Thursday, March 07, 2013

Lee Morgan the Sidewinder

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

I've been on a Lee Morgan kick. Every once in a while I'll get latched onto a specific musician and band and feel compelled to immerse myself in their entire catalog chronologically, so I can hear how their specific sound developed over time.

Usually these musicians are affected by 1) personal experiences, 2) the contemporary music scene, and 3) money. Their music reflects those struggles and if their career has any longevity, they end up facing more obstacles impeding their art.
Lee Morgan is an interesting cat because he's the trumpet player as popular (in the mainstream) as his contemporaries and he died fairly young under tragic circumstances at 33 years-old. Morgan was a wunderkind from Philly and one of the up and coming trumpet players in the late 50s. When he was only 18 years-old, Morgan toured with Dizzy Gillespie's band. After honing his chops with Dizzy, he cranked out a significant amount of music in the late 50s with his own crew in different recording sessions in and around New York City. Morgan also sat in with other musicians including John Coltrane.

Coltrane tapped Morgan to play on the Blue Train sessions. If you don't know much about jazz, well Blue Train is often considered (by both fans and critics) as one of the most popular and influential jazz albums in the history of all music. Morgan was just 19 years old! Yet he had enough chops that Coltrane believed he would be the perfect fit for the music he wrote. Morgan was young and impressionable and absorbed a lot from Coltrane including his worst habit... heroin.

Morgan played in Art Blakey's band the Jazz Messengers for a while before he got kicked out. For as talented as Morgan was, he was an equally talented stone-cold junkie. A lot of stories suggested that Blakey was the one who introduced Morgan to heroin, but Morgan could not handle his high. After three or so years and missing (or being late to) gig after gig, Blakey had enough of Morgan's unprofessionalism and booted him from the Jazz Messengers.

A circle of black musicians often numbed the pain of the overwhelming day-to-day racism by shooting dope. They had no choice but to sell their souls to get money and often played for ruthless club owners and promoters because they had no other choice. The smack gave them a warm, protective outer-shell to insulate them from the blatant racism, like being forced to enter a separate entrance through a dingy alley while playing for an all-white club. The owners raked in the dough on inflated drink prices and a cover charge, while the band got paid next to nothing. Musicians were always treated like shit by club owners and black musicians had a double-whammy against them. Heroin helped eased that deep-rooted pain and seething contempt musicians had for racist promoters, or to dull the agony of having to play "popular" jazz tunes or standards. After a while, the self-medicating in between gigs turned into a full-blown addiction.

Morgan hit the skids. After he got booted from the Jazz Messengers he sold pawned everything for drug money, even his axe. That's when he met Helen More. She was not just a cougar preying on young musicians. She was a true patron of the arts and had an apartment near many of the clubs. She often fed starving musicians or gave them a place to crash. In Morgan's case, she found him on the street without a coat. When she discovered he pawned it, she took it upon herself to get it back. She also knew that if she gave him a few bucks, then he'd use it all for smack. They went to the pawn shop together. Morgan let her know that he also pawned his trumpet, which she also paid to get back. She knew he couldn't earn any money with his axe in a pawn shop.

Helen got Morgan back on track. She let him move and she cleaned him up, even dressing him in much hipper clothes than the rags he wore while living on the streets. Morgan went into rehab and quit heroin. Morgan was clean and went back to doing what he did best... make music.

The mid 60s sessions were fantastic. He had a half a decade hard living under his belt and he welcomed the fusion of different genres including hard bop and boogaloo. That period was highlighted by The Sidewinder, The Gigolo, and Cornbread.

The Sidewinder is only 40 minutes but it's some of the most swinging 40 minutes you'll hear. It's the kind of jazz music I'll play for non-jazz enthusiasts and they'll dig it because Morgan's band brings the earliest forms of funk. Even the vamps and improvs sound somewhat structured so folks can follow along. the cool-funk rhythm section makes it hard not to want to sway your hips. You probably heard bits of The Sidewinder sampled by numerous hip-hop artists and DJs.

Here's the title track The Sidewinder...

Morgan struggled with drugs on and off over the course of the 1960s. He supposedly lived with Helen somewhere around Riverdale and other places in the Bronx. For a while, Morgan shot-up cocaine because it was the opposite of heroin, but that drug only made him even crazier. When the psychedelic era of the late 60s was ushered in, Morgan dabbled in the new batch of hippie drugs (mind-altering substances like mushrooms and LSD). One of his albums, The Sixth Sense, recorded in 1968, was a perfect blend of afro-Cuban-groove and jazzy psychedelia. Listen to the entire album here.... The Sixth Sense.

Morgan was 33 when he died in 1972. His girlfriend shot him in the heart as he was about to take the stage of Slug's Saloon in Alphabet City. The neighborhood was pretty shitty in the early 1970s and so scary that the ambulance driver was reluctant to drive to the club (on 3rd Street between Avenue B and Avenue C). By the time paramedics arrived, Morgan had bled to death.

Who knows how much more music Morgan could have made? It's one of the great what ifs of the jazz era. Many of Morgan's peers faded into obscurity because of heroin and/or booze. Unfortunately, even today in many music circles Morgan is most known as the jazz player who was shot by his crazy girlfriend. It's a shame they overlook the music he made in a very short time.

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