Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Exuberant Trumpet Of Lee Morgan

There are three major trumpet dynasties in modern jazz history. Traceable to Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navaro and Miles Davis, the three have continued to dominate and influence the scene, with disciples helping to perpetuate the different lineages. While the Dizzy Gillespie dynasty has only John Faddis and Clarke Terry as disciples, with Wynton Marsalis looking up to Miles Davis for mentorship, the Fats Navaro dynasty has turned out to be the most popular with the greatest number of followers – for reasons that cannot be easily explained. The late Lee Morgan remains perhaps the most remarkable descendant and beneficiary of this dynasty.
My first knowledge of Lee Morgan was through the ensemble led in the ‘60s by organist Jimmy Smith in The Sermon, a Blue Note recording with specially selected musicians to accompany the great organist. This was in 1964, during the Fela Ransome-Kuti quintet days when I took the band to Ibadan. The album was given to me by the late Bola Marquis (himself a jazz devotee of note) who was then working for an insurance company in this big city of Ibadan, now Oyo State capital of Nigeria.
Carrying on the rich tradition of Clifford Brown who was directly influenced by Navaro, Lee Morgan was featured on the horn section along with alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, tenor saxophonists George Coleman and Tina Brooks – with of course a formidable rhythm section unit that featured Kenny Burrel and Eddy Mc Fadden, guitars, Art Blakey and Donald Bailey, drums. There was no bass player as such, in his usual characteristic manner, Jimmy Smith decided to extract the bass lines of the organ to support the progressions of the songs.
Although Jimmy Smith carries the theme by projecting the mood setting as the first soloist, and the three saxophonists wail from one chorus to the other with phrases that are quite appealing, trumpeter Lee Morgan appears to have carried the recording date with a flowing symmetry, a trumpet sound that reaches out to high octaves, low and middle registers, exploring the possibilities of these ranges with a pleasant tone.
The Sermon is the theme song of the album and Lee Morgan’s contribution is the high point of the session, unleashed as Lon Donaldson takes a rather impressive solo. As he offers this exciting solo which builds up to a double-timed climax, the ensemble riffs a figure that is reminiscent of what Miles Davis did in his arrangement of Walkin’. Morgan dominates the spotlight here after previously taking a flawlessly remarkable solo, and punctuates this riff with some well chosen high notes before the spotlight returns to Jimmy Smith who ushers the proceedings down the aisle and into the street as it were.
As far back as the 1950s, the trumpet in the modern jazz mould was in the midst of an especially lean period. Fats Navaro had died; Dizzy was trying to make it with a commercial group; Miles Davis was battling with himself to create a new trumpet sound.
There was a wealth of young saxophonists headed at the time by such hopefuls as Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley who made his mark playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, but no trumpet hopefuls were in sight. Then, along came such players as Art Farmer. Thad Jones and Clifford Brown who descended directly from the Navara heritage.
Before his untimely death in an automobile accident in 1956, Brown had reached an exceedingly high level of both performance and popularity, and seemed to have a revitalising effect on younger trumpeters. Maybe it was just that the time was ripe for a new cycle, but the inspiration came from Brown.
In any event, in the middle of the late ’50s, one suddenly could take notice of a wave of impressive young horn men, including such players as Donald Byrd, Nat Adderley, Blue Mitchel and of course Lee Morgan. By the ‘60s, these players were all established personalities. In addition, Gillespie and Davis had re-asserted themselves, and the trumpet was once more in good shape.
Among the first members of this new wave to make a really big splash was Morgan who, apart from playing the role of sideman with several groups, fronted his own groups and recorded some ground-breaking albums, prominent among them The sixth sense and Take Twelve, his first recording as a leader since leaving Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the summer of 1961. Here, he exhibits both of his playing attitudes, but there is also evidence- that of new thinking, of a more pensive bent to even his most powerful blowing. Morgan would seem to have arrived at one of those points in a man’s artistic life where change, perceptible even if not obvious, takes place.
The four sidemen who helped Morgan to stand up this recording date were saxophonists Clifford Jordan, pianist Barry Harris, bassist Bob Crawshaw and drummer Louis Hayes who were at the time established musicians.
