"In a number of respects, Lee Morgan could be considered a quintessential--or even the quintessential--hard bopper."
--David H. Rosenthal
Every listener to jazz has had a few experiences so startling that they are literally unforgettable. One of mine took place during an engagement the Dizzy Gillespie big band had at Birdland in 1957. My back was to the bandstand as the band started playing Night In Tunisia. Suddenly, a trumpet soared out of the band into a break that was so vividly brilliant and electrifying that all conversation in the room stopped and those of us who were gesturing were frozen with hands outstretched. After the first thunderclap impact, I turned and saw that the trumpeter was the very young sideman from Philadelphia, Lee Morgan.
--NAT HENTOFF, from the liner notes,
Leeway, Blue Note.
After more than a decade during which the jazz world has been inundated by teenage and even a few preteen "young lions," it may be difficult to appreciate the sensation that Lee Morgan created in 1956. Today we tend to shrug when another 18-year-old phenomenon steps forward (usually with a recording contract from one of the major labels); but teenage trumpeters with any level of facility were less common when Lee Morgan was 18, not to mention teenage trumpeters advanced enough to not only sit in the trumpet section of Dizzy Gillespie's big band but also to assume solo duties on Gillespie's signature piece, A Night In Tunisia.
We may assume, from the sketchy biographical information that survives regarding Morgan's youth, that he took full advantage of his proximity to several great musicians. He was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1938. He began his trumpet studies with a private instructor, and continued them at Mastbaum Technical Hight School, where he also played the alto horn.
A jazz fan from the outset, Morgan soaked up as much live music as he could, and there was plenty to be heard in Philadelphia, which had produced the Heath and Bryant brothers, Bill Barron (soon to be joined by his brother Kenny), John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Cal Massey, Bobby Timmons and many others among the second and third wave of modernists.
By the age of 15, Morgan was leading his own professional group on weekend jobs, with bassist James "Spanky" DeBrest as his partner, and taking part in Tuesday night workshops at the Music City club that brought him into early contact with Miles Davis and his primary early influence, Clifford Brown.
Things really started to happen for Morgan in the summer of 1956, after he graduated from Mastbaum. First, he and DeBrest subbed with the Jazz Messengers when Art Blakey arrived in Philadelphia short two musicians. "Spanky stayed on," Morgan explained to Leonard Feather in the notes to his first Blue Note album. "I could have stayed too, but I didn't want to sign a contract, so I left after two weeks. Then very soon after that, Dizzy came back from his South American tour. I'd met him a couple of years before at the workshop and he knew about me. He needed a replacement for Joe Gordon, and I needed some big band experience, so it worked out fine."
One more individual, through his absence, was critical to the early emergence of Lee Morgan, and that is Clifford Brown. The brilliant young musician, who promised to overshadow all of his fellow trumpeters for decades to come, had died in an automobile accident on June 26, 1956, and his death triggered a search for the new Clifford much in the way that Charlie Parker's passing the previous year sent producers and managers scurrying to find the new Bird.
Morgan was the primary beneficiary of this attention, as Cannonball Adderley had been a year earlier; and, like Adderley, Morgan was recorded early and often. Fortunately, Alfred Lion brought Morgan into the rarefied environment of Blue Note Records, and showed his commitment to the young trumpeter by recording him as a leader six times over a period of 15 months, giving full exposure to Morgan's instrumental talents while presenting him in some of the most intelligently conceived small-group programs of the period.
--BOB BLUMENTHAL, from the liner notes,
The Complete Blue Note Lee Morgan
Fifties Sessions, Mosaic.
A selected discography of Lee Morgan albums.
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