[JPL] Saxophonist Morgan Embodied Be-Bop's Spirit: An Appreciation

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Sat Dec 15 11:55:05 EST 2007


Saxophonist Morgan Embodied Be-Bop's Spirit: An Appreciation
By Jeremy Gerard

Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Last May, I went to New York's Jazz Standard to hear
Frank Morgan come back from the dead one more time in a life that was full
of resurrections.

A prodigy and childhood devotee of Charlie Parker, Morgan opened with
Yardbird's ``Confirmation,'' a number that highlighted the bated silences in
be-bop as well as the onrush of notes. Be-bop isn't always mellow, but it
was that spring night.

Morgan died yesterday in Minneapolis; he would have turned 74 on Dec. 23.
Since returning from a European tour last month, he had been hospitalized
with inoperable colon cancer. Only in recent days was he sent home to die
among friends and family.

It must be a very large family. It would have to include the improbably
named Grace Kelly, a 14-year-old Asian girl he featured during that May set
and who matched him, note for swinging note, on her sax. It would certainly
include the other musicians on the stand that night: pianist-composer George
Cables, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Billy Hart, all players of
astonishing skill, with whom he'd recorded a classic three- disc live set in
this same club.

Morgan was weak but undaunted the last night I saw him. He had suffered a
stroke in 1998 and the word was he'd never play again. No one told him. He
told me that playing was a gift and he intended to keep giving it as long as
he drew breath.

The first time I heard him play, the notes from his sax were soaring through
the rafters of St. Clement's, a church on West 46th Street. The song was
``All the Things You Are,'' a favorite of jazz musicians who have made the
soulful melody their own for the more than half a century since Jerome Kern
wrote it.


Morgan was involved in a dangerous experiment: turning his story and his art
into theater.

He had recently emerged after three decades in prison and was in superb
form, playing the best clubs in the country and making albums for the first
time since his debut in 1955, the year Parker died. Like Parker, Morgan had
wound up a junkie.

Upon returning to the club scene he was quoted as saying, ``The jazz band we
had in San Quentin in 1962 was as good as any in the world at the time.''
The band, which included Art Pepper, Jimmy Bunn and Frank Butler, would play
special ``Warden's Tours,'' for which they would dress up in improvised
formal wear.

That image of ``prison-made tuxedos'' inspired New Yorker writer George W.S.
Trow to build a theater piece around interviews with Morgan. I spent several
days with them as they rehearsed and the tension grew palpable between the
gentle white writer and the street-toughened black musician who'd had a
second career in the field of breaking and entering.

Wynton Marsalis

At one point, Morgan made it clear he was unhappy about certain liberties
Trow had taken with his story.

``Let me be in my life, please,'' Morgan urged Trow. ``What I want is the
antithesis of be-bop. I want to be clean. I want Wynton Marsalis. You know,
George, I've been an actor all my life. I supported a $1,600-a-day habit --
without ever pulling out a pistol.''

In other words: What I do to Jerome Kern, don't do to my life. Trow got the
message; no pistols were drawn. I was hooked myself, on both the music and
the indomitable spirit behind it.

``I am a be-bopper stone through,'' Morgan said that day at St. Clement's.
``I was a be-bop criminal. I'm a be-bop actor. I want to do that throughout
my life. I intend to be the author of my own life.''

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are
his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Jeremy Gerard in New York at
jgerard2 at bloomberg.net .

Last Updated: December 15, 2007 09:12 EST

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