“ There's so many beautiful alto players out there - you've just got to stay on top of your shit. ”
A young acolyte of Charlie Parker, the Minneapolis-born alto saxophonist Frank Morgan saw his first leader's disc, the eponymous Frank Morgan (GNP), released in 1955; three decades would pass until he cut his second. Much of the time in between20 years, by his own estimationwas spent in prison, on various drug-related charges (unfortunately Morgan had absorbed not only Bird's musical language but his heroin-fueled lifestyle as well). Last paroled in 1985, Morgan returned to the scene with that year's acclaimed Easy Living (Contemporary) kicking off one of jazz' most remarkable comebacks. He has recorded and toured with a vengeance ever since. Even a serious stroke in 1996 could only keep the resurgent alto master off the bandstand for a mere two months. His latest disc, City Nights (HighNote), recorded live last fall at NYC's Jazz Standard with pianist George Cables, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Billy Hart, is due out early this month.
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.