Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Morgan, Lee (Edward Lee)

Trumpeter Lee Morgan burst onto the Philadelphia jazz scene at age eighteen, bristling with street talent and electric viruosity. A natural crowd pleaser, he was respected by his peers and many hoped he would fill the void left by the death of his mentor, Clifford Brown. But like Brown, his career was cut tragically short.

Edward Lee Morgan was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1938, and died on February 19, 1972, in New York City. Nicknamed “Howdy Doody” by childhood friends, he received the gift of a trumpet for his birthday from his mother and sister as a teenager. This horn became first of many gifts bestowed by others in response to his budding talent.

While a student at the Jules Mastbaum High School for the Arts, he led a small bebop group at Philadelphia’s Music City Club.There he sat in on jam sessions with Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt and Clifford Brown, who helped him develop as an improviser.

After graduating from high school in the summer of 1956, Art Blakey invited him to join the Jazz Messengers when the drummer arrived in Philly short a trumpet player. Morgan’s stint with Blakey, however, was short-lived.

Two weeks later, Morgan opted to fly under the wing of a trumpet giant, moving to New York City to join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. Morgan stayed with Dizzy’s band for 18 months, working alongside trumpeter Quincy Jones, saxophonist Benny Golson and pianist Wynton Kelly.

The summer of 1956 marked the launch of Morgan’s career, but also marked the end of another, when Clifford Brown died in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Many looked to Morgan as Brown’s heir apparent, as he shared the Philadelphia association and affinity with the elder master of bebop improvisation.

During this period, Morgan recorded five albums with Blue Note as leader. He also appeared on the first notable recording of”I Remember Clifford,” penned by Golson, on the album, The Big Band Sound of Dizzy Gillespie. The song cemented Morgan’s association with Brown in the minds of many jazz fans, even though the younger player’s style was already definitely his own.

Lee Morgan’s rising star soon sided him with John Coltrane, first recording with Johnny Griffin, and then on Coltrane’s pivotal album, ”Blue Train,” with a frenzied performance style that came to be known as Hard Bop. One tune in particular, ”Moment’s Notice,”casts Morgan’s unique style into high relief: it combines Miles’s rhythmic mastery with Dizzy’s brassy boldness and Clifford’s stream of musical consciousness.

Art Blakey persuaded Morgan to rejoin the Jazz Messengers in 1958, after Dizzy broke up his big band. Some suggest Blakey used drugs to entice Morgan to join his group, as this period marked the beginning of the trumpeter’s addictions to heroine then cocaine. In any case, Morgan’s years with the Jazz Messengers were prolific and productive, as he appeared on forty albums at this time, ten as leader.

It was Blakey himself who fired Morgan for heroine addiction in April 1961. Soon after, Morgan lost several teeth after drug dealers beat him, an event portrayed in Spike Lee’s 1990 film, Mo’ Better Blues. But unlike the tragic career end to the film’s fictional trumpeter, Bleek Gilliam, Lee Morgan would return to the scene for an impressive final act.

Now back in Philadelphia, playing on a borrowed trumpet with a set of false teeth, Morgan struggled to regain his footing. He recorded with Jimmy Heath, Oscar Peterson and others in sessions considered mediocre at best. At one point Morgan tried to pawn the borrowed horn, and then disappeared for almost a year.

He returned to the spotlight in 1963, one month after the death of President Kennedy, to record ”The Sidewinder” for Blue Note Records. The album, recorded with saxophonist Joe Henderson, pianist Barry Harris, drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Bob Cranshaw, became a crossover sensation, Blue Note’s fist to hit the pop music charts.

Described on the liner notes by Leonard Feather as having “a deep blue tinge with a Latin touch,” “The Sidewinder” was a funky and danceable tune that put Morgan back on top.

Followup albums soon teamed Morgan with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. In the spring of 1964, Morgan rejoined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, replacing Freddie Hubbard.

Morgan continued to record on his own at an amazing pace, nailing successive sessions that became the albums Search for New Land, Cornbread and The Gigolo, all with original tunes that achieved success with R&B audiences. After leaving the Jazz Messengers, Morgan cut more albums with his own groups and as sideman with Hank Mobley and others. Morgan’s playing at this time reflected his growing interests in the abstract modal side of hard bop, and the Afrocentric culture of the sixties.

Stories still flow over the last years of Morgan’s life, overshadowing some of his most interesting achievements. Morgan was an active member of Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society, whose concerts with Morgan constantly sold out. At one of his last stage appearances, Morgan performed for the LBJS at Howard University, where he received a standing ovation before he walked up to the stage.

Ironically, the last shadows to befall him were the unanswered circumstances of his death.

On February 19, 1972, Morgan was shot and killed by his common-law wife, Helen Moore, during a performance at Slug’s Club in New York. Like all crime scene accounts, the stories vary. Was it an argument over Morgan's fidelity or drugs? Was Helen Moore carrying drug money or Morgan’s handgun? Did she shoot him outside the club or on stage?

Fortunately, despite his untimely and pointless death, Morgan left behind a rich legacy of recordings, by which his talent can be well measured. By the time of his death he had recorded twenty-seven albums under his own name, nineteen with Art Blakey, and more than twenty with Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter and jazz greats of his era.

Contributor: Dave Krikorian