Frank Morgan, an alto saxophonist who lost and then found himself, died yesterday in Minneapolis, his hometown. He was a few days short of his seventy-fourth birthday. In his last two decades he was productive and relatively contented, rid of his bedeviling habits and living with family members who cared about him.
Here is some of what I wrote about Morgan for one of his last CDs.
At eighteen, fully immersed in the L.A. jazz scene, he recorded with Wardell Gray and in his early twenties made his own album with Gray, Conte Candoli, Carl Perkins, Leroy Vinnegar, Howard Roberts and Larance Marable as his sidemen. His talent and hard work, his adoration and study of Charlie Parker, resulted in his sounding amazingly like his idol. Parker had burned himself out by then, dead of self-abuse in the spring of 1955 at the age of thirty-four. Morgan appeared to be headed for the same end. For the next thirty years, his addiction had him in prison much of the time. He did not entirely disappear from music, but to most listeners he was just a bright young alto player on a few old LPs and an entry in The Encyclopedia of Jazz. He became a featured soloist in bands at San Quentin and Chino and, later, with other recovering addicts at Synanon.
By the mid-1980s, he had had enough. He told writer David Grogan, “I couldn’t be Little Frankie, the child prodigy, forever, and I think I preferred facing defeat by heroin to facing whether I could really cut the mustard. Then I ended up falling in love with my drug habit.” He shook off the habit and wrote finis to his prison career. In 1985, he found himself in a recording studio. It didn’t take long for the first album of the new Morgan era to become a success. He’s been going strong ever since.
Morgan recovered from a stroke in 1998 and continued his career. Late last month, his doctors discovered that he had colon cancer. It was inoperable. He moved out of a hospital and spent his last days at home. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he knew that he was dying and said to his manager, “Ain’t it great to be alive?”