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Frank Morgan; bop player reemerged after drug ordeal

Saxophonist Frank Morgan, performing in New York City. Saxophonist Frank Morgan, performing in New York City. (Jack vartoogian file/1998)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post / December 19, 2007

WASHINGTON - Frank Morgan, 73, a jazz saxophonist of impeccable ability, whose claim to the mantle of the celebrated Charlie Parker was clouded by his heroin addiction, died Dec. 14 at his home in Minneapolis. He had colon cancer and kidney failure.

Mr. Morgan, whose father was a guitarist with the vocal group the Ink Spots, was considered in his teens a promising interpreter of hard bop, a swing style of lightning pace.

Despite a 30-year absence from performing caused by addiction, he was remembered as someone who could bring emotion to the frantic sound in a way few had mastered since Parker. Parker, one of the great geniuses of saxophone, died from his drug abuse at 34 in 1955.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said of Mr. Morgan's playing: "What comes out of his horn is soulful, full of fire and timeless."

In 1955, Mr. Morgan debuted as a solo artist with a beautifully made hard bop collection, but for the next three decades he was sidelined by a $1,000-a-day heroin addiction and his arrests. He served prison terms in California penitentiaries and formed a small ensemble at San Quentin prison in the 1960s with another addict and sax player, Art Pepper.

He recalled that the band was so exceptional that it played on Saturday nights for the warden's tour, in which visitors paid to see the prison. Mr. Morgan said the band's renown won him a fan base in jail and unlimited access to cocaine and marijuana and also "cigarettes, candy, hair grease, and a line of credit."

He credited a conversion to Islam at the end of what he called his "prison career" for a turning point and for an acclaimed series of performances at New York's Village Vanguard jazz club in 1986. A year earlier, he had cut his second album, "Easy Living," in what he described as a tense experience that lasted days in a windowless studio.

The resulting album won praise. Music critic Robert Palmer, writing in The New York Times, called "Easy Living" - featuring pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Tony Dumas, and drummer Billy Higgins - "one of the year's great surprises and musical delights."

With a bebop revival under way in jazz, Mr. Morgan made the most of his second chance. He said he was able to wean himself off drugs through methadone, which he continued to take. He maintained a rigorous recording and touring schedule, even after a stroke in 1998. He credited his wife at the time, painter Rosalinda Kolb, with helping him.

He was leader on more than a dozen albums. Among those he played with were Marsalis, pianists McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and singer Abbey Lincoln.

Frank Morgan was born Dec. 23, 1933, in Minneapolis. He was brought up by his paternal grandmother in Milwaukee.

Initially he played the guitar but switched to alto saxophone after his father took him to hear Charlie Parker at Detroit's Paradise Theater. The younger Morgan said he began copying Parker's drug habit in hopes of channeling his talent. He was a full-blown addict when they met again a few years later.

He told People magazine: "I couldn't wait to tell [Parker], to let him know I had become a member of the club. I gave him the news at one of his concerts, and he started lecturing me. He said, 'Man, can't you see what it's doing to me. It's killing me.' But then I told him I had brought along some heroin and cocaine, and that changed everything. He was ready to party."

Mr. Morgan had established himself as a teenage prodigy in Los Angeles. At 15, he won a job offer from Duke Ellington, but his father said he had to finish high school first.

Still, he participated in jam sessions with top musicians such as saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray; backed singer Billie Holiday at the Club Alabam in Los Angeles; and recorded with vibraphonist Milt Jackson.

Despite his luscious debut album, Mr. Morgan's career stalled with his first arrest on drug charges. He began a long spiral into drug-related crimes such as theft. He landed in San Quentin in 1962 for his role in passing $600,000 in bad checks.

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