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Book Review: Lee Morgan (2006)

Biographers of musicians face a tough balancing act. In addition to exploring an artist’s life, they have to provide sufficient explanation of the music to satisfy those who know music well as well as the average listener who could care less about whether what they hear is a glissando or arpeggio. The task is even tougher when it comes to hard bop jazz players such as trumpeter Lee Morgan because the music may border on indescribable. While not always successful in the effort, British author Tom Perchard tries to satisfy both kinds of readers in Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture, the first biography of the jazz trumpet player.

Morgan was a teenage phenom from the streets of Philadelphia. While still in high school, he was playing in clubs with his own ensembles and sat in on jam sessions with such greats as Sonny Stitt (who took the 16-year-old’s ego down a notch by calling for one of bebop’s most difficult tunes in the hardest key and fastest tempo, showing Morgan he still had a lot to learn). After high school, Morgan also appeared with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers when the group hit Philadelphia for a two week stand. His meteoric rise increased when he hit age 18. He moved to New York City to join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and within weeks was offered recording work as a leader himself. In a little over a year, he recorded six albums under his own name and appeared as a sideman on numerous others.

But some meteors can also be called falling stars. Perchard insightfully notes that in 1957, when Morgan, just 19, and John Coltrane were part of an ensemble recording a Johnny Griffin LP and Morgan was a sideman on Coltrane’s Blue Train, their lives were basically mirror images. That was the year Coltrane renounced heroin and alcohol and would kick off some of his greatest work. Morgan, in turn, was about to begin years of drug addiction. He formally joined the Jazz Messengers the following year and, like so many other members of that band, was soon a heroin addict. In fact, Perchard quotes one source that says Blakey told Morgan and another musician who joined the Jazz Messengers at the same time, “I’ll have you guys turned on in two weeks.”

While Perchard does laud Morgan’s skills and talents, he has no hesitancy to call Morgan’s performances as he hears them. For example, he notes that on some tunes Morgan recorded under his own name after arriving in New York, Morgan performs “as if he were in class rather than a recording studio; the trumpeter is very clearly reading the leadhseet as he plays, an eighteen-year-old apprentice learning on the job.” Yet there are times that Perchard tends to be perhaps a bit too esoteric for the average reader. For example, in describing a recording of Morgan’s in the fall of 1957, he writes: “His sound — now a thing in itself, no longer merely the vehicle of his diction — is more concentrated, adorned with only a gentle vibrato but, with foams of air forming around its edges, sophisticated enough to admit of some detail.”

Regardless of how described, Morgan’s sound and stylings made him one of the period’s more sought after players. By 1961, a little more than four years after becoming a professional musician, he had appeared on more than 40 albums, 10 under his own name. But the heroin addiction exacted its price. In April 1961, he was fired from the Jazz Messengers by Blakely, himself described to Perchard in one interview as “an old-time junkie.” That summer, Morgan was attacked with a hammer outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem and lost many of his teeth. Perchard notes:

This is the point at which the “official” narratives of Morgan’s colleagues, friends and family tend to run out, those reliable sources preferring to protect both the memory of the musician and their own feelings than to remember the trumpeter’s most troubled years. Much now becomes rumor, colourful stories perhaps best treated with some degree of caution.

No one knows for sure whether the attack on Morgan, one of several beatings he would endure, was directly related to his drug addiction. What is known is that he returned to Philadelphia and disappeared from the jazz scene. In fact, people thought he was dead. Perchard shares a few cautionary stories of some of Morgan’s misadventures. Somehow, though, Morgan began playing again, amazing not because of his addiction but that he was playing trumpet with false teeth. And there was no doubt the addiction was still there. When Morgan began playing in a quintet in Philadelphia with a borrowed trumpet, the co-leader of the quintet “took posession of the horn at the end of night to prevent Morgan from pawning it[.]”

Yet these steps led to a stunning professional recovery. In the late summer of 1963, Morgan returned to New York City and being a fulltime musician. That December, he recorded The Sidewinder. which would become his best-selling album and reach # 25 on the Billboard charts. As Perchard describes it, Sidewinder was a record “using the grooves of R&B, the timbre of blues, [and] some of the harmonic complexity of bebop.” (Although Perchard rather quickly again seems to cross that delicate balance point for the average reader, writing that Morgan used “staccato quavers which bite hard or else work in prim contrast to passages of lazy, long-tongued notes and tumbling semiquaver ornaments.”) The success of the record brought Morgan back to the forefront.

Whether Morgan ever truly kicked his drug habit is probably open to question and while he never again achieved the same crossover success of Sidewinder, he had developed his own sound. Like The Sidewinder, many of his ensuing releases were heavily blues based and incorporated elements of what was becoming known as “soul music.” This led to such critically acclaimed LPs as Search for the New Land (a 1964 release reflecting Morgan’s increasing interest in Africa and black issues), The Gigolo and Cornbread (both 1965) and The Procrastinator (1967). As such, Morgan continued pursuing and expanding the jazz idiom at a time it was becoming even more marginalized by the growth of rock music.

Yet the turmoil that marked so much of his life would return. In February 1972, Morgan, 33, was shot to death by his longtime girlfriend at a New York City club in which he had been performing. His early death means Morgan is not as well known today as many of his contemporaries, such as pianist McCoy Tyner or trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Yet Perchard makes clear that the fact Morgan’s name isn’t as widespread as others does not undercut his skills or contributions.

While Perchard examines the musical aspects of Morgan’s career, the word culture appears in the book’s title for a reason. In addition to the balance he must try to achieve in describing Morgan’s music and performances, Perchard places himself on another tightrope, one that deals with race. Perchard notes more than midway through the book that

this is a work reporting African American history in terms somewhat European, because these are the origins of those involved; this is a work which claims not to present Lee Morgan’s ‘definitive’ history, but an attempt I made, at a particular time, to understand something of the trumpeter’s world.

This worldview approach means race relations and black culture are as much central themes of this story as Morgan’s abilities, peformances and inner demons. Perchard firmly believes that the former are significant sources of the latter. Thus, at various points throughout the book, he explores, among other things: reasons for heroin growth in the black community as a whole, whether the prevalence of drug usage in the jazz scene was as great as is often portrayed or the result of a “nexus of racialised imaginations,” that most jazz critics were white but most artists were black, and the growth of the civil rights movement and its role in jazz in the 1960s, including Morgan’s own increased political activity. From Perchard’s viewpoint, “Morgan’s playing style was shaped not only by the repertoire with which he worked, but also — indirectly — by contemporary cultural and political events, that repertoire reflecting as it did wider social trends.”

Considering that Perchard recognizes these factors were an indirect influence, some readers may feel the book tends too much toward analysis of cultural and racial issues. In fact, one almost cannot help but wonder if the at time detailed examinations of cultural, race and political issues are an attempt by a European to understand and explain a history with which many, if not most, of the book’s American audience is familiar. Yet even if the balance tends to lean heavily on the side of exploring those issues, it provides Americans with an outsider’s view of the relationship between their history and their music and musicians.

Moreover, there is no doubt jazz literature desparately needed a worthy biography of Morgan, who is too often overlooked today. Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture goes far beyond simply reciting dates and facts about Morgan’s gigs, bands, studio sessions, troubles and relationships. Because it does as part of a serious effort to explore and understand who Lee Morgan was and why, the occasionally lengthy detours are tolerable.


[I]t’s clear that jazz improvisation, that most responsive of musical techniques, was in some way bound to its social context just as it was bound to its musicians, its audience and its moment.

Tom Perchard, Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture

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