Imagine making it as a musician not only once, but at two distinct moments in your life. That’s what happened to jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan of Milwaukee. Author Dean Robbins brings us the story on the musician’s rebirth and stardom.
Musician Frank Morgan grew up in Milwaukee, playing jazz guitar at an early age. But in 1940, his father took seven-year-old Frank to see alto saxophonist Charlie Parker in concert. The experience changed his life, for better and for worse.
The minute Morgan heard Parker’s starkly beautiful sound, he knew that alto sax was his destiny. He and his father went backstage to meet the genius who’d helped create the modern-jazz style called bebop. With typical generosity, Parker took an interest in the boy and got him started on a reed instrument. Morgan became his protégé, copying the master’s jagged melodies and quicksilver rhythms.
At 14, Frank was sitting in with top jazz players in Los Angeles. And at 22, when he released his debut album, “Frank Morgan with Conte Candoli and Machito’s Rhythm Section,” word spread that Frank Morgan might become “the next Charlie Parker.”
But it didn’t happen. In the mid 1950s, Morgan succumbed to drug addiction, just as Parker had. His heroin habit led to a life of crime, and he spent most of the next 30 years behind bars. Instead of becoming a jazz celebrity, he performed for fellow inmates in the San Quentin prison band.
“In prison, the instrument was what kept me sane. The chance to play it kept me with hope,” Morgan said on WHYY’s “Fresh Air” in 1987.
After his release in 1985, Morgan finally recorded a second album, “Easy Living,” drawing on decades of pent-up emotion. Since prison had isolated him from a generation’s worth of musical changes, listeners got the impression that a pure 1950s bebop pioneer had been magically transplanted to the 1980s.
Morgan’s resurrection fascinated the public, and his friendly smile began beaming out of magazines and TV screens. Audiences were touched by his sublime improvisations and gentle manner. He expressed gratitude for his long-delayed fame and committed himself to earning people’s respect.
“I really intend to play, and to play my heart out,” Morgan said on “Fresh Air.” “Now I have a chance to play with fine musicians and go home after I play, and have a nice home to go to, with a nice piano and a beautiful partner to share life with.”
That meant staying off drugs, of course, which required extraordinary effort. To avoid temptation, Morgan threw himself into practicing and recording. He also moved back to Milwaukee in 1994 to be with supportive family members, who accompanied him on daily trips to a methadone clinic.
I had a chance to interview Morgan after his return to Wisconsin, a state he dubbed “pretty hip.” He credited Milwaukee with giving him a great start in music and the city’s schools with providing an excellent education. And he was overwhelmed by the warm welcome he received from local jazz fans.
I was one of those fans. I saw Morgan play a spectacular concert in Madison and continued to follow his career until he died from cancer in 2007, at age 73. His final years constitute one of the greatest second acts in jazz history, and his recordings endure as a testament to redemption and rebirth.
“It’s great to be alive, you know. Every day is beautiful,” he said on NPR’s “Piano Jazz” in 2004. “There’s a great deal to smile about.”
In our interview, Morgan explained his musical strategy of channeling everything he felt through his horn. His goal, he said, was to make a direct connection between his heart and a listener’s heart.
I’d say: mission accomplished.