The Life, Music, and Accomplishments Of Lee Morgan


“If it wasn’t for music, this country would have blown up a long time ago, in fact, the whole world. Music is the only thing that spans across all ethnic groups and all languages. Music is the only thing that awakens the dead man and charms the savage beast. Without it, this would be a hell of a world.”
-Lee Morgan, January 1972

Edward Lee Morgan, the trumpet player, composer, and band leader who was considered to be a quintessential hard-bopper, was one of the most important jazzmen of his time. In his fast paced life, he played with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, Art Blakely’s Jazz Messengers, released twenty-five albums of his own on the Blue Note label, appeared as a sideman on many more, and was a leader of the Jazz and People’s Movement. Few people accomplish half as much in their lives as Lee Morgan managed to fit into his thirty-three year life. He is undoubtedly worth studying for his music, compositions, and his efforts to change the public’s perception of jazz.

Lee Morgan was born on July 10, 1938 (the same year as Freddy Hubbard), in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although he was born in Philadelphia, his roots lie in the south, where both of his parents were from. Both of his parents were from large, poor families and came north to find a higher quality of life. His father was an amateur trombone player and pianist who also played organ for their church. This was important because it gave Lee a gateway to music, and it was also one of the primary factors behind his family’s strong support for his career.

When Lee was thirteen years old, his sister gave him his first trumpet. He immediately began studying with his father and sister and soon after enrolled in Mastbaum High School for the Arts. Being in a vocational school enabled him to study music for half of the day as well as play in the school concert band, dance combo, and theater group. Morgan’s first private teacher was a local professional trumpet player named Hyy Wynn who played for the Philadelphia Ice Capades, but wasn’t a good influence for his students. Lee’s childhood friend, Michael La Voe, who also studied with Wynn recalled, “He would look for any excuse to light up a cigarette while he was giving a lesson… Wynn was a chain smoker and would breathe out massive amounts of smoke to demonstrate the lung capacity needed to play the trumpet.”

Outside of school Lee was very active in the local music scene. He began playing professionally when he was fifteen years old. He and bassist James “Spanky” Debrest led their own group which played mainly at dance clubs and fraternity parties. Lee and James also cut out of school early on Tuesdays to attend jam sessions at Ellis Jollin’s Music City. This put Lee in contact with Dizzy Gillespie and his main influence, Clifford Brown, who Lee visited frequently at his West Philadelphia home. These early contacts were crucial to the development of his career.

Also of great importance was Lee’s personal record collection, which he listed in his high school yearbook as his favorite hobby. He was well versed in music from Louis Armstrong to what was current at the time, but his collection was dominated by be-bop wind players. Aside from Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie, he loved Fats Navarro, and his earlier playing actually had some resemblance to Fats in the numerous grace notes, the light tone quality, and the long melodic lines both players shaped.

As soon as Morgan graduated high school in 1956, he started gaining recognition as the next great jazz trumpet player. The month he graduated, Clifford Brown died in a tragic car accident, thrusting Lee into the spotlight as his successor. This happened much in the same way Cannonball Adderly was showcased after Charlie Parker passed away. That summer, after playing several engagements in Wildwood and Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lee Morgan and “Spanky” Debrest subbed with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers when the band arrived in Philadelphia missing a bass and trumpet player. At this point, Lee didn’t want to sign a contract, so he did not stay with the Jazz Messengers as Debrest did. Only a few months after playing with Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie returned from a tour of South America and hired Morgan to fill Joe Gordon’s seat in his big band. In the liner notes to ‘Lee Morgan Indeed,’ Lee states, “I’d met him a couple of years before at the [music city] workshop, and he knew about me. He needed a replacement for Joe Gordon, and I needed some big band experience, so it worked out fine.” Lee played at such a level that Dizzy entrusted him to play the trumpet solo on “A Night In Tunisia,” which was one of Dizzy’s most famous compositions. Nat Hentoff, in the liner notes to ‘Leeway’ recalled, “My back was to the bandstand as the band started playing Night in Tunisia. Suddenly, a trumpet soared out of the band into a break that was so vividly brilliant and electrifying that all conversation in the room stopped and those of us who were gesturing were frozen with our hands outstretched.” Although joining Dizzy’s band prevented him from attending Julliard, to which he was accepted, no one would disagree that Lee Morgan was a student of music.

