Dick Morgan, who began his professional musical career as a child and spent decades as one of Washington’s leading jazz pianists, died Oct. 20 in hospice care at the Village at Rockville retirement facility. He was 84 and resided in Silver Spring.
He had prostate cancer, his wife, Sylvia Morgan, said.
Since his arrival in Washington in 1960, Mr. Morgan had a long and steady career as a pianist in nightclubs, hotels and concert halls, including Blues Alley and the Kennedy Center. He recorded more than a dozen albums and performed over the years with many top singers and musicians, including Etta Jones, Joe Williams and Keter Betts.
He was known as a versatile, crowd-pleasing pianist who could embellish a large repertoire of tunes with improvised flourishes that reminded many listeners of piano stars Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner.
“Dick showed you that jazz is fun,” David Einhorn, Mr. Morgan’s bass player for 17 years, said Wednesday in an interview. “Dick was a guy who could bring you to tears and make you laugh and make you bounce in your seat, all in one song.”
In the mid-1950s, when Mr. Morgan was working in Norfolk, the trombonist and bandleader Tommy Dorsey invited him to join his group in Las Vegas. The job was cut short when Dorsey died in 1956. During his time in Las Vegas, Mr. Morgan performed at a birthday party for Frank Sinatra, with Sinatra singing along with him.
By the late 1950s, Mr. Morgan had returned to Norfolk, where he often worked with Virginia-born guitarist Charlie Byrd, who helped launch the bossa nova craze of the 1960s. Byrd helped bring Mr. Morgan to Washington, where he was soon leading a trio at the old Showboat Lounge in Adams Morgan.
Saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, then at the height of his fame, was so bowled over by what he heard from Mr. Morgan that he called his record label. Within a week, a recording crew came to Washington to capture Mr. Morgan in a live album, “Dick Morgan at the Showboat” (1960). His drummer on the recording, Bertell Knox, continued to work with Mr. Morgan for more than 50 years.
“I don’t make any claims to be a first-class jazz pianist,” Mr. Morgan told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2007. “I’m somebody that will immediately get immersed in the audience and get them to pay attention. That has carried me through the years. I play for the audiences — I don’t play for me.”
Richard Lewis Morgan was born June 5, 1929, in Petersburg, Va. By the time he was 5, he could play hymns from memory — after his mother had played them just once on the pump organ at his family’s home.
Largely self-taught on piano, Mr. Morgan had his own radio show in Petersburg when he was 10. He learned mostly from older musicians passing through nearby Fort Lee, Va., and had a early encounter with bandleader Duke Ellington, who encouraged his budding career.
Mr. Morgan attended Virginia State University and played in an Army combo in the early 1950s.
He often had extended hotel and club engagements in the Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada and Puerto Rico, but Mr. Morgan became a Washington fixture, with long residences at the Top of the Town in Arlington, Pirate’s Hideaway in Georgetown and, more recently, the Madison Hotel in downtown D.C.
In 1997, a Washington Post critic praised Mr. Morgan’s album “After Hours,” noting that he “taps into the essence of the blues” and “an engagingly blue mood envelops the listener, thanks to his rippling tremolos and leisurely paced turnarounds.”
Mr. Morgan’s final recording, the solo album “Bewitched,” was released in 2010. He gave his last performance in April.
His first marriage, to the former Lois Josephine Fountain, ended in divorce. He was predeceased by a son from an earlier relationship, James Morgan, and a stepson, Roland Everett.
Survivors include his wife of 44 years, Sylvia Everett Morgan of Silver Spring; a daughter from his first marriage, Anita M. Harris-Jones of Norfolk; a stepdaughter, L. Verlon Colwell of Washington; seven grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and five great-great-grandchildren.
When he was approaching 50, Mr. Morgan returned to college at the behest of a friend, comedian Bill Cosby, and graduated in 1979 from the Washington program of Antioch College. He received a law degree from Howard University in 1983 but never pursued a legal career, preferring to stay at the piano.
“He really touched audiences because of how he understood the music and how he could convey what the music was saying,” Steve Abshire, his guitarist for the past 29 years, said Wednesday. “He had a way of communicating the music that went straight to the heart.”