Before & After: Frank Morgan

Frank Morgan

This B&A was done for JazzTimes on a beautiful fall afternoon in 2005, just a couple of years before Frank Morgan passed.  He was in a good mood that day and genuinely enjoyed just hanging out and listening to music. Me too.

Frank Morgan’s life changed and his fate was set when, at age 7, his father took him to see Jay McShann’s band with Charlie Parker. It was then that he knew he wanted to be a musician and play the alto saxophone.

Born in 1933 in Minneapolis, Morgan spent his pre-teen years in Milwaukee, but he’ll be forever linked to the  post-war jazz scene in Los Angeles. That’s where his father, guitarist Stanley Morgan, opened the Casablanca Club in 1947, which became a late-night hangout for jazz musicians and movie folk.

Assimilating the music and lifestyle of Bird, Morgan made his first records with Freddie Martin, Wardell Gray and Kenny Clark before leading his own session in 1955.  Unfortunately, Morgan’s appetite for self-destruction repeatedly landed him behind bars and his career was more or less derailed until the mid 1980s when he was “discovered” by the east coast critics and began making a series of highly acclaimed recordings for Contemporary, Antilles, Telarc and Verve.

Morgan suffered a stroke in 1998, but he’s worked hard on his recovery,  battled back, and is touring again. Currently living in Taos, New Mexico, Morgan seems in good spirits; he talked about buying a juicer for the road, and reports that a new recording for High Note records is in the offing.

1. Benny Carter

“The Music from M Squad: The Mugger,” from All of Me (Bluebird). Carter, alto sax, composer; Stanley Wilson, Pete Candoli, Frank Beach, Don Fagerquist, trumpets; Frank Rosolino, Joe Howard, Pete Carpenter George Roberts, trombones; John Williams, piano; Red Mitchell, Joe Mondragon, bass; Alvin Stoller, drums. Recorded in 1959.

Before: It’s a good band. Everything’s in tune with a nice blend. I was listening to the alto player, a very fine saxophonist. It reminds a little of a Mingus tune, though I don’t hear the fire of a Mingus big band. That alto is someone who knows his history. For a minute I thought it was Benny Carter, something in the beautiful tone and approach to the horn. Benny was one of my mentors when I moved to California at 14. I tried to study with him but he said he didn’t take students so he recommended me to Merle Johnston, the guy that taught Jimmy Dorsey and Buddy Collette, to give me facility and help prepare me to play in the studios.

After: Ah-ha, it is Benny! Benny continues to amaze me, he’s the amazing man of music. The last time I saw him he was still playing like a young lion. I hope I can live that long and do that well. As an alto player he can manipulate the horn from top to bottom with such grace and ease. And he has a beautiful way of gliding down the streets of Beverly Hills in his Rolls Royce. He’s great and he deserves all that. I never had the opportunity to spend some time and really talk with him

If he were here with us right now, what would you ask him?

I would ask him what he eats and what he drinks and how he stays healthy. And then we’d get around to the horn.

2. Sonny Stitt

“It Might As Well Be Spring,” from Sonny’s Back (Muse) Stitt, alto sax; George Duvivier, bass. Recorded in 1980.

Before: [big smile] Well that’s my kind of music. I think it was Sonny Stitt. Sonny had lots of beautiful patterns that he played and that was a fine example of having one’s shit together.  There weren’t a lot of wasted notes. Great tone, great feeling. Good bass player, you don’t miss the piano or drums.

After: [sees Duvivier’s name] Oh, no wonder. I didn’t know Sonny very well, but I’ve always admired him and hold him in high esteem. I played with George once or twice at jam sessions. He’s A-Number-One.

Do you think Sonny plays the same way on tenor as he does on alto?

To me I never felt Sonny had the authority, the strong presence on the tenor that he does on the alto. Not that he doesn’t play the tenor extremely well. Hey, whenever he picks up the horn it’s an astounding thing.

3. John LaPorta

“3rd Variation (Tribute to Bird),” from Theme and Variations (Fantasy). LaPorta, alto saxophone, composer, arranger; Louis Mucci, trumpet; Sonny Russo, trombone; Larry Wilcox, tenor sax; Wally Cirillo, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Clem DeRosa, drums. Recorded in 1958, unreleased until 2002.

