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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Here is an article I wrote about my favorite hard bop musician, Lee Morgan. A good biography of Lee is linked to this article

Lee Morgan, The Last of the Hip Men
I have a vague memory of hearing Lee Morgan’s the Sidewinder while watching New York Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Joe Pepitone hitting homeruns in a vain effort to defeat pitcher Bob Gibson and the Saint Louis Cardinals in the 1964 World Series.  I was eleven years old. 
By the time I reached the age of sixteen I owned Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder album and I knew that Lee Morgan was one of my favorite trumpet players. By the time I reached the age of seventeen trumpeter Freddie Hubbard had released his Red Clay album and everyone I knew considered Hubbard to be the main man on trumpet.  I loved Red Clay but I still could not get past Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder and the sound of Lee’s horn.  For me Lee was still my man on trumpet.
I remember when I first saw Lee’s album “Live at the Lighthouse” at May’s department store in downtown Brooklyn New York. I bought it along with “The Best of Herbie Hancock.  I believe this was sometime in 1970. I do clearly remember that  I could not take the tune Neophilia off of my turntable. I soon added Search For The New Land and The Gigolo to my Lee Morgan album collection. These recordings were supplemented by a number of outstanding Art Blakey albums which featured Lee Morgan. “Moanin”, “The Big Beat” and “A Night in Tunisia” are just three of the many Art Blakey albums which feature Lee Morgan.  Somehow I missed the “Cornbread” album which I did not discover until I heard it at a buddies house, Drake Colley, who liked and listened to Lee Morgan even more than I.  This was now 1975 and Lee Morgan had been dead for about three years. He had been shot in 1972 at Slugs, a Manhattan, Lower East Side jazz club which was a favorite spot for hard core jazz lovers in New York City.. I was not there the night he was shot but I went to that club many times.  I saw Stanley Turrentine there a week or so after Morgan’s untimely death. The club closed shortly after Lee Morgan’s death. Morgan was only thirty-three at the time of his untimely demise.
I have listened to Lee Morgan and I still listen to Lee Morgan more than any other trumpet player in jazz.  No other trumpet player comes close to garnering that size a chunk of my listening time.  I would venture to say that I listen to Lee Morgan more than any other musician. The question that I am posing to myself in this article is a simple why? Why, after thirty-five years does Lee Morgan have such staying power. I know of, listen to and possess numerous recordings by all of the great jazz trumpet players. Why has the music of Lee Morgan risen to the top of my personal listening preference.
Let’s start with the basics. Let’s look at Lee Morgan’s music from the ground up. 
Morgan uses classic African American dance rhythms in his music. The “Sidewinder”, “Cornbread” and The “Rumproller” (written by Andrew Hill) all have that boogaloo dance feel which gave Morgan’s music a direct connection with the  popular black music of his day. His trumpet playing had a soulful, conversational quality which was akin to the vocal stylings of the soul singers of his era and it was akin also to the ordinary, spoken vernacular, of everyday black folk.  His playing style was like that of a stylish dancer at a weekend house party. You know the kind  of dancer I am talking about, the one who has all of the slick moves that everbody else envies. He is the fellow with whom  all of the sharp women seek to dance.
Morgan could also swing, and I mean swing hard.  Just listen to “Totem” on the Sidewinder album or “Our Man Higgins” on the Cornbread album.  Speaking of Higgins, Billy Higgins is the drummer on almost all of Lee Morgan’s albums.  There is a good reason for his choice of this particular drummer. Billy Higgins could lay down a groove which set, no matter what rhythm he chose, swung  with the perfect underpinning for Lee’s soulful, speech like flights.
Lee Morgan’s playing technique was besides the point. Unlike many of the current crop of fashionable trumpet players whose playing screams out the message “I am a virtuoso”, Morgan’s technique never called attention to itself. Morgan had technique, loads of it,  but he used his technique in a manner which was totally subservient to the musical message he sought to express.
As you can see I am far from objective when it comes to Lee Morgan’s music.  For me Lee Morgan’s music breaths with the wit and humor of every day life. Maybe that is why I never let it get very far from me.  What more could anyone ask from any artist.

© 2004 John H. Armwood

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