Remembering Frank Morgan: Tears, Laughter and Music in Culver City

Chuck Koton By

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Frank Morgan Memorial Celebration
The Jazz Bakery
Los Angeles (Culver City), CA
January 5, 2008 2:00-5:30 P.M.

A memorial celebration is always a bittersweet affair. There is an inescapable sadness over the passing of a friend, but there is also joy in remembering the spirit of the departed who will remain forever in our hearts. On Saturday, January 5th at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, the great altoist Frank Morgan was eulogized by many of his friends and fans.

Saxophonist Azar Lawrence opened the event with an inspired display of tenor madness, lifting the audience's spirits with his interpretations of two songs associated with John Coltrane, "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" and "Afro-Blue," along with every saxophonist's carrying card if not ultimate limit test, "Body and Soul." Local players Bill Madison (drums)and Michael Andrews (piano) provided the rhythmic support for Lawrence to soar to the heavens. Presently, pianist Llew Matthews and Bay Area saxophonist Melvin Butts performed a sultry "Black Velvet" before being joined in mid-chorus by veteran drum master Roy McCurdy on "I'll Remember April, a tune often played by beboppers like Mr. Morgan.

Morgan's long-time manager Reggie Marshall then elicited tears and laughter with a long and unforgettable recounting of his many experiences with the alto legend. Marshall described how Morgan, in spite of suffering from apparent kidney disease, successfully concluded an exhausting tour of Europe this past November. Then, upon returning to the United States, he checked into a hospital, only to learn that he was suffering from inoperable colon cancer. As sad as the relation of this turn of events was, the audience was soon laughing when Marshall pointed out that Morgan, a long-time heroin addict, was at least able to indulge his craving for opiates with the morphine drip that helped alleviate his pain. After several days Morgan returned home where, surrounded by family, he quickly passed on and ascended to jazz heaven, finally rejoining the mentor with whom he had once performed, Charlie Parker.

Next, young tenor player Frank Fontaine told the audience how he happened to be an indirect beneficiary of the darker activities Morgan engaged in to support his drug habit. Fontaine's parents, who happened to be old friends of Morgan, once gave the troubled musician some cash for a horn he had "borrowed." That horn was put away in a closet until one day young Frank Fontaine found it and practiced long and hard enough to become a professional jazz musician himself. Following this heartfelt anecdote, Fontaine performed a very personal interpretation of the Sonny Rollins classic, "St. Thomas." At least in this instance, Morgan's crimes had inspirational consequences (though admittedly the original owner of the "borrowed" horn might not see it that way).

Frank Morgan passed away just days before his 74th birthday, and though that was premature for Morgan's friends and fans, it was many years more than most people,including Frank, could possibly have expected. We can all be grateful that Frank Morgan got his life together in time to record nearly 20 CD's of great jazz. His music and memory will never die.

Bird lives, and so does Frank.


Brian McMillen


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