Before: Hmmm. My first impression is that it’s the alto player’s date and his arrangement. There’s a way that a person plays a tune that they wrote that only they can play. He owns that. Fine alto soloist but I don’t have a clue. I hear a little of Billie’s Bounce and some other Bird themes. For a minute I thought it was Davey Schildkraut. Who is it?

After: Oh, John LaPorta. Wow. He’s a good saxophone player. This doesn’t sound dated at all. But then, it’s all in the way you listen.

4. Christine Jensen

“I Loves You Porgy,” from a shorter distance (Effendi) Christine Jensen, soprano sax; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Joel Miller, tenor sax; John Sadowy, piano; Fraser Hollins, bass; John Wikan, drums. Recorded in 2002.

Before: “I Loves You Porgy.” Well played. Great tune, great arrangement. I kind of heard it going in a different place myself, but that’s a personal thing based on how I might play it. For a while I thought it was the piano player’s arrangement, at least in the middle. Good saxophonist. I wasn’t riveted to it like I was with the Sonny Stitt, but it’s a different generation. This is more now, probably a new release. The trumpet is certainly reminiscent of Miles, but it’s obviously not him. I’d be disappointed if it was.

After: Wow. Yeah, I know Ingrid. Eddie Henderson first told me about her. I just saw her at the Detroit Jazz Festival. I’d like to meet her sister. I’d like to play with both of them. I’ve known all my life that women can play. There’s so much to be encouraged about, in spite of George Bush. You know?

5. Willie Smith

“Willow Weep For Me,” from Battle of the Saxes: The Great Jazz Saxophonists (ASV). Smith, alto sax; Les Paul, guitar; Arnold Ross, piano; Ed Michelich, bass; Nick Fatool, drums. Recorded 1945.

Before: [big smile] I like that alto player, the guitarist too. That’s a fine cup of tea. I hear a lot of Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith. They had a similar approach, but you can tell them apart. It’s like if you have two people on the phone talking about the same subject; the sound of their voices lets you know that it’s them. This is just a superb approach to the saxophone. Every note is clear as a bell. That’s a thing that only time can give you-the assurance of who you are and what you want to play. It just flows from that. They’re not just playing a bunch of notes or throw-away shit. They’re trying to find meaning, playing from the heart and the head.

After: Oh wow, Les Paul. I once did a television show in California with Les Paul and Mary Ford. I knew about him cause of my father, and you know guitar was my first instrument. My father always liked him but I never was such a Les Paul fan. He’s a fantastic guitarist though. Who was the pianist? Oh, I played with Arnold Ross. I didn’t know too much about Willie Smith until I went to California. I saw him with Jimmie Lunceford. Great player, exciting band…You know, I once auditioned for Duke Ellington in his dressing room in the late 1940s. He had me play Sophisticated Lady and Duke told my father, “I’ve got to have him,” but I was only 15 at the time and too young to quit school and join the band. At that point Duke leaned over and told Ray Nance, “You know, Billy [Strayhorn] was only 16 when he wrote Lush Life.” I ended up playing a couple dates with the band during Easter vacation. Duke told my father “I’ll be his tutor.” My father said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

6. Eric Dolphy

“Love Me,” from Iron Man (Jazz World). Dolphy, unaccompanied alto saxophone. Recorded 1963.

Before: [raises eyebrows several times] Wow. It’s a fine example of saxophone ability. Whoever it is knows that horn. As a saxophonist I can tell you that many of the things he’s doing are very difficult. The leaps from the bottom of the horn to the very top were flawless. Total command of the horn. Sometimes many of us are intimidated by our instruments. But it’s just a machine. Like a car; once you learn the mechanics of it, you can go where you want to go. I’m sure this guy went where he wanted to go. It’s not where I would go but it’s a nice place. This guy has gotten past all the technical limitations. I don’t know how well he could swing or whether he could swing, but he’s definitely a modernist. It didn’t move me but I have nothing but praise for the musicianship.

