Lee Morgan was born July 10, 1938 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Lee was a jazz prodigy, first picking up the trumpet on about the age of thirteeen or so, after developing an interest in the vibraphone. On his 13th or 14th birthday, Morgan was given his first trumpet, his sister Ernestine (his elder by ten years) and mother having brought it together. He joined the Dizzy Gillespie big band at 18, and remained a member for eighteen months, until Gillespie was forced to disband in 1958. Beginning in 1956, he began recording as a leader, mainly for the Blue Note label. Eventually, he recorded 25 albums for the company. Morgan’s principal influence as a player was Clifford Brown, having had some lessons from Brown before his premature death.
He was also a featured sideman on several early Hank Mobley records, as well as John Coltrane’s Blue Train. On the latter LP, he even played a bent-up horn (like the style that Gillespie made famous), and recorded one of the all-time great improvised trumpet solos on the title track.
Joining Art Blakey’s’s Jazz Messengers in 1958 further developed his talent as a soloist and songwriter. He toured with Blakey for a few years, and was featured on Moanin, which is probably Blakey’s best known recording. According to the biography by Tom Pechard, it was Blakey who started Morgan on his addiction to heroin, which was to blight most of his career. When Benny Golson left the Jazz Messengers, Morgan persuaded Blakey to hire Wayne Shorter, a young tenor saxophonist, to fill the chair. This classic version of the Jazz Messengers, including Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt, would record the classic The Freedom Rider album. The drug problems of Morgan and Timmons led to Blakey sacking them in 1961, and Morgan was largely inactive professionally for about two years, returning to his family in Philadelphia.
Morgan tried to move in to the more advanced areas of the music in the early 1960s. In November 1963 he played on Grachan Moncur III’s essentially avant-garde Evolution album (apparently his favorite work), and experimenting on some of his own recordings, such as the title track of Search for the New Land (1964). But the popularity of his famous album, The Sidewinder, featuring Joe Henderson precluded his career developing in this way.
The title track of that record cracked the pop charts in 1964, and served as the background theme for Chrysler commercials during the World Series. This was done without Morgan’s consent and it is thought by Perchard that the intercession of Blue Note’s lawyers were enough for the commercial to be withdrawn. The Sidewinder’s crossover success in a rapidly changing pop music market caused Blue Note to rush the track’s “Boogaloo” sound to stores. This is evidenced in the mid-1960s output of many Blue Note stars, including Morgan, and some of the lesser artists in the stable, releasing albums with modified and rhythmically punchy blues tracks, such as “Yes I Can, No You Can’t” on Morgan’s own The Gigolo. According to drummer Billy Hart, Morgan said he had recorded “Sidewinder” as filler for the album, and was upset that it had turned into his first hit. In 1964, Morgan rejoined the Jazz Messengers after his successor Freddie Hubbard departed. At this point, the Jazz Messengers had become a sextet, with the addition of Curtis Fuller to the group.
Alongside this commercial success, Morgan continued to record prolifically, producing such works as Search For the New Land which reached the top 20 of the R&B charts. His work became increasingly more modal and free towards the end of the sixties. He had begun to lead his own group, featuring Bennie Maupin as a multi-reedist.
By 1965, Morgan’s addiction had returned, and Blakey felt he was unable to use him anymore. Billy Hart says that things deteriorated to the point where Morgan was sleeping on pool tables, and didn’t even have a horn, let alone a working band. He borrowed a horn for the recording of Night of the Cookers, in which he sat in with Freddie Hubbard’s band at a live gig in New York. The recording captures some of Morgan’s weakest playing. Helen Moore, who became his girlfriend and later his common-law wife, helped Morgan clean up his act. He eventually put together a working band and re-established himself. Live at the Lighthouse, recorded over three nights of a two-week stand at Hermosa Beach, California in July, 1970, captures some very strong playing by Morgan and his band. A three-disc box set of the performances has been issued in recent years.
On February 19, 1972 Lee Morgan was shot by Helen Moore following an argument between sets at Slug’s, a popular New York City jazz club. According to an interview with drummer Billy Hart. Morgan had gotten into a dispute with a drug dealer, after buying a large amount of cocaine. He called Moore and asked her to bring his gun to him at the club.Moore showed up, and spotted him with another woman (whom Morgan had been planning to leave Moore for) An argument erupted, and Morgan kicked Moore out of the club. When she returned to retrieve something she had forgotten, Morgan got into a scuffle with her, and the gun went off. An ambulance was late in showing up, and Morgan bled to death. His last words to Moore while she was crying to him, were “Get away from me, you dirty bitch.” Moore was judged to be insane at the time of the shooting, and spent several months in an asylum, in which she reportedly continued to talk to Morgan as if he was still alive. After her release, she moved down south, and disappeared, according to Hart.