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Frank Morgan, 1933 - 2007

Jazz saxophonist was known for pure bebop

December 23, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

When writers and critics wrote about alto saxophonist Frank Morgan's music in the last two decades of his life -- the "lyrical, blues-rich voice," "the ravishing melodies" -- they also wrote of his prolonged silence. For nearly 30 years Morgan was incarcerated, the consequence of crimes committed to feed an addiction to heroin and other drugs.

But the prison that first held Morgan was not addiction or San Quentin. It was youthful admiration that morphed into obsession. As a child, Morgan wanted to learn from his hero, jazz saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. Then, in the 1950s critics crowned him the "next Charlie Parker" and Morgan found himself trying to be the revered artist.

"I was afraid of success, afraid of failure. Afraid I wasn't as good as they said I was," Morgan once said. "It damn near cost me my life, trying to be 'Bird' rather than be Frank."

Parker died in 1955 at 34, still addicted to heroin. When Morgan died Dec. 14 at his home in Minneapolis from colon cancer, he was a free man: not addicted or imprisoned, not incarcerated in the life of his mentor. His family -- he lived with his cousins Melanie and Lance Taylor, who survive him -- and his music were his joys.

To get to that point in life, the musician first traveled a path that Parker himself had tried to dissuade him from.

Born Dec. 23, 1933, in Minneapolis, Morgan was the son of Stanley Morgan, a guitarist with the Ink Spots. When Morgan was 7, his father took him to hear Parker play with the Jay McShann Orchestra and introduced him. It changed the boy's life.

"My father said that the first time Bird stood up and took a solo, I turned to him and said, 'Hey, Dad, that's it for the guitar. That's what I want to play,' " Morgan told the Boston Globe in 2006.

Morgan traded the guitar, which his father had been teaching him to play since Morgan was 2, for a clarinet, which Parker insisted was an important step on the road to playing saxophone.

By the time he was 14, Morgan had moved to Los Angeles where his father owned Casablanca, a club on Central Avenue that was rich with jazz clubs and after-hours spots. The avenue was the cultural home for local musicians; a mandatory stopover for those visiting the West Coast. Nearby Jefferson High School, where Morgan was a student, was a training ground that fed the avenue new talent.

Though still a teenager, Morgan recorded with Teddy Charles and founding members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Milt Jackson and Kenny Clarke. At the Club Alabam on Central Avenue he backed Billie Holiday and other artists. Later he was invited to join Duke Ellington's band. Morgan's father insisted that he finish school first.

Parker's frequent trips to Los Angeles gave Morgan a chance to hang out with his hero and learn from his blistering rhythmic phrasing and harmonic vocabulary. Parker's heroin addiction was no secret, particularly among musicians, many of whom were drug abusers. At 17, Morgan figured he "had to take drugs to get to the true essence of bebop." Morgan thought his mentor would be happy; he was wrong.

"He cried when he found out I was using," Morgan said in the Globe article. "He said, 'That's the last thing in the world I want. Your common sense should have seen how it was treating me.' "

Three years later Morgan made his first recording as a sideman. In 1955 he recorded his own album, "Introducing Frank Morgan," and earned comparisons to Parker. But the album that should have been his grand debut turned out to be his last as a leader for decades.

Under the weight of expectations he could never meet -- his own and the public's -- Morgan hid in a world of crime, addiction and incarceration. Because he was a noted jazz musician, in prison he "could get anything I wanted," he once said, including drugs and a chance to keep playing music.

At San Quentin State Prison he served time with other talented and addicted musicians, including fellow alto saxophonist Art Pepper. They made up the "warden's band" and performed for outsiders and inmates.

"But all we really were was a bunch of failures, living inside a big iron cage," Morgan told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. "And if you're an insecure person, being a big fish in a little pond is easier than trying to learn how to live in the outside world."

In 1985, Morgan finally succeeded in the world outside. He left prison for the last time and launched a comeback that fans and critics welcomed. He performed in "Prison-Made Tuxedos," an off-Broadway play based in part on his life. Former Times jazz critic Leonard Feather called him "the greatest living alto saxophonist," a sentiment echoed by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

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