After: [chuckles] You know Eric and I grew up in L.A. We knew each other and we studied for a time with the same teacher. Horace Tapscott and I went to Jefferson High School together and Eric went to Poly. Eric was a few years older than Horace and I. I did a lot of playing with and listening to Eric. He didn’t play like Bird but I always admired him. I later became a big fan of his bass clarinet playing. Just a superb musician. He was a warm person but he had a deeper side. He didn’t do a lot of hanging out. He was all about music. He was the kind of cat where if you were doing wrong you’d hate to see him coming. You might want to cross the street rather than have him look at you [laughs]. He was a straight-ahead cat and a fine example of development. My favorite of his things are with Trane, and Blues and the Abstract Truth with Oliver Nelson. I would encourage anyone to check out Eric’s body of work. He made his mark. That was fine Eric. Shit, it doesn’t get any better than that.

7. Dave Brubeck

“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” from All The Things We Are (Atlantic). Brubeck, piano; Konitz, alto saxophone. Recorded 1974.

Before: [starts to sway back and forth in time to the music and breaks out into a grin] Lee Konitz. Yeah, man. Shit. He’s one of the greatest. It’s beautiful the way he’s evolved. I loved all the things he did with Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano. But to hear Lee like this, it touches me. This feels warm, makes me smile. That’s what it’s all about. What I liked about this is that it was very simple, good communication with the pianist. Beautiful subtle nuances. A beautiful voice. I tip the wing of humility to him. I don’t know him well enough. We know of each other better than we know each other. Is it Jimmy Rowles on piano?

After: Whoa! So this is a Dave Brubeck date with Konitz, Anthony Braxton, Alan Dawson and Roy Haynes? Amazing. Go ahead Dave! I must say, I have nothing but love for Lee Konitz. He’s great.

8. Gigi Gryce

“Kerry Dance,” from Nica’s Tempo (Savoy). Gryce, alto sax; Art Farmer, trumpet; Bill Barber, tuba; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Gunther Schuller, french horn; Danny Bank, baritone sax’ Horace Silver, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Recorded in 1955.

Before: I recognize Art Farmer. You know we toured together just before he died. He helped raise me. When I was in high school we played a lot of dances and social clubs together; sometimes with Wardell Gray, usually with either Hampton Hawes or Sonny Clark. In fact Art Farmer and I joined Lionel Hampton together in 1952. He went on the road with him and I stayed in L.A. This whole arrangement was beautiful. It’s not J.J. on trombone, and I don’t think it was Curtis Fuller either. Fine alto player. I can’t put my finger on him.

After: Gigi! It reminded of the birth of the cool sound, you know? I would like to listen more closely to the body of work that Gigi left. I’m starting to really appreciate his approach more and more. I know he organized a lot of musicians in positive ways about copyrights and things like that. From what I understand there’s some mystery about what happened to him, but I don‘t want to get into that.

9. Art Pepper

“Blues Out,” from Modern Art (Blue Note). Pepper, alto sax; Ben Tucker, bass. Recorded in 1956.

Before: You know, he’s one of my idols, one of my mentors. But in a different sense from just his saxophone playing. Art led the way for me to recover. He got out of prison before me and started traveling all over the world before I did. He showed me by example that it could be done, and I’ll always love him for that.

Did you ever talk with him about that?

Yeah, but never enough. It’s my fault in many cases because I don’t initiate the contact to talk with a lot of other musicians. I regret to this very day that I didn’t make more of the last time I was playing here with Roland [pianist Roland Hanna, who died 10 days before this interview]. I’ll regret that all my life. Art and I played more when we were in San Quentin together than when we were on the outside. We had a great band there with Frank Butler, Dupree Bolton, Nathaniel Meeks, and some guys who learned how to play while they were in prison. I’m eternally grateful to the penal system in California for saving my life. It warms my heart to know that Art spent the last years of his life lauded all over the world.

After: I was an admirer of Art Pepper even before I went to California, when he was still in Kenton’s band.  His playing is joyous, great. And I use to hear him in L.A. with his group with Hampton Hawes. Then there were occasions when we did our thing together. While in prison, we had an excellent pianist named Jimmy Bunn, who also recorded with Bird. Jimmy would play a small accordion and he, Art and I would play all day, nothing but ballads. I continue to love Art. He’s one of my heroes.

