Jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan, a disciple and peer of Charlie Parker whose career was interrupted by 30 years of drug addiction and incarceration, died Dec. 14 of kidney failure in his hometown of Minneapolis. He was 73.
Morgan had been hospitalized with inoperable colon cancer since returning from a November tour of Europe. He died at home among friends and family.
The son of guitarist Stanley Morgan, who had played with the Ink Spots, he was born in Minneapolis where he had started to learn the clarinet before switching to the alto sax. When he was a teenager, the family moved to Los Angeles and Stanley Morgan opened a club, Casablanca, where Parker, bebop’s leading light, was regularly booked.
Parker took a liking to Morgan and, in turn, Morgan began to emulate Parker — musically and in his consumption of heroin. Before turning 21, Morgan had recorded with bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke and with Teddy Charles; his debut as a leader came in 1955, the year Parker died, on the GNP label. Morgan has even stated that after they learned Parker died, he marked the occasion by shooting up rather than seeing it as a sign to quit.
Morgan was arrested for drug possession in 1955 and began a 30 year run of being in and out of jail and prison, never fully kicking his addiction. In San Quentin he formed a band with Art Pepper that he considered one of the best group’s he ever played with.
Although he was able to play gigs in Los Angeles during times he was out of jail, it wasn’t until 1985 — and he was 51 years old — that he finally performed and recorded on a regular basis. His Contemporary Records release “Easy Living” was widely heralded, leading to extensive touring. He also took advantage of his freedom, recording and releasing 11 albums by the end of 1990. His final solo album, “Reflections,” was released in 2006.
Throughout his return to the bandstand, Morgan maintained an association with Parker’s material as he developed a lyrical style that brought together the toughness of hard bop and lyrical quality of saxophonists such as Benny Carter. A Daily Variety review of a 1990 perf hailed him as “technically and spiritually impressive.”
Morgan suffered a stroke in 1998 that slowed his touring and recording schedule.
A memorial gathering is planned in his longtime hometown of Taos, N.M., on what would have been his 74th birthday, Dec. 23.