Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture
By Tom Perchard

Lee Morgan may not be as widely recognized as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, but hardcore collectors rank him highly. For them Tom Perchard’s Lee Morgan, a biography and analysis of his music will come as a welcome publication.

Morgan is closely identified with the classic years of the Blue Note label, having recorded for them as a leader and as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, as well as a sideman for other BN artists. In truth, the Val Wilmer cover photo is somewhat jarring, since Francis Wolff’s photos have largely defined the Morgan’s image for many.

While Blue Note is revered by many jazz collectors as a rare artist friendly label, Perchard takes a somewhat revisionist view. For instance, he is somewhat critical of Blue Note’s music publishing arrangements, though he does quote label co-founder Alfred Lion’s explanation in an interview with Michael Cuscuna:

“if you had the publishing, then you saved 50 per cent on what you had to pay [in royalties] on the song. And that would increase your profit margin. None of those [producers] ever thought those tunes would be worth anything; it was just a way to keep the unit cost per LP down.” (p. 73 brackets in Perchard)

As successful as Morgan was with The Sidewinder, much of his life has been obscure to his fans. For many it will be a revelation that in 1961 Morgan suffered a Chet Baker style assault targeting his teeth, and as a trumpeter, his livelihood by extension. Perchard speculates:

“Perhaps Morgan’s teeth were knocked out as punishment for this absence [from the studio while under contract to a notorious producer], a punishment after all befitting the supposed crime. Or perhaps that absence was in part due to Morgan’s teeth having been knocked out by someone else, a consequence of addiction as some associates suggested.” (p. 137)

Perchard reveals Morgan would undergo a similar assault again in 1969. As a heroin addict, like many of his colleagues, Morgan would be in close contact with unsavory characters. He would also partake of alcohol and his habits would be reflected in the titles of his compositions. “Speed Ball” would become one of his more popular tunes. Perchard also offers tantalizing reports of unknown thematically related compositions:

“Morgan had copyrighted a collection of songs, all of which went unrecorded, and all but two of which were named after drinks and drinking: ‘Bloody Mary’, ‘Liquid Breakfast’ and so on.” (p. 152)

Indeed there is much in Perchard’s book that gives fresh insight into Lee Morgan and his music. The only drawback is the periodic PC hand-wringing which intrudes into the narrative. We are treated to an introduction of Perchard pounding the mean streets of Morgan’s Philadelphia neighborhood, fretting:

“had those people known what I was doing, perhaps they would have looked over their shoulders, shaken their heads and thought to themselves that, having lost much else, they were now about to lose possession of another black memory.” (p. 4)

It is all right and proper to have sensitivity for how various communities receive your work, but Perchard should have more confidence. After all, in the almost thirty five years since Morgan’s death, he is the first to tackle the trumpeter’s biography. More to the point, restricting academic or journalistic inquiry has the effect of denying the universality of Morgan’s music, which does serve the memory of the man or his music.

Despite a Perchard’s penchant for editorializing, there is much to recommend Lee Morgan. As popular as “The Sidewinder” and his other Blue Note boogaloos had been (by jazz standards), Morgan the man has been a cipher, more so than even Miles Davis, for dearth of information. For that, Perchard’s Lee Morgan is a welcome corrective.
(Reviewed from galley.)