Born in 1933; son of Stanley (a guitarist) and Geraldine Morgan; married a forensic pathologist, 1977 (divorced); married Rosalinda (one source says Roselinda) Kolb (an artist and former model), 1988. Addresses: Record company-- Antilles/Polygram, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
"Seduction," suggested Down Beat correspondent Larry Birnbaum, is the expertise of jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan. "Lyrical, refined, unblushingly romantic, his alto sings a siren song, animating wordless tunes with the aching poetry of triumph and loss, fruition and desire. His poised, spare, sculpted lines mark him as an old master." "He's a virtuoso who makes deep feeling accessible," commented Eric Pooley in New York. "Through his horn, he sings shockingly intimate songs about loves lost and won, years irretrievably gone, death cheated but heading back to settle the score." Considered one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time, Morgan is a 1950s-generation bebop artist who regained popularity in the 1990s bebop revival.
Until Morgan opted to play straight in 1985, thievery and con games to support his drug habit designated him the recurrent star of prison bands. For several decades his alto reverberated on and off in numerous penitentiaries, including San Quentin, San Luis, Chino, and Obisbo. A media darling as a new jazz discovery since his 1980s revival, Morgan has appeared on the television news show CBS Sunday Morning, in such magazines as Newsweek and Time, and in an inspirational book One Person Can Make A Difference.
With the encouragement of his wife, Rosalinda, he cut nine albums amid personal turmoil and a media blitz. "It's my wife who saved my life," Morgan told Birnbaum. "She propped me up and said, 'If you love me and want to be with me, then you'll play your saxophone and stop going to prison.'"
Born in 1933, Morgan is the son of bebop guitarist Stanley Morgan, who played with jazz master Charlie Parker and later led the Ink Spots. Morgan's mother, Geraldine, gave birth to Morgan when she was a 14-year-old Minneapolis schoolgirl. "My father told me he used to play his guitar next to my mother's womb," Morgan related to Zan Stewart in Down Beat. "Then he would practice by my crib. I took my first guitar lesson when I was three."
Morgan was raised by his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother until he was six years old. He was sent to live with his paternal grandmother, "Mama Coot," in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since his parents were anchored in Detroit between engagements, Morgan was taken on short trips to Michigan. One memorable weekend with his father, the seven-year-old Frank became enthralled with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker's performance at the Paradise Theater. Backstage, he asked Parker's advice about playing an alto saxophone.
The next day Morgan put away his guitar and purchased the clarinet Parker recommended for childhood fingering. Three years went by before he got his first saxophone. By the age of 14, he had mastered the alto sax enough to mimic Parker. When his grandmother found the adolescent with marijuana, though, she shipped Frank off to Los Angeles to live with his divorced father.
In 1948 Stanley Morgan was opening at the Casablanca, but he took Frank, who had recently joined him, to the nonalcoholic Crystal Tearoom to jam on Sunday afternoons. Morgan kept up his Parker-like play with Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, and others who frequented those sessions. At the age of 15, he was offered Johnny Hodges's former chair in Duke Ellington's band, but his father felt Frank was too young for road trips. Instead, Morgan backed famed jazz singers Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker in the house band at the Club Alabam.
While working at the club at night and attending Jefferson High School, where he played in the Jefferson Big Band by day, Morgan starting using heroin. When his idol Charlie Parker came to Los Angeles in 1952, Morgan assumed Parker--who also used the drug--would be pleased to know Frank had taken up the habit. At first, Parker lectured, swore, and cried, begging the boy not to follow his example. But when Morgan offered him a half-ounce of the drug, Parker gleefully took it. "I'll always wonder," Morgan confessed to Pooley, "what would have happened if he had flushed it down the toilet instead."
By 1955--the year Parker died--Morgan was a serious junkie with his first drug arrest. His debut album, Introducing Frank Morgan, appeared the same year, but he had already embarked on the course of thievery and scams that would eventually land him in San Quentin in 1962. Though he left the prison in 1967, he would be a habitual offender for the next 20 years.
