Lee Morgan: His life, music and culture by Tom Perchard

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The Independent Culture

A roll-call of classic jazz revolutionaries would include names like Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp and Max Roach. They were the ones banned by the radio and censored by record companies, the ones blacklisted by the establishment. Rather than meekly ask for equal rights for African-Americans in the 1960s, they unapologetically hollered: "We insist! Freedom now."

At first sight, trumpeter Lee Morgan might seem a surprising addition to this pantheon of radicals. His place in jazz history is largely defined by "The Sidewinder", a bouncy boogaloo devoid of the fiery anger of some of Simone's or Shepp's music. Moreover the track has the rare distinction of being jazz that was popular. It was a massive hit in 1964.

However, if you spool forward to 1970 and a television studio in New York, you might well revise your view of Morgan as nothing other than a purveyor of jaunty, finger-snapping tunes that put cornbread soul into jazz. For it was during the recording of Merv Griffin's CBS chat show that another facet of the Philly slicker who zipped around New York in a British sports car was revealed. Morgan was in the audience that night and, as one of the guests lamented the dearth of jazz venues in New York, he and other musicians invaded the set and whipped out whistles and flutes in order to, as Chuck D would later say, bring the noise.

The trumpeter and his fellow rabble-rousers then hoisted placards that read, "Stop the whitewash now, hire more black artists on TV", and, provocatively setting cultural records straight, "Tom Jones rose to fame singing black songs".

Orchestrating the coup was the Jazz and People's Movement (JPM), a protest group formed by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another agitator who had made potent political statements through his albums Volunteered Slavery, Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata and Blacknuss. JPM was a direct response to the lack of exposure of jazz in broadcast media.

Although the JPM-Griffin affair bears loose parallels to the Sex Pistols-Grundy scandal that took place in Britain several years later, it was infinitely more meaningful, aiming to effect genuine social change rather than kick-start a pop career through the oxygen of publicity and the pollution of infamy.

How shocked some must have been to see Lee Morgan disrupting an entertainment industry that had, for the most part, been good to him. After all, he was one of the few jazz musicians that actually sold records in sizeable quantities in the Sixties and knew what it meant to be a star who could walk out of a club with a girl on each arm and another one in tow carrying his trumpet case.

Yet he was more than a man about town. As this very accomplished biography shows, Morgan led an eventful life that took him from the austere environs of his native Philadelphia to dark alleys, as well as shining pathways in New York. Like Miles Davis, he had a heroin habit. Like Chet Baker, he had his teeth knocked out by a dealer. Many must have thought he'd finish as one of the countless statistics of unfulfilled potential that blight jazz and the genre to which it gave lifestyle lessons, rock 'n' roll. But he managed to make it back from the brink.

Although his addiction earned him the sack from Art Blakey's band, one of the best gigs a jazz musician could hope for in the mid-1950s or early 1960s, the trumpeter nonetheless later returned to the fold and saw his career hit overdrive with the release of "The Sidewinder", a tune apparently written in a few minutes in the studio.

Perchard's text really starts to motor in its analysis of both the musical elements of Morgan's aesthetic and their socio-cultural implications. The pre-eminence of blues and subsequently R&B and soul was not solely borne of a desire to simplify jazz. It was about expressing the truth, and gaining a greater proximity to a black audience.

Morgan would go on to teach and also campaign on behalf of iconic African-American militants like Angela Davis. As a major name in jazz in the Sixties and Seventies, he had to reconcile his desire to see the music institutionalised in order to survive economically with his espousal of Black Nationalism.

The complexities of the situation are effectively evoked. As the British photographer and writer Valerie Wilmer points out, Morgan, for all his civil rights sensibilities, still had a process - chemically straightened hair - at a time when Afros were de rigueur. Most pleasing of all is the way that Perchard actually downplays the sensational nature of his subject's life and death - he was shot by his girlfriend at a club aged just 33 - but vividly paints his portrait against a backdrop of music, culture and politics.

Through a wealth of research and incisive anecdote from his band members and close associates, Morgan emerges as an intriguing, multi-layered figure, a mercurial talent whose material success did not preclude social consciousness or activism.

Miles Davis still casts a long shadow over jazz history, and too many important players struggle to emerge from it. This illuminating biography reminds us that the prematurely departed Lee Morgan also made a significant contribution to "America's most revolutionary art form" in ways both musical and non-musical.

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