The 1985 release of Frank Morgan’s Easy Living marked the brilliant alto saxophonist’s return to recording after 30 years of near-total obscurity. Like so many of his bebop contemporaries, he had been plagued by heroin addiction and his career was punctuated-and nearly aborted-by numerous periods of incarceration.
The critical acclaim given to Easy Living and its followup, Lament, has helped open the door to a successful comeback and a higher profile on the club and concert scene.
Last December, Morgan made his long-overdue New York debut at the Village Vanguard, in the company of Cedar Walton, Buster Williams, Billy Higgins, and Johnny Coles. His new Contemporary album, Bebop Lives!,was recorded during that engagement.
"From a musical standpoint," says Frank, "it was simply one of my greatest experiences yet-the chemistry between the musicians, the incredible audiences, the thrill of playing at the Vanguard. The gig was a week-long high for me that can only be topped by some of the projects I have ahead of me!"
Frank’s selection of material on Bebop Lives!-jazzand popular standards by such composers as Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, and Charlie Parker-reflects his feeling that "songs should tell a story. With all the great standards, the melody told the story, and I want the melody to run down the center of everything I play."
Coinciding with the release of Bebop Lives!, Morgan will be returning to New York for another week at the Vanguard. He’ll also be recording a new Contemporary LP with the McCoy Tyner Trio (Avery Sharpe, Louis Hayes), which will be the occasion for "coming out of retirement with my soprano [saxophone]. I didn’t plan to play it again anytime soon," reveals Frank, "because I wanted to focus on the alto. But the soprano is really my baby...."
Frank Morgan was born in Minneapolis on December 23, 1933, the only child of Stanley and Geraldine Morgan, and started guitar lessons at age three with his guitarist father. The family moved to Milwaukee when Frank was six; his perceptions were permanently altered the following year when his father took him to see Charlie Parker with the Jay McShann Orchestra at the Paradise Theater in Detroit.
"I went backstage with my father to meet Bird," Morgan recalls, "’cause I’d been so excited about hearing him. Right away I wanted to play the saxophone, but Bird wanted me to start on clarinet instead. The next day Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards showed up and picked out a clarinet for me. Then I went back to Milwaukee and started studying clarinet."
By the time the Morgans arrived in Los Angeles in 1948, Frank had already embarked on his professional career. While studying at Jefferson High School with Samuel Browne (whose students have included Dexter Gordon, Ed Thigpen, Art and Addison Farmer, Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, Horace Tapscott, and O.C. Smith), he led a 20-piece band that traveled all over the state doing concerts. In addition, the senior Morgan opened a jazz club that enabled the young saxophonist to share the bandstand with major artists coming through town.
A rising alto star while in his teens, Morgan was hailed by some as the "New Bird." Unfortunately, his emulation of Charlie Parker extended beyond the musical sphere, and he fell hard into the lifestyle that destroyed many musicians of that era. Frank made his debut as a leader on the 1955GNP Crescendo date, Introducing Frank Morgan (which he admits was marred by his being "under the influence"), then dropped off the scene in a lengthy struggle with heroin addiction and the effects of intermittent prison terms (he played with Art Pepper and Dupree Bolton in San Quentin).
Morgan’s resurfacing began tentatively in the late Seventies with the occasional L.A. club or sideman date (he recorded with Benny Powell and L. Subramaniam). In a 1977 Times review, Leonard Feather called Morgan "a brilliant alto saxophonist who encompasses the spectrum from Benny Carter sumptuousness...through Charlie Parkerisms...to Ornette Coleman freedom sounds."
Just two years ago, Frank signed with Contemporary and released his second album ever, ironically titled Easy Living (producer Richard Bock was instrumental in bringing him to the label). He’s recorded a duo album with pianist George Cables (due for release on Contemporary later this year), and as a sideman on recent LPs by vibist Terry Gibbs and singer Mark Murphy. He was featured in a segment of CBS News’s Sunday Morning TV show.
On the performance front, he’ll be making his Chicago debut next month at the Jazz Showcase, his Dallas debut at Caravan of Dreams, and-having gone off parole in December ’86-will be free to travel to Europe for the first time as well: he’s scheduled to appear at several festivals this summer.
Morgan gives much of the credit for his comeback to artist Rosalinda Kolb, his life partner. "She is directly responsible for saving my life," he states. "I had given up on living, and Rosalinda helped to pull me out of that.
"Now, I’m full of plans and work. I have several students I’m very proud of-I intend to produce them myself!-and have done a number of master classes at universities. I’m also working on a book about my life experiences-I’ve done some writing on it informally, and plan to start taping segments. I find it’s incredibly therapeutic.
"I’d like to take Mr. Zubin Mehta up on his promise that he made me in Chino, when I played with the L.A. Philharmonic back in ’75, that he would love to have me perform with whatever orchestra he was conducting anywhere in the world, whenever I was free to do so!
"I’m spending a lot of time on my instrument and taking life real seriously. My values and my notions about people are changing. I feel very strongly about always keeping myself in a learning position. I intend to do that for the rest of my life."