Lee Morgan, American jazz trumpeter and composer (1938-1972)

Lee Morgan, American jazz trumpeter and composer (1938-1972)

Edward Lee Morgan (July 10, 1938 – February 19, 1972) was an American jazz trumpeter and composer.

One of the key hard bop musicians of the 1960s and a cornerstone of the Blue Note label, Lee Morgan came to prominence in his late teens, recording with bandleaders like John Coltrane, Curtis Fuller, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Mobley and Wayne Shorter, and playing in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Morgan stayed with Blakey until 1961 and started to record as leader in the late ’50s. Morgan’s solo recordings often alternated between conventional hard bop sessions and more adventurous post-bop and avant-garde experiments, many of which did not see release during his lifetime. His composition “The Sidewinder”, on the album of the same name, became a surprise crossover hit on the pop and R&B charts in 1964. After a second stint in Blakey’s band, Morgan continued to work prolifically as both a leader and a sideman until his death in 1972.

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The story of Lee Morgan, the jazz trumpeter murdered for infidelity

He was a great talent from a young age, until heroin consumed him. A woman recovered him, but then she was the one who killed him.

The phrase “I’m Not With This Bitch Anymorecost trumpeter Lee Morgan a bullet in the chest . Her partner until that moment, Helen More, snubbed and in a fit of jealousy shot her with the revolver that Morgan himself had given her for her protection, a silver .32 short.

Lee Morgan was 33 years old and bled to death at the Slug’s Saloon jazz club in New York’s East Village on the cold and stormy night of Saturday, February 19, 1972, almost 50 years ago, when snow prevented for the ambulance to arrive on time.

The bullet did not kill him immediately and they even had time to say goodbye according to the version of someone who was present. Helen screamed seconds after the shot: “Oh, what have I done to you?” and Lee responded, “I know you really didn’t want to do this. I’m sorry too”.

The relationship between Helen and Lee went back a long way, living together would have begun in 1967, when Morgan was broke and living on the street due to his heroin addiction . Helen not only helped him in his recovery, as she got him into the “detox program” through methadone treatment, she also became her manager and Lee started making money.

Who was Lee Morgan

Without a doubt, Morgan was a musician with strength, soul and emotion ; one of the most soulful trumpet players in modern jazz and a passionate improviser full of emotion and energy; His style represents the quintessence of hard bop trumpet.

Edward Lee Morgan was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1938 . He began with the piano and alto sax before switching to the trumpet at the age of 13, an instrument that seduced him from the first moment. His main influence was the great Clifford Brown, with whom he took classes.

When Morgan began his life, he was as far removed from the style of a drug addict as could be imagined. He enjoyed a strong family background with strong connections to the church and which consistently supported him in his desire to be a musician.

He was the youngest of four children, and his sister Ernestina was the one who gave him his first trumpet. His development was vertical, his precocity striking. He became a professional at age 15 and at age 17, that is, four years after starting with the trumpet, ‘s Big Band he was already playing in Dizzy Gillespie .

Lee Morgan’s legendary album In 1957, he participated in John Coltrane , Blue Train , and in 1958, when he had just turned 20, he joined drummer Art Blakey ‘s Jazz Messengers , where in addition to showing his talent as a soloist he also excelled as a composer, with songs like The Midget , Haina , Celine , Yama , Pisces and Blue Lace , among others.

Morgan’s music has an urban sound that he combined with the cleanliness of Clifford Brown to produce something unique. Over time, she came to develop a personal style in which she mixed short, penetrating phrases with long, swinging ones, masterfully using the resource of repetition.

The fall

Lee Morgan began using heroin during his time in the Messengers until there came a time in 1961 when the situation became unsustainable for both him and pianist Bobby Timmons, composer of the song that became the band’s anthem, Moanin. ‘ ; both left the quintet.

Morgan returned to his native Philadelphia to “get clean.” He abandoned jazz for two years and with his trumpet sold and his lip damaged he entered Narcotic Farm, in Lexington, a rehabilitation center that had housed William Burroughs and Chet Baker , among others. There were months in which rumors spread about his death or that he had joined the army.

For his part, the trumpeter’s biographer, Tom Perchard, stated that it was Art Blakey who introduced him to heroin, which ended up ruining his career. The drummer used the drug with a behavior rarely seen to the point that it allowed him to maintain a decent consistency in his work, something absolutely unusual and that the trumpeter, like thousands of other artists, did not achieve.

The return

Two years later, in November 1963, Morgan returned to New York much better and decided to start his career as a soloist, although since 1956 he had been recording albums under his name on the Blue Note label.

In 1964, he released The Sidewinder , which achieved unexpected success and reached number 35 on the sales charts. The song that ended up giving the album its title was written in the recording studio because there was a missing composition; specifically, The Sidewinder was the filler.

