As the ’60s came to a close, the revolutionary spirit of the times was so pervasive that it compelled much more from artists, especially in jazz. With many of his studio releases, Morgan regularly sounded like he had far more to say musically that couldn’t quite be captured on record. He not only grew more introspective as a young Black man but into adulthood, Morgan became politically active as one of the leaders of the Jazz and People’s Movement, which called for television networks to hire more Black artists and jazz musicians.
“Live