In the period between his joining of Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra and rejoining the Jazz Messengers in 1958 (a span of approximately fifteen months), Lee was on over forty recording sessions. Although many of these were with Dizzy’s band and as a sideman, six of them were with his own group. As a sideman Lee was playing with Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane, and Tina Brooks. Out of all these recordings, John Coltrane’s ‘Blue Train sessions’ stood out the most because it served as a middle ground between his Clifford Brown influence and the development of his own style. Lee’s eight bar solo break on “Locomotion,” (example one of the Selected Lee Morgan Excerpts) a twelve bar blues with an eight bar bridge, demonstrates a line similar to one Clifford Brown might play. It has the same constant flow of information, similar punchy articulation, and similar angularity Clifford Brown used in his playing. He also “digs” into the time, which is something Brown started. It is also worth noting that the fourth bar in Lee’s second chorus sounds similar to the beginning of the second chorus on Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring.” Lee Morgan’s recordings as a bandleader during this period demonstrate his search for an individual sound, although they do not feature his original compositions.

It was not until he rejoined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers that Lee was truly able to reach an individual artistic statement. Although there were still ties to his influences, at that point he reached his individual style, which he maintained and built on throughout his career without making any dramatic changes. A strong example of his style is the title track of the album, ‘Moanin’ (example 2 of the Selected Lee Morgan Excerpts). It displays his bold, acrobatic, blues-oriented style that essentially defined hard-bop trumpet. He started the solo energetically, in the upper register of the trumpet, while using a lot of space in the first six bars. In the eighth bar Lee presented a motif involving an offbeat, sixteenth note triplet figure, which was based around the simple blues scale and reappeared several times in the solo, with slight rhythmic variations. This solo was also a textbook example of the nuances Lee incorporated into his playing. He frequently used grace notes to build intensity at the beginning and ending of phrases as shown in bars one, three, and fifteen, and sixteen. He also tended to use half valve effects, smears, and staccato notes to accentuate his intense feeling of time.

He stayed with the Jazz Messengers until 1961 and recorded on twenty-nine different sessions with the band. He played with tenor saxophonists Benny Golson and Hank Mobley. Eventually trombonist Curtis Fuller was added to the group, and in 1959, Lee convinced Art Blakey to hire Wayne Shorter as the tenor saxophonist.

Due to an unfortunate heroin addiction, Lee was forced to leave the group in 1961 because he had become unreliable and his playing began to suffer. He was replaced by Freddy Hubbard. Morgan went back to Philadelphia until 1963 and appeared on few records in this period. He had such a low profile in New York during this two year struggle that one radio announcer thought he had died and held a Lee Morgan tribute that Lee happened to be listening to. He did play a handful of engagements with Jimmy Heath between 1962 and 1963. These performances are interesting because it is the first time Lee played with “Spanky” Debrest since they subbed in the Jazz Messengers.

When Lee Morgan returned to New York in the winter of 1963, he recorded ‘The Sidewinder.’ The title track of this album became his largest commercial success, reaching the top twenty-five on R&B billboards. This annoyed Lee because he only recorded the track as ‘filler’ to take up space on the album. The album itself is of great importance to Lee Morgan’s career and to the development of jazz. This recording acted as the spark plug for a new style of music which fused jazz with soul. After recording ‘The Sidewinder’ he went briefly back on the road with Art Blakey but returned to New York to pursue his commercial success. It is important to note that before ‘The Sidewinder,’ almost none of the songs used on Lee Morgan’s albums were his original compositions. However, from this recording on he generally featured his own compositions, which explored the fusion of jazz with soul, in a hard-bop setting.

In 1965 Lee Morgan recorded ‘Corn Bread,’ another landmark album for his career. On this album was what is considered to be his finest composition, ‘Ceora.” It is a relatively slow, thirty-two bar (ABAB), bossa nova, with a pretty piano introduction played by Herbie Hancock. The melody of ‘Ceora’ bears resemblance to the standard, “If Someone Had Told Me.” Lee plays an incredibly lyrical solo that is brilliantly constructed (example 3 of the Selected Lee Morgan Excerpts). He simply outlines the changes while managing to build passionate lines that dig deep into the pocket of the time.

Although Lee Morgan continued to preserve the hard-bop tradition throughout his career, his music got progressively more experimental as he grew older. The biggest changes were in the instrumentations he was writing for. In 1969, he hired Bennie Maupin as a woodwind doubler to play tenor saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet. He also started using electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and organ to achieve different effects. Some of his compositions leaned towards a more modal harmonic structure, but he was never able to fully abandon his blues-focused hard bop style.
The biggest problems he ran into in the last phase of his life (outside of a continued struggle with drug addiction) were his tone quality, range, and endurance, which became dramatically worse with time. One factor was that Lee always played unusually loud in his earlier years, which led to the deterioration of his chops. Another obvious problem was his drug use, which left him in a constant state of exhaustion. He eventually reached the point where he fell asleep in the most unusual places, such as pool tables. His girlfriend at the time, Helen Moore (who eventually became his common-law wife), helped him to reestablish himself, and in 1970 he put a band together for the first time in two years. He recorded the album, ‘Live at the Lighthouse,’ at full playing capacity.

Equally as important as his playing in the latter part of his career was Lee Morgan’s active involvement in attempting to make the public aware of jazz. Lee was not only a prolific improviser and composer but also an articulate and intelligent person who wanted to see all good music viewed equally. He understood that the media’s view of jazz was a dark, greed-driven social problem that needed to be changed. Michael Bourne wrote in the last interview of Lee Morgan:

To Morgan, this dilemma was two-fold, or rather two-faced: lack of respect, and a lack of proportion black American art and the general American culture.

Regarding the first lack, Morgan condemned indifference toward music, reinforced by media tokenism, specifically the over exploitation of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as representative jazz personalities.

The media viewed jazz as too hard to sell and covered up the problem by hiring a few black musicians to play in the show’s house bands and occasionally bringing famous jazz musicians such as Armstrong and Ellington to play with the house bands. This gave the viewers the false perception that jazz was still an important part of American culture. Lee didn’t resent pop artists for being successful; the movement he helped to lead stood for the exact opposite- they wanted jazz to have equal exposure to the American culture.

One method Lee used was through the Jazz and People’s Movement, which included renowned jazz artist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. One action this group took was interrupting talk show tapings, which got an immediate response from host Merv Griffin, who offered both of their bands spots on his show in order to quiet them down. In an interview Lee Morgan gave account of his response, “I told him, I couldn’t care less if he ever had me on; In fact I would insist on not going on, at least not at first, because right away, people got so pessimistic that not only the public, but the musicians as well thought we were just out there thinking about ourselves. I don’t care if you never show me! Put Dizzy on, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Blue Mitchel, Herbie Hancock- Put somebody on!” Unfortunately, before any substantial results were achieved, the J.P.M. and its protest against the medias’ ignorance and indifference towards jazz artists lost momentum in 1971 Before Lee could find another approach to solving this dilemma, he was tragically murdered. Regardless of its lack of success, it is important to be aware of this protest because it shows the ignorance that jazz artists are constantly facing.

Because of the controversy it created, it is of some importance to mention how Lee Morgan died. Early in the morning, on February 19, 1972, Lee Morgan was playing at Slugs in New York City. Earlier that night, Lee asked his wife Helen Moore to bring him his gun, because he was afraid of a drug deal that was going to happen. Moore arrived at the club but left soon after. At some point after midnight, she unexpectedly returned to the club, and found Lee sitting at the bar in-between sets with another woman. During the argument that immediately followed, Moore managed to shoot Lee Morgan in the head. He died instantly at thirty-three years old.

The loss of Lee Morgan was a tragedy to the jazz community. He added numerous songs to the jazz repertoire, was a prolific performer and composer, and was an important activist in improving the music world. The impact of his music and life lives on and continues to shape modern perspectives on jazz.

Works Cited

"Biography- Lee Morgan." Blue Note Records. 2007. Apr. 2007 .

Blumenthal, Bob. "Liner Notes." Rev. of The Complete Blue Note Lee Morgan 50’s Sessions. 13-2.

Bourne, Michael. "Lee Morgan the Last Interview." Down Beat May 1996: 38-39.

James, Michael. "Morgan, Lee." Grove Music Online. 2007. Oxford UP. 13 Apr. 2007 .

"Lee Morgan: Jazz Can Be Sold." Down Beat 9 Feb. 1970. Down Beat. Mar.-Apr. 2007.

Lee Morgan Catalog. Apr. 2007 .

"Lee Morgan." Shout.Net. 25 Apr. 2006. Apr. 2007 .

McMillan, Jeff. "Delightfulee : "the Life and Music of Lee Morgan"" Diss. Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers Newark, 2000.

Morgan, Edward L. Jazz Encyclopedia Questionare.

Shuster, Fred. "When Your Chops are Shot." Down Beat Oct. 1995. Mar.-Apr. 2007 .

Uberall, Bernard. "The Music of Lee Morgan." Performed by the Whit Williams Sextet. Glenarden Community Center, MD. 19 July 1997.

"Woody Shaw: Trumpet in Bloom." Down Beat. Apr. 2007.

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