Thursday, December 20, 2007

Death of a Jazz Legend / Addict

About 20 years ago, when I was in college, my dad took me to Washington, DC for a week as he had business, and a hotel room, there at the height of cherry blossom time. One night he insisted that we go to Blues Alley, a small jazz and blues club in Georgetown. I remember telling my dad the cover was too much, that he should save his money, but he insisted that I have this experience.

When we got in the club, I was amazed how intimate the atmosphere was. I could look right into the saxophonist's eyes as he played. In fact, when we sat down I remember him looking at us, as if concerned that we would be drawn into the music, as if he was trying to draw some energy from the crowd. It reminds me of Josh Karton's statement about real artists being that way because they're more concerned with what the audience is hearing, and how they're reacting, that in how the material is being delivered. In short, he seemed to focus on us and this created an incredible experience, and my first exposure to live jazz.

My dad was right. It was worth the cover as it's not often you remember a night 20 years ago that vividly. As my former poetry teacher described the feeling of writing a good poem, it was a "vertical moment in an otherwise linear life."

The man's name was Frank Morgan and he died last week at age 74.

On Tuesday, NPR's Fresh Air featured a 1987 interview he did (I saw him in 1988) and I was amazed to hear that he spent about 20 years of his life in prison, struggling with a heroin habit that he finally kicked in the mid-80's. The tragic part of the interview was that he described being treated like a celebrity in prison but being "a little fish in a big sea" on the outside. He described being able to play every day in prison and even said, as quoted on wikipedia:

"The greatest big band I ever played with was in San Quentin. Art Pepper and I were proud of that band. We had Jimmy Bunn and Frank Butler, and some other musicians who were known and some who weren't, but they could play. We played every Saturday night for what they called a Warden's Tour, which showed paying visitors only the cleanest cell blocks and exercise yards. But people would take that tour just to hear the band."

The NPR interview can be heard at this link. Wikipedia outlines Morgan's story:

Frank Morgan showed a great deal of promise in his early days, but it was a long time before he could fulfill his 1947 and was approached by Duke Ellington who wanted the then 15-year-old Frank to go on the road with his band. Frank's father wanted his son to finish school so the Ellington gig never materialized, but by the time he was 17, Frank was working at LA's Club Alabam, backing the likes of Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. Morgan worked on the bop scene of early-'50s Los Angeles, recording with Teddy Charles (1953) and Kenny Clarke (1954), and under his own name for GNP in 1955.

Unfortunately, around that same time Frank followed his idol and mentor Charlie "Bird" Parker into heroin addiction, and spent most of the next thirty years serving time for thefts to support his habit. Yet except for periods in the Los Angeles County jail system, he never strayed too far from music. At most penal institutions, there were bands made up of inmates, and Morgan was greeted as a celebrity. He was constantly made gifts of mouthpieces, drugs, food, cigarettes.

When he was not incarcerated Frank performed occasionally around LA, but it was not until 1985 that Morgan, with the help of artist and future wife Rosalinda Kolb, managed to leave his life of "questionable interests" behind him and once again concentrate on his music. Resuming his recording career after a thirty-year hiatus, releasing "Easy Living" in June 1985, Frank was rediscovered and his unique history, combined with his equally unique sound and story-telling ability on his horn, made him a media star. He made multiple appearances on the Today Show in the '80s and '90s; starred in "Prison-Made Tuxedos," an off-Broadway play about his life, in 1987; was the first subject of Jane Pauley's "Real Life" primetime TV show on NBC in 1990; and won the Down Beat Critics Poll for Best Alto Saxophonist in 1991.

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