The artist with great skill developed a style of jazz funk, which in the discos they called “boogaloo” and which gained airplay on the radio and was even used by the automobile company Chrysler as the main theme of the 1964 baseball world series.

Morgan was a prolific artist, with 25 albums to his name and countless works as a sideman with Wayne Shorter , Hank Mobley, Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner , Jackie Mc Lean, Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard, among others.

It’s hard to put it in a category. “I don’t like labels; If you can play, you can play with everyone . Look at Coleman Hawkins, Joe Henderson. “We shouldn’t limit our minds.”

“I’m one of those who prefer swing, but I experimented with free forms like Evolution , by Grachan Moncur, and Grass Roots , by Andrew Hill. I made an album with Larry Young ( Mother Ship , recorded in 1969) and a week later, one with Lonnie Smith ( Turning Point , 1969), something completely different,” the trumpeter noted in an interview in 1970.

The beginning of the end

Of the $15,000 he had earned with The Sidewinder It was 1967 and nothing was left . Morgan was on his last legs and preferred to do drugs than make music.

Jeff McMillan would describe in his biography of the trumpeter Delightfulee (it coincides with the name of one of the artist’s albums): “ Sleeping on the sidewalk in front of Birdland without shoes , sleeping on pool tables in bars, wearing a dirty suit over his pajamas, stealing a TV from a hotel lobby to get some money.” This is how Morgan was that year.

At this point in his decline, a miracle occurred . One freezing night in 1967, Helen More held an open house at her home in Hell’s Kitchen, a poor neighborhood in Manhattan, where there would be jazz and food, and Morgan appeared, without a coat and without a trumpet .

More described him as “ ragged and pitiful , but for some reason my heart went out to him.” The first thing Helen did was retrieve the trumpet from her and thus, with that gesture, she sealed a close relationship of affection and dependence.

Morgan moved in with her (moving out is a word that implies he brought her things, which he didn’t) or just stayed at her house.

“He clung to me” and Helen, 13 years older than Lee, took complete control of his life. He fed him, took care of him, dressed him, put him on the methadone program, took him to the dentist to fix his loose teeth that made his embouchure difficult, and Morgan began to play and compose.

More rebuilt Lee Morgan’s career and although they never married, they presented themselves as husband and wife ; even Helen adopted the surname Morgan. She was his manager, she booked dates, managed the money and ensured that he behaved like a punctual and responsible professional and she achieved it.

Journalist Stuart Nicholson, from Jazzwise , noted that saxophonist Bennie Maupin defined Helen More as his confidant, friend and lover .

“She had a really calm strength and he trusted her.” Encouraged by More, he built a circuit with three clubs, Left Bank Jazz Society, in Baltimore, Slug’s Saloon, in the East Village, in Manhattan, which ended up closing months after the murder de Morgan, and the Baron Club, in Harlem.

In July 1970, Morgan, established as a musician and with a comfortable financial background, recorded with a solid group made up of Maupin, Harold Mabern on piano, Jimmie Merritt on double bass and Mickey Roker on drums (Jack DeJohnette also participated in one of the songs. ) Live at the Lighthouse , famous jazz club in Hermosa Beach, California.

Morgan’s life was sailing with the wind in his sails until, in mid-1971, More began to notice changes in Lee’s behavior. He was seeing another woman, Judith Johnson; Furthermore, some nights he did not return to stay at her house in New Jersey and he was using cocaine .

The night of the tragedy he went with Johnson to his presentation at Slug’s and between one set and another, More appeared, who violently confronts him.

After verbally attacking her, he pushed her out of the club and at that moment, Helen dropped the gun from her purse on the street, took it, returned to the club and shot him in the chest, killing the trumpeter.

About 1,000 people attended Morgan’s funeral at The Advocate in Philadelphia, while Helen More pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and spent two years in prison. Upon leaving she returned to her hometown, North Carolina. Shortly before she died, in February 1996, she gave the only interview to jazz writer Larry Reni Thomas, who wrote The Woman Who Killed Lee Morgan .

Precisely, the documentary I Called Him Morgan , by Kaspar Collins, on the Netflix platform , in addition to being the best source of information about the last five years in the trumpeter’s life, used much of the material from that interview. Helen More died of a heart attack in March 1996.

In Morgan one clearly perceives that peculiar fascination that exists between art and excess , as in the case of Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, for example, from where a romantic figure emerges so long later like that of this trumpeter who, mortally wounded, tells his victimizer: “I know you really didn’t want to do this.”

Lee Morgan Quintet – Ceora

Lee Morgan Quintet – Ceora (1965)

Personnel: Lee Morgan (trumpet), Hank Mobley (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Larry Ridley (bass), Billy Higgins (drums) from the album ‘CORNBREAD’ (Blue Note Records)

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