BY BENSON IDONIJE
LAST interviews in the careers of great artists are so crucial and phenomenal that they are usually treated with reverence; and preserved for posterity. The reason is that these interviews help to probe and express the minds of these artists in terms of what they represented at these last points of their lives. But in its uniqueness, renowned trumpeter Lee Morgan’s last interview served this purpose and more. It went beyond the ordinary thought process, touching on issues of injustice and discrimination in the system.
Coming in 1972 when black consciousness was sweeping across America, with violent protests from activist movements and individuals opposed to racial discrimination and injustice, the interview was hailed by adherents of black music. Even the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, which used black music of the African type as a vehicle for driving the new jazz, embraced the interview because it was seen as a blueprint and a viable document for fighting their cause.
Lee Morgan’s views were highly respected because he had become a musician of great substance — on top of his career at the time. He was the new horn in town as opposed to such existing elders as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Lee Morgan’s trumpet was warm and vibrant as the new extension of the Fats Navaro-Clifford Brown dynasty.
Another dimension, which makes this interview remarkabe, is the fact hat it was originally conducted for publication by Downbeat magazine in its Music 72 yearly. But Morgan’s tragic death a short time after, gave what were quite possibly his last statements to an interview. So, instead of printing the usual tributes, Downbeat magazine thought it appropriate to let Lee Morgan speak for himself once more, using the interview as a special significance.
Interviewing Lee Morgan proved easy —not simply because he was loquacious, but because he knew his mind so well he would speak it without any hesitation, and do so with great insight and passion. He spoke of many aspects of music, but always in relation to one essential subject: the dilemma of jazz in America.
To Morgan, this dilemma was two-fold, or rather two-faced: lack of respect, and a lack of proportion between black American art and the general American culture.
Regarding the first lack, Morgan condemned indifference toward the music, reinforced by media tokenism, specifically the over-exploitation of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as representative jazz personalities. “Duke Ellington on the Today Show with the Today house band — that is not Duke Ellington; to have Duke Ellington without Cat Anderson, Harry Carney, all the people’ you associate with Duke, his band — that is Duke Ellington. And the same thing applies to Louis, Louis is gone now, and I think one of the main reasons why Louis died, I saw him on his last engagement in New York, and he had to lay down between shows. The man had just had a heart attack; he shouldn’t have been playing.
“This is the tragedy of the black artist: just to live halfway comfortably he must keep on working! That’s not to say they don’t have any money -- I’m talking about in perspective to their talent. These people should have shrines dedicated to them, just like they have shrines in Europe to Beethoven and Bach: Louis Armstrong especially ;and Duke Ellington as well.”
About the second lack, Morgan noted the irony that jazz is revered internationally, and in fact is broadcast everywhere by the U .S. Information Agency, but is dismissed at home. “It’s black creative music, but something that’s not only black — it’s American black! That’s very important. I was reading about B.B. King. I think last year was the first time a black college ever invited him— because he played blues and blues was like the music of the devil! And over in Europe, you hear blues all day long – it’s a high art form!”
With better recognition, Morgan believed black artists might hope for a better economic perspective. In sports, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays each earned $125,000, because they were the best regardless of black or white, But in music, such racial equality does not seem evident: Herb Alpert became a multi-millionaire in a short time with “a nice little pop group”, while great black genius has been comparatively unrewarded, even after decades of creating.
“I’m not trying to damn Herb Alpert, because it’s beautiful. I’d just like to see an equal proportion... I don’t resent nobody for what they get, as far as they are equal. Frank Sinatra is worth millions; Frank Sinatra is a hell of a singer, that I won’t deny. But at the same time, Betty Carter is starving to death -- here’s someone who’s been on the scene since the late 1940s -- because she refused to compromise, because she always wanted to sing jazz. Look at Billie Holiday and Judy Garland: they both had the same hang-ups, but one of them was singing Over The Rainbow and the other was singing Strange Fruit.
In another view of this lack of recognition, Morgan equates jazz with symphonic music in America, both in respect and in finance, “Leonard Bernstein plays an elite music; everybody doesn’t have the temperament or the ear or the talent for listening to symphonic music or opera. And I would like to feel this way, I’ve never been drug about jazz not being heard all day long banging in your ears like you hear pop music, I would like to feel that jazz is an elite music! Most people who like jazz are the intellectual type people in college, because it’s a very sophisticated music. So if you’re doing something that only appeals to a minority, then the lovers of this music have to support it.
“The symphonic orchestras have sponsors, people who give them endowments, and I think it should be the same way with jazz — because this is a national treasure! This is the only national art form that’s here, and they do everything they can to dismiss it and put it aside. It’s really a shame the way our country treats its artists. I’ve had people ask me: ‘If you feel that way, why don’t you go to Europe’ And I always tell them, ‘first of all, I like Europe, like to see it as a visitor —but this is my home! This is my culture!”
Morgan was committed to several means of awakening recognition toward jazz: as a member of a group of musicians negotiating to buy the Lighthouse Club in California, and as a member of the short-lived Jazz & People’s Movement protesting media ignorance and indifference to jazz artists — Morgan was among the first to interrupt the taping of the talk shows in 1970-71.
“Morgan was amazed by many responses to the JPM protest: that the networks considered a few black musicians in the studio bands sufficient recognition; that talk show hosts didn’t know even established artists like the MJQ or Thelonious Monk; that the programmers tried any and all ploys to avoid commitment; and most shocking of all, that so many considered the JPM actions as only a personal hype,
“We’re saying that if each show (Carson, Griffin, Cavett, Frost) committed itself to use two artists a month’, that would he eight different artists each month. And we’re not talking about Thelonious Monk sitting down at the piano with Doc Severinsen’s bass player- if you have Thelonious Monk, have Theionious Monk’s band! And then after he plays, sit down and talk to him!…
“We tried to arrange conferences; none of them would talk to us. So we went in and took over the (Griffin) show. The next day they had the chairman of the board down there to see us! But it’s unfortunate: as soon as you stop, if you don’t do it again, they go right back... The only reason Griffin came out to, see us was because we kept on blowing whistles, Rahsaan and myself. He immediately tried to divide and conquer — he offered of have our two groups on!
“I told him I couldn’t care less if he ever had me on in fact, I would insist on not going on, at least not first, because right away, people have gotten so pessimistic that not only the public, but musicians as well thought we were just out there thinking about ourselves, I don’t care if you never show me! Put Dizzy on, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Blue Mitchell, Herbie Hancock-put somebody on!
“And right away he came up with that regular thing: Louis Armstrong and Duke El1ington, And then he told me about James Brown, and right away we told him, ‘look, we’re talking about jazz!’ They insult the public, some of the stuff they put on. They spoon feed the public bullshit, and they’ve given them so much I’ve found myself humming tunes that I hate?
Whether the efforts of Morgan and others, will ever succeed, whether the music will be finally respected and granted proper due within American culture, is certainly still a question unanswered. But at least, Lee Morgan knew the power of the music, even if unrecognised — and in that knowledge was a strength.
“If it wasn’t for music, this country would have blown up a long time ago; in fact, the whole world. Music is the only thing that spans across all ethnic groups and all languages. Music is the only thing that awakens the dead’ man and charms the savage beast. Without, it this would be a hell of a world!”