The Jazz.com Blog
December 17, 2007 · 1 comment
The jazz world is mourning the loss of alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, who passed away on Friday after a battle with colon cancer. Morgan would have turned 74 this coming Sunday.
Thirty years ago, Frank Morgan had disappeared so completely from the jazz scene that Leonard Feather and Gene Norman assumed he was dead when they began working on a reissue of his recordings from the 1950s. But Morgan, like so many others of his generation, found his career eclipsed by an out-of-control drug habit that ravaged his personal life and resulted in long years of incarceration.
This was a tragedy that was all too typical of the West Coast scene of the period. Morgan would later recall that one of the finest bands of his career was a San Quentin ensemble from 1962, which also featured Art Pepper, Jimmy Bunn and Frank Butler. (In the near future, I will be publishing on jazz.com my account of another drug-and-prison casualty of the era, the great trumpeter Dupree Bolton.)
Morgan was one of the last survivors of the thriving Central Avenue scene that served as the center of the Los Angeles jazz world until the late 1940s. Morganís father, guitarist Stanley Morgan, ran a popular after hours clubs in the area, the Casa Blanca. Many jazz legends, including Charlie Parker and Erroll Garner, participated in jam sessions at the Casa Blanca, and young Frank Morgan got a chance to match musical wits with the world class talent while he was still a teenager.
Morgan was a master of the bebop vocabulary, but he made only a handful of recording before disappearing into Californiaís penal institutions. When he tried to resurrect his career in the 1980s, Morgan had to start from the bottom rung. Even jazz insiders were mostly unaware of Morgan and what he could do on the horn. But a talent this large would not stay hidden for long. Even before he secured a recording contract, he shook up the audience at a Duke Ellington tribute concert on the UCLA campus where Morgan stole the show as a virtually unknown player in the midst of an all-star lineup.
His subsequent recordings garnered glowing reviews, and Morgan found himself gaining the recognition in his fifties that should have been his in his twenties and thirties. He recorded extensively, toured regularly, and in 1991, at age 57 he won the Down Beat Critics Poll as best alto saxophonist.
We had grown used to Morgan beating the odds. His comeback in the 1980s seemed almost a miracle to those who had written him off as a casualty of the scene. After a stroke in 1998, doctors told him he would never play again, but he was performing again within six months. But Frank Morgan finally succumbed last Friday. We will miss his presence, but continue to celebrate his legacy.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
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