Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2013: Vanessa Rubin

Lee Morgan (1938-72): The Sidewinder

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Lee Morgan was a child prodigy. At age fifteen he was already leading his own group in Philadelphia, having picked up the trumpet for the first time one year earlier. Esteemed trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie recruited him to play in his big band when he was just seventeen. There he assumed the trumpet solo duties on Gillespie’s signature piece, “A Night in Tunisia.” During the two years he was with Gillespie, he also recorded his first album for Blue Note. When he was nineteen, he played impressive solos on two landmark albums, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon.

Morgan was twenty when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, making a strong contribution to their sound, particularly on the soulful, bluesy tunes in the Blakey book. Over the course of his career, he was one of the most prolific Blue Note artists, and recorded twenty-five albums for the label.

He was dependent on heroin for much of his adult life. In 1960, Morgan left the Jazz Messengers, withdrew from music, and went home to Philadelphia to kick the habit. Upon returning, he heard a musical tribute on the radio that said he was dead, which gave him pause.

In 1963, Morgan recorded his Blue Note comeback album The Sidewinder [Blue Note #95332]. The title song was a funky, soulful, blues-based dance number that was inspired by the bad-guy roles he saw on television. It was edited down to a 45-rpm single that proved so popular, it pushed the album into the top twenty-five of the pop album charts. Later, Chrysler used it for a television commercial during the 1965 World Series. The sales from the album helped save Blue Note from potential bankruptcy.

The Sidewinder is a very satisfying album. Morgan, who composed all five songs, was a good, muscular, no-frills trumpet player and an ace technician. “Totem Pole” was named for the effect of Morgan’s alternation with saxophonist Joe Henderson on a group of six notes they play going into and coming out of the song. “Gary’s Notebook” is a blues that was named after a friend of Morgan’s who, no matter what he was doing, always carried a notebook in case he had to write down an idea. “Hocus Pocus” and “Boy, What a Night” are both freewheeling blues-based blowing sessions.

The musicians are of particular note: Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. It is a no-frills band that swings hard and plays with bite and attitude.

Morgan’s life ended tragically when, on February 19, 1972, Helen More, his common-law wife, shot and killed him during an argument at Slugs, a jazz club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Morgan was thirty-three years old.

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