Frank Morgan, 73; Noted Jazz Saxophonist

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Frank Morgan, 73, a jazz saxophonist of impeccable ability, whose claim to the mantle of the celebrated Charlie Parker was clouded by his heroin addiction, died Dec. 14 at his home in Minneapolis. He had colon cancer and kidney failure.

Mr. Morgan, whose father was a guitarist with the vocal group the Ink Spots, was considered in his teens a promising interpreter of hard bop, a swing style of lightning pace.

Despite a 30-year absence from performing caused by addiction, he was remembered as someone who could bring emotion to the frantic sound in a way few had mastered since Parker. Parker, one of the great geniuses of saxophone, died from his drug abuse at 34 in 1955.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said of Mr. Morgan's playing: "What comes out of his horn is soulful, full of fire and timeless."

In 1955, Mr. Morgan debuted as a solo artist with a beautifully made hard bop collection, but for the next three decades he was sidelined by a $1,000-a-day heroin addiction and his arrests. He served prison terms in California penitentiaries and formed a small ensemble at San Quentin prison in the 1960s with another addict and sax player, Art Pepper.

He recalled that the band was so exceptional that it played on Saturday nights for the "warden's tour," in which visitors paid to see the prison. Mr. Morgan said the band's renown won him a fan base in jail as well as unlimited access to cocaine and marijuana as well as "cigarettes, candy, hair grease and a line of credit."

He credited a conversion to Islam during the end of what he called his "prison career" as a turning point for the better as well as an acclaimed series of performances at New York's Village Vanguard jazz club in 1986. A year earlier, he cut his second album, "Easy Living," in what he described as a tense experience that lasted days in a windowless studio.

People magazine reported that Mr. Morgan cursed uncontrollably at producer Orrin Keepnews. "I felt like I was back in jail, you dig?" Mr. Morgan told the magazine. "Orrin probably wasn't even conscious of it, but having him pace back and forth and stand over me reminded me of the gun-rail guards in prison."

The resulting album won praise. Music critic Robert Palmer, writing in the New York Times, called "Easy Living" -- featuring pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Tony Dumas and drummer Billy Higgins -- "one of the year's great surprises and musical delights."

With a bebop revival underway in jazz, Mr. Morgan made the most of his second chance. He said he was able to wean himself off drugs through methadone, which he continued to take. He maintained a rigorous recording and touring schedule, even after a stroke in 1998. He credited his wife at the time, painter Rosalinda Kolb, with helping him.

He was leader on more than a dozen albums. Among those he played with were Marsalis, pianists McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones, guitarist Kenny Burrell and singer Abbey Lincoln.

Frank Morgan was born Dec. 23, 1933, in Minneapolis. He was raised by his paternal grandmother in Milwaukee.


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