Frank Morgan: Alto saxophonist protg of Charlie Parker who spent 30 years behind bars in San Quentin


Frank Morgan, alto saxophonist: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 23 December 1933; died Minneapolis 14 December 2007.

'There's no one around who's better than Frank Morgan on the alto saxophone," said Wynton Marsalis. No wonder, because Frank Morgan was a protg of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker whose style and ranking was somewhere between Parker's and Art Pepper's and who had, as a mere boy, for a couple of heady nights played Johnny Hodges' role in the Duke Ellington band. Morgan also spent 30 years in prison and the band he played with most regularly during his life was the warden's band in San Quentin prison. "I was a superstar in prison," he said.

All the fear of going to prison was taken out of the whole thing, because it became a really comfortable haven. It's taken me a long time to get out of the comfortable situation of the prison and really face up to life. If, after my first solo at the Village Vanguard after I came out, they hadn't applauded me so loudly, if someone had said "Boo", I'd have run back to San Quentin.

For most of his career Morgan played classic bebop, but in the last two decades he spread his style to reveal masterful ballad performances and a sensitive and delicate approach to his playing that was much more cosmopolitan.

The son of the guitarist Stanley Morgan, who played in the Ink Spots, Frank Morgan took up the guitar at an incredibly early age (claimed to be two). "When my mother was pregnant with me," he said, "my father used to stand behind her and reach around and play his guitar against her stomach. That's how soon I started getting the vibes." The family moved from Minneapolis to Milwaukee when Morgan was six and the boy switched from guitar to clarinet. His father, who by now had worked regularly with jazz musicians, took Frank to hear the Jay McShann band in Detroit. Charlie Parker was its star.

"I met Bird after the show and told him I wanted to learn how to play one of those things," Frank Morgan recalled.

I didn't even know it was called an alto at that time. I remember I was mad at Bird for a while for insisting that I should begin on clarinet and then go to saxophone. It was good advice and the next day my father got me started on clarinet.

Bird was a beautiful person and it's the memories of him and his music that have sustained me throughout my life. He is certainly the prime factor in my love for the music I play.

The family moved again, to Los Angeles, in 1947. Morgan won a talent contest that led him to record a solo with Freddie Martin's band. Then, in 1948, he had an audition with the Duke Ellington band. "I went backstage at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and into Duke's dressing room. He said, 'Take your horn out and play anything you'd like to play.' " Ellington's long-time star altoist Johnny Hodges was leaving the band and Ellington wanted Morgan to start immediately. But because of his age, Morgan couldn't legally go on the road with the band. "I played a couple of Easter vacation gigs with him," Morgan said ruefully.

Sadly, it wasn't just Charlie Parker's musical skills that his many devotees tried to emulate. Parker was the first major heroin addict on the jazz scene, and many musicians thought that, if Parker indulged, it must be good. Morgan was one of them. Parker was horrified to find that by the early 1950s, his disciple was already addicted. "It broke his heart," Morgan recalled. "He said, 'I thought you would be the one who had sense enough to look at what it's done to me.' " The preaching stopped when Morgan got out an ounce and a half of cocaine and the two injected. "After we got high, he talked to me about dying. In a tragic sense, I think Bird felt he could set a better example by dying."

It was in 1952 that Morgan joined the Lionel Hampton band. Like many musicians he resented the low pay and Hampton's continuous scrounging of cigarettes from his men. At this time, Morgan made this first recordings with top-line musicians like the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, the drummer Kenny Clarke and the saxophonist Wardell Gray. He went to prison for the first time in 1953.

By the time he was distinguished enough to make records under his own name in 1955, Morgan had been driven to crime by his addiction. The exciting and accomplished tracks that he made with the trumpeter Conte Candoli and Wardell Gray proved to be a tempting foretaste of what was not to come, for he was soon in San Quentin (where he befriended Art Pepper) for narcotics offences.

In 1970, before he was jailed again, Morgan played in some of the Los Angeles clubs, but didn't make a stir outside the city. It wasn't until 1985, after a parole violation that saw him jailed again from June to November, that his success story began. His drug habit defeated and behind him, he made his mark nationally and, like Art Pepper, began a "born again" career.

His qualities recognised, he began recording regularly as a leader and used many top musicians like Wynton Marsalis, George Cables and Buster Williams as his sidemen. Morgan had always feared playing in New York, lacking the confidence to impress what he saw as a sophisticated audience. His first appearance there at the Village Vanguard in 1986 was a triumph acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. "I'm glad to be alive and well," he reflected. "That's the sum total of things at present. I've been practising hard and developing my playing and planning for a peaceful life."

He was in demand to appear at jazz festivals and to record for a variety of companies and his career flourished until his return home to Minneapolis on 20 November last after a three-month European tour playing 24 dates with the pianist Rein de Graaff's trio.

Morgan appeared in the films Jazzvisions: implosions (1986), Celebrating Bird: the triumph of Charlie Parker (1987) and Birdmen and Birdsongs: a tribute to Charlie Parker (1990).

Steve Voce

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