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Sat, 12.23.1933

Frank Morgan, Sax, Drugs & Jazz

Frank Morgan

*Frank Morgan was born on this date in 1933. He was a Black musician.

From Minneapolis, Morgan was the son of Ink Spots guitarist Stanley Morgan, who started him on guitar at the age of 2. Five years later, Morgan switched to saxophone after hearing Charlie Parker in Jay McShann's orchestra at Detroit's Paradise Theater.  He met Parker that night and crossed paths with him a decade later in Los Angeles, where his father opened an after-hours club called Casablanca. "Little Frankie," as he was called, played there with blazing young boppers like tenor saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray and with Parker, too.

Morgan made his first record at 15, playing a brief solo with the Freddy Martin Orchestra featuring a young singer named Merv Griffin. Morgan naively thought Parker would be pleased to learn that he, too, had become a junkie, "but he wasn't happy at all," Mr. Morgan told writer Lee Hildebrand. Parker's playing and dissolute lifestyle was the model for Morgan and many other young musicians swept up by the frenetic new jazz of the 1940s.

"I thought that one used heroin to play like Charlie Parker played," Morgan told critic Gary Giddins in 1986, a year after Contemporary Records released Mr. Morgan's well-received "Easy Living" album, his first record in years and the first of many to come.  It brought Mr. Morgan, who'd made his name as a teenager on Los Angeles' bustling Central Avenue jazz scene, back into the spotlight after 30 years in and out of California prisons. In the 1960s, he played in the "warden's band" at San Quentin State Prison that featured other prominent musician-inmates like fellow alto saxophonist Art Pepper and trumpeter Dupree Bolton.

After serving time for drugs, with the help of ex-wife Rosalinda Kolb, Morgan got clean.  He lived in Oakland for several years in the late 1980s and became a regular presence on the international club and festival circuit. Over the years, he performed and recorded Parker numbers and other blues and jazz standards in the company of musicians such as pianists Cedar Walton, Ronnie Matthews and George Cables and drummers Billy Higgins and Billy Hart. In 1987, Morgan starred in an off-Broadway play based on his life, "Prison-Made Tuxedos," and in 1991 won the Downbeat Critics Poll for Best Alto Saxophonist.

Morgan also lived in Taos, N.M., for many years, returned to Minneapolis to visit his ailing mother and then play at her funeral. He reconnected with cousins he hadn't known well as a kid and moved back there in 2005.  He was diagnosed with colon cancer upon his return from Europe and died on December 14, 2007. Morgan was remembered at musical celebrations at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul, Minn. and at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles.

Reference:
All Media Guide
1168 Oak Valley Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48108 USA
Photo by Rick Romancito

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