Perhaps because it was as far back as 1956 when he first joined Dizzy Gillespie big band where he immediately landed some feature spots and a good deal of attention, some people looked on him then as practically ‘gray beard’. It was true that in terms of experience, both in clubs and on record, Morgan was something of a veteran. But when Take Twelve was recorded, he was only 24. When he first sat in Dizzy’s trumpet section, Morgan was just 18.
As a matter of fact, Morgan’s talent belied his age and he handled his assignment well until that band broke up in January of 1958. The experience gained with Dizzy was clearly valuable, but it was not until he became part of Art Blakeys Jazz Messengers in September 1958 that Morgan really began to come into his own. Like most young men of his time, he had obviously listened closely to Clifford Brown, and the Gillespie period was clearly influence-creating, but it was also plain that this was a man with a way of his own.
Lee Morgan’s characteristic soaring and fiery flights were tempered with tender ballad statements, demonstrating that his capabilities lay in both hot and sweet directions.
At the time that The Sixth Sense was recorded for Blue Note in 1967, Morgan had ascended to the top as a remarkable trumpet voice. Bristling with the confidence of a virtuouso on his instrument both as a soloist and composer, he had become one of the trenchant spokesmen in music business. He was a brilliant observer not only of the music scene, but also of life. The problem was too few people were aware of his intellectual capacity. He was seen by many only as the extremely gifted trumpet player – composer, whose mercurial rise to international acclaim began at age eighteen in the big band of Dizzy Gillespie.
At this time, Morgan was also to be respected as a great thinker and conveyor of these thoughts. It might sound like putting him down to say that he was loquacious, but the truth is that he had plenty to say about jazz and the entire music business of that period – about entertainment and communications media, about politics, politicians and about the black man.
Morgan became an activist and, like the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, placed a very high premium on knowledge because, in his knowledge was his strength, and his strength was grounded in his music.
The Navaro-Clifford Brown trumpet dynasty which Morgan represented and ruled in the sixties was taken over upon his death in 1972, by Freddie Hubbard, and has even been imbibed today by a whole generation of trumpet players, including Nigeria’s Biodun Adebiyi who is on the bill of next week’s MUSON Jazz Festival in Lagos, Nigeria. But it is lamentable that not many trumpeters are rising up to this challenge. It is a global phenomenon but it is worse here in Nigeria and Africa where there is a dearth of hornmen, especially trumpet players.
Perhaps the first to bite into this newwave trumpet sound was Michael Falana who, as a young man, came across with brilliant solos as far back as 1960 with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Dance orchestra. He was permitted by the late Steve Rhodes who was the band’s musical director to extend his solos-even beyond the limits of prescribed scores – on account of his power of improvisation which contained sweet phrases, a good tone and the great sense of rhythm.
After Falana who made a great impact in London in the 60s before eventually moving to Germany where he teamed up with the avant garde trumpeter, Don Cherry, came Fela Ransome-Kuti. He played the trumpet all through the jazz quintet days to the Koola Lobitos years to the beginning of Afrobeat in the early 70s until he switched over to the saxophone in 1974, with the exit of the great tenor saxophonist, Igo Chico from the Africa ’70.
Currently bristling with the Navaro-Brown-Morgan trumpet legacy in Nigeria is Biodun Adebiyi whom I discovered in Festac Town in 1997 at a party held in Toyin Akinoso’s house. As Secretary of the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), Akinoso was hosting a send-off party in honour of a culture-conscious foreign embassy staff. Biodun has improved greatly ever since, with solos that are brilliantly structured along prescribed progressions, a more relaxed style and a broad tone.
The scene is in dire need of horn men, but how many are taking up the instrument today in the face of a dominating hip hop culture? Even among those that are grappling with the trumpet, how many are listening to Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan for inspiration and development?
One of the great jazz trumpeters of the 60s, Lee Morgan was the natural successor to Clifford Brown, making an impact on the scene shortly after Brown’s death, and at first playing in a similar style. But he evolved his own style within the same trumpet tradition to become the greatest after Clifford Brown.

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