almost died” said Morgan. the wreckage directed the conversation to Morgan’s former mentor, Clifford Brown, who had died in a car accident on a snowy night fifteen years earlier.
Back in the Bronx, Helen decided she would go see him play. “That Saturday” Hélène said to Thomas, “I don’t know what possessed me. I said, ‘I’m going to Slug’s. He worked there all week. I hadn’t been there all week. And I had a gun.
She arrived well after midnight, during a break between sets. Seeing the woman at Lee’s table, she started screaming. “And he was Lee,” Harper said. “He was a little cocky about it. She said, ‘You know I have the gun.’ And he said, ‘But I got the bullets.’ » Eventually, Morgan grabbed Helen and threw her out, crashing into a waist-high fresh snowdrift.
“I didn’t have on my coat or anything, but I had my bag” remembers Helen. “He kicked me out of the club. The winter. And the gun fell out of my bag, and I looked at him. I got up. I went to the door… The bouncer said to me, ‘Miss Morgan, I hate to tell you this but Lee doesn’t want me to let you in.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m going in!’ ‘I guess the bouncer saw the gun… He said, ‘Yeah, you are.’”
“And I saw Morgan rush towards me and all I saw in his eyes was rage.”
“It was really, really something” Harper said. “We were still at the bar, then we talked, but I heard a POP. It wasn’t a loud thing, like POP. It didn’t seem real. Lee was up, so I thought everything was fine. But soon after, he fell, and they shot him near the heart, and Helen was screaming. She was out of her mind or something, she was crying and standing over Lee. The other lady got scared.
Paralyzed, Helen turned the gun over to the police. She would spend a total of three months in jail before posting bail and never returning. Helen pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter, but the loss of her court transcripts means the sentence was unknown. She would live out the rest of her life in North Carolina, absorbing herself in her local church before dying in 2014.
At Slug’s, Morgan’s blood soaked into the sawdust floor. The ambulance was delayed by heavy snow and Morgan died before reaching the hospital. Lee Morgan has died at the age of 33, marking the premature end of a vibrant, obsessive and ultimately unparalleled career in jazz.
Of all the epitaphs that flooded headlines, memorials and benefit concerts in the weeks to come, none was more eerily succinct than a line Morgan had said long before in a 1961 interview about Clifford Brown and John Coltrane.
“Every time I heard Clifford, and now when I hear Trane. I feel like the doctor said to them, ‘You have to play everything you know today because you won’t stand a chance tomorrow.’ »