“ There's so many beautiful alto players out there - you've just got to stay on top of your shit. ”
Soft-spoken and exceedingly gracious, Morgan, now 70, talked with us last month by phone from his Taos, New Mexico home.
All About Jazz: Before we get to the new disc, let's talk about your journey up to this point. Your father was a guitarist with the Ink Spots...
Frank Morgan: Yes. But he really wanted to be a jazz guitarist. He used to play changes for all the cats in the hotel room, he used to play by my crib. He said when I started to reach for the guitar that's when he started to feel he was communicating with me. He wanted me to be a guitarist; I started on it at two. But at seven, as part of my continuing music education, I went over from Milwaukee where I was living to spend Easter vacation with my father who was on the road in Detroit, and he took me to hear the Jay McShann Band. And when Charlie Parker stood up to take his first solo on "Hootie Blues," my father said I turned to him and said "Listen, dad, that's it for the guitar." And he took me backstage and introduced me to Bird.
AAJ: At seven?
FM: Yeah, at seven. And Bird made arrangements to meet us at the music store the next day to pick out what I thought was an alto saxophone. But Bird made me start on clarinet.
AAJ: For your fingering?
FM: For the embouchure. It's a great thing for you if you aspire to play the saxophone. Because you have to get in touch with your face muscles just to stop the clarinet from squeaking. I didn't like it at the time because I wanted to play what I heard, but I certainly appreciate it now.
AAJ: When did you pick up the alto?
FM: I was on clarinet for maybe a year and a half or two before I got an alto. In fact, I got a soprano before an alto. The soprano is a gorgeous instrument, but I don't play it anymore. It interferes with my alto. The alto feels cumbersome when I put the soprano down. And I can't have that.
AAJ: Did you start formal study around that time?
FM: Yes, there were two or three teachers around Milwaukee that I studied with, but mainly with a great saxophonist in MilwaukeeLeonard Gay. And then I moved to California at 14, and my father contacted Benny Carter for me. He didn't take students, but he recommended me to Merle Johnston, who taught formal saxophone. He had taught Jimmy Dorsey, a lot of great players. I studied with him, while still working with my father on guitar. We played great duos together, just working on the changes. And he helped me work on the solos, everything.
AAJ: And did you get the chance to study with Parker?
FM: We had contact every time he came to Los Angeles, which was quite often. I would spend almost all the time with him that he was in town. He loved to play sessions, you know? We had some great sessions in some of the movie stars' homes. Bird was like a superstar, then. Like the Beatles. Hollywood catered to him.
AAJ: You led your first disc out there [in L.A.] at 21?
FM: Yes, in 1954. It actually wasn't really my album to start out with. I was on an all-star date with Wild Bill Davis and Conte Candoli, and then I did another date with Wardell Gray, Conte Candoli, Carl Perkins, Larance Marable, Leroy Vinegar. And they put the two of them together and made me the leader, which was cool. (laughs) And so it became my first album.
AAJ: Parker had just passed away, and there was a lot of talk about you being the new Bird. That's a lot of weight to put on a young man's shoulders.
FM: Too much. It scared me to death; I self-destructed. Every time they tried to send me to New York I'd go back to prison. It became my pattern to play as soon as I got out of jail, and then I would start using right away, and then I would stop playing, I was so afraid of New York, and being judged, I guess I was willing to do almost anything to keep it from happening, you know? Finally I just had to say, well, shit, I'm 52, 54 years old, I'm scheduled to open at the Village Vanguard [in 1986]. Leonard Feather had told me just before he passed, "You don't have to be afraid of anything, man. Just show up and do what you do, and the world will open up to you." And Billy Higgins, who was right there in New York with me, told me, "Keep appearing, and not disappearing." Billy was holding my hand, guiding me. And Cedar [Walton] and Johnny Coles and Buster [Williams]. We were recording live [ Bebop Lives! , Contemporary], and I didn't have time to rehearse for the record. I'd be doing interviews up until the time I was due at the club. But it was thrilling. Like a fairytale. It was my first time ever seeing New York. My first night in the Vanguard, I was two hours early. I just walked around and absorbed the energy, like all those people were speaking to me.
AAJ: You really hit the ground running. I mean, Easy Living in '85, three more leader's discs in '86 alone...
FM: Well, that was my only source of income. Thank God they were letting me record, so I could put some money in my pocket. And putting the records out made the personal appearances come pretty quickly.
AAJ: You cut 14 discs between '85 and '96, a host of which are exceptionally good.
FM: Well, one thing runs down the center of it all. All the time, I played with the best musicians that I could get. All the time, I just kind of rode on their backs. They were showing me the way all the time, and it's been a beautiful journey.
AAJ: City Nights is a wonderful record.
FM: I haven't really heard it. I don't like to listen to my own recordings. It's always a lot of second guessing: 'I should have did this,' 'Oh, I didn't do that,' 'I played this wrong.' I am who I amI mean, I know I'm imperfect and I'm playing imperfect musicbut still, it affects me.
AAJ: "Georgia" is a surprise.
FM: I had just seen a magazine where they were saying Ray Charles was dying. It had a picture of him on the cover, and he looked horrible. So I had Ray Charles on my mind that night.
AAJ: And that's an instance where you'd get the idea on the bandstand and just start playing it, and the rhythm section would just fall in?
FM: Yeah. They give me that latitude. They know that that's the way that I like to do it. And, you know, it works. Not all the time, but, well, nothing works all the time. (laughs)
AAJ: You lead off "Summertime," but it's really given over to George [Cables].
FM: I just wanted to melodize a little, and then let him be heard. Georgehe's not well, you knowhe's on dialysis. But he's still playing gorgeously.
AAJ: Curtis and Billy sound terrific, as usual.
FM: Yes, they're all musician's musicians. Curtis is such a beautiful cat. I love the way he playsI feel so secure with him behind me. And Billy told me after the last gig we played, "I'm willing to go along with you just as long as you want to keep it up, Frank. I'm turning down other gigs because I really love playing with you." That made me cry.
AAJ: You've got two Monk tunes on the disc.
FM: You know, for years I wasn't a big fan of Monk. I was resisting the whole thing, and I regret that. I was looking for the technique, and form, that shit, and this cat is just primitive. But it's beautiful. And to play his tunes, and give them your own interpretation, yet try to capture him...I'm still just kind of learning "'Round Midnight." I don't think I'll ever get it right.
AAJ: You're very hard on yourself.
FM: Well, I'm such a young old man, and I'm trying to correct a lot of shit as best I can. It's a humongous task. I mean, I missed the whole ballgame on Monk! For years!
AAJ: What I'm hearing new on the record is more attention to space.
FM: Yes, exactly. You got it. I'm just coming to understand better that silence is our friend, not our enemy. Silence is our best friend. It gives what you play after it more meaning.
AAJ: It's rare to see someone of your age and experience so determined to continue evolving.
FM: Oh, well, I'm just a baby, you know. And if I ever have any doubts about that, all I have to do is go listen to Charles McPherson. Or Sonny Fortune, Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, James Spaulding. There's so many beautiful alto players out thereyou've just got to stay on top of your shit.