We All Call Him Morgan

In my very early days of exploring the Blue Note record label, I kept coming back to one track in particular. It was by the trumpeter Lee Morgan called ‘The Sidewinder.’ It’s a piano led riff that chugs along sweetly, gradually drawing you in until Morgan breaks out into a glorious trumpet break. Joe Henderson up next, firing away on the tenor sax. I simply never grew tired of listening to it. Mesmeric is the only way to describe it.

On the 1963 album of the same name from whence the track came, Morgan himself looks sharp. Young, clean and stylish.  He definitely caught my eye on the style front.

I wanted to know more.

So as with all these things, if I heard or saw something that tickled my fancy, I would go searching for more and it was no different here.

I found Lee Morgan on a Jazz Messengers album, along with another musician who fast becoming a favourite of mine, namely Bobby Timmons. The track ‘Dat Dere’ that Timmons wrote, I first heard by vocalist Oscar Brown Jr. who had put lyrics the 1960 original instrumental. Also on that album were Wayne Shorter all led by ferocious drummer Art Blakey.

I bought up a few of Morgan’s albums, but in truth I didn’t really investigate the man himself. This is way before the Internet of today when everything is at your fingertips, so the sounds sufficed.

Time shift to 2017 and word of mouth quickly reached me of a documentary on Morgan called ‘I Called Him Morgan’ by Kaspar Colin

It is fascinating and the true and in some ways a sad story emerges. I suppose in some ways it’s a typical jazz tale of having it all, losing it all to drug dependency and if you survived, you made a small comeback, but in truth, the glory days had gone.

Through watching the film, it transpires Morgan emerged at just 18 in the band of Dizzy Gillespie and attacked his solo spots like a veteran, quickly catching the ears of Art Blakey and ending up a Jazz Messenger beside him.

Early photos of Morgan around this time, taken by the legendary lens man Francis Wolff show him looking CRISP! Decked out in the finest of Ivy League threads with a fresh, short haircut setting it all off.

In later photos however we see him recording with a grubby bandage around his head. Wayne Shorter, a fellow Messenger at that time says to the photo in the film ‘what are you doing Lee? What are you doing?’ The answer, as was common then was drugs.  Lee had nodded out as high as a kite and burnt his head severely on a radiator, which left a deep scar.

He had developed a heroin habit that engulfed him, leaving him shoeless and without a warm winter coat in snowy New York. Everything had been pawned to keep his supply coming.

At this bottom of the barrel stage of his life, Morgan hooks up with Helen, a familiar face on the jazz scene. The doors to her apartment were always open and she took Morgan in, fed, clothed and cared for him,

To her credit, she got into a drug rehab clinic, where he got clean and emerged to start playing again. He also caught up with an old flame, began staying out all night and this naturally heighted tension with his ‘wife’ Helen

Things came to a head in 1972, when Helen shunned by Lee and thrown out of the club he was performing at, came back in and shot him.


I strongly urge you to check out this film. A sad tale, sensitively told by many of those who played with Morgan.

I guarantee after watching it, you’ll be getting your copy of The Sidewinder out for a reminder of the mans long lost talents.

The Mumper of SE5