In 1978 Morgan's one-year marriage to a forensic pathologist was already failing when he met Rosalinda Kolb on a brief time-out from jail. An artist and model, Kolb lived with Parker after his divorce until the day in 1980 when he took money set aside for brake repairs to buy drugs. When the couple's car--driven by Morgan--nearly went off a cliff that night, Kolb left Morgan. Though she returned to Morgan periodically, by 1985 the relationship was over.
That same year, one of Fantasy Records' executives called Kolb, asking her to locate Morgan so he could sign a recording contract. Just out of prison in April, Morgan released Easy Living-- plugged on the television show Simon and Simon when a character held up the album on camera--but turned himself in after using drugs in violation of his parole. He and Kolb were reunited prior to his release from his last incarceration on December 7, 1986; the couple married in 1988.
After his record company staff required he move to New York City so they could keep an eye on him, Morgan debuted to resounding success at the Village Vanguard in 1987. In New York, the saxophonist's career flourished. He appeared in several magazines, including People, and in the Off-Broadway production Prison-Made Tuxedos --a semi-autobiographical musical based on his days as a prison superstar. Also during the 1980s, he released the well-received albums Lament, Bebop Lives!, Double Image, Major Changes, and Yardbird Suite.
Reflections followed in 1989, but 1990's Mood Indigo, released on Morgan's new record label, Antilles, reached Number Four on Billboard' s jazz charts. When A Lovesome Thing was released in 1991, Morgan had kept his life straight for many years. His methadone treatments and sometimes nightly Narcotics Anonymous meetings proved to be successful.
Morgan's immense talent has kept him in the favor of music critics. "Alto saxophonist Frank Morgan is a rarity among jazz musicians: a virtuoso who is not ashamed to tug at the heartstrings of his listeners ... Morgan is capable of dazzling displays of musical finesse," wrote David Grogan in People. "But he is at his best when he launches into a familiar melody and caresses the notes with a tenderness that will make even the most jaded soul consider a surreptitious swoon or two." "He also plays an alto sax better than any man alive," penned Daniel Okrent in Esquire. And David Gates appraised in Newsweek, "His playing, of course, sounds like [Charlie Parker's]. But he pauses more often to caress a single note and to revel in the sheer texture of sound--from a frail piping, to a croon, to a lowdown honk. Parker was an innovator who played saxophone; Morgan is a saxophonist. "
Morgan revealed to Birnbaum the resolve that motivates this reborn, master musician, "I have an assignment, a job to do. It's apparent to me that a force greater than me saved me from myself, so I could do what I'm doing now.... The more nice things they write about [me], the harder I'll practice and the harder I'll try to be a better human being. Just to be the best Frank Morgan I can be."
by Marjorie Burgess
Frank Morgan's Career
Jazz saxophonist. Began guitar lessons, c. 1936; performed at Crystal Tearoom, Los Angeles, c. 1947; offered alto sax chair with Duke Ellington, c. 1948; while in high school, backed Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker at Club Alabam, Los Angeles; performed in jazz clubs; released debut album, Introducing Frank Morgan, 1955; led jazz bands while in prison, 1960s and 1970s; debuted at the Village Vanguard, New York City, 1987. Starred in Off-Broadway production Prison-Made Tuxedos, 1987.
- Selective Works
- Introducing Frank Morgan GNP Crescendo, 1955.
- Easy Living Contemporary, 1985.
- Lament Contemporary, 1986.
- Bebop Lives! Contemporary, 1987.
- Reflections Contemporary, 1989.
- Mood Indigo Antilles, 1990.
- A Lovesome Thing Antilles, 1991.
- (With Bud Shank) Quiet Fire Contemporary, 1992.
- You Must Believe in Spring Antilles, 1992.
- Double Image Contemporary.
- Major Changes Contemporary.
- Yardbird Suite Contemporary.
- American Visions, April 1991.
- Atlantic, October 1987.
- Down Beat, June 1986; December 1988; April 1991.
- Esquire, July 1988.
- High Fidelity, August 1988.
- Newsweek, April 6, 1987.
- New York, February 12, 1990.
- People, July 18, 1988; February 12, 1990; January 18, 1993.
- Pulse!, December 1992.
- Rolling Stone, March 8, 1990.
- Time, March 26, 1990.