10. Trio 3

“Y2 Chaos,” from Open Ideas (Palmetto), Oliver Lake, alto saxophone; Reggie Workman, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums. Recorded in 2001.

Before: It’s a blues, but it’s his blues. He surely is himself; he’s on his own path. I’m trying to think of who that is, cause I’ve heard that sound. Certainly well played. I like this rhythm section. They’re helping him do what he’s doing. There are so many paths with the blues. Bird told me, you know you play the blues with everything. The blues feeling. It goes anywhere. Yeah, the blues is the truth. No frills, just basic communication: basic joys, basic hurts, basic loves and all things in the middle. I’ve been wrestling with that for years.

After: Oh! I just saw these guys in Taos. We hung out together. I’m a big fan of Oliver’s. He knows that goddam horn, man. You know? But his approach is gorgeous. And Andrew Cyrille, we played a jam session at the Montreal Festival years ago. I’ve yet to play with Reggie but we’re managed by the same people. Nothing but the highest praise for these guys. Reggie just knocked my socks off the night I heard them. That motherfucker was really playing the bass, with those low tones.

11. Oliver Nelson

“I Remember Bird,” from Oliver Nelson: Jazz Masters 48 (Verve). Orchestra arranged, conducted by Nelson; Phil Woods, alto saxophone. Recorded 1966.

Before: [immediately] Ah, Mr. Woods. Is this I Remember Bird? Phil has become a very good friend of mine. In 1989 we went to a Charlie Parker celebration in Paris. I did the Bird with strings concert with Michel Legrand and Phil came backstage to give me a hug and said, “Don’t be afraid of Bird, man.” It was so beautiful of him to do that. I love Phil. This is typical of Phil’s thing with a big band. He has that beautiful knack of being able to be a soloist with a big band and play at just the right time. He knows the whole arrangement and he makes the solo an integral part of that rather than the big band just backing the soloist. He’s aware of the fills that they’re playing and the role to play at a certain time. The kids need to learn that, to know that. Phil’s playing superbly here.

After: Phil’s connected with the music. He really gets into all that’s happening around him. He plays orchestrally. Some cats just play straight-ahead solos. He also knows the subtle nuances of when not to play. He’s the top. He ain’t Bird, but Bird ain’t Phil. He’s a beautiful person to appreciate, to emulate, and certainly a beautiful person to know and to play with.

12. Steve Coleman and Dave Holland

“Ah-Leu-Cha,” from Phase Space (DIW). Coleman, alto sax; Holland, bass. Recorded in 1991.

Before: [listens intently for two choruses] Yeah, I like this bass player. Is that Dave Holland and Steve Coleman? That’s a Bird tune [sings the head], one of those counterpoint things he did with Miles. Ah-Leu-Cha? I love Steve, man. That motherfucker’s bad. He and Dave play beautifully together. It’s obvious that Steve’s studied Bird. He’s done his homework. He’s playing a Bird tune, but not circa 1949. He plays the concept of be-bop and improvises in the truest form. Maybe he alters some chord and notes. But they’re connected with each other. All you have to do is listen.

After: Miles first introduced me to Dave when he replaced Ron Carter in the band. He’s just a bad mother and I’m so happy to see him getting his due with his groups. With Steve, what gave it away was a combination of things, the sound the feel. He was playing a Bird tune but he was playing it in a Cubist way, putting those five elements in it, that Steve thing, you know [laughs]. I’m very optimistic and relieved that the music is in such good hands. These guys are really playing the music and they’re not going to self-destruct like my generation. They’re healthy cats, vitamin-prone and juicers. We’re in good shape. The lesson is there for me every night and every day. I’ve got to get it. I’ve got to listen so that when I’m called on to dispense the message I can do my part. I need to be awake and feeling every day. It’s great to be alive, man.

Your three favorite records of all time?

Bird: “Parker’s Mood,” “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” and Miles Davis: “A Gal In Calico.”

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One comment on “Before & After: Frank Morgan

  1. NC Heikin says:

    Do you know of any video of Frank Morgan? I am researching for a documentary about him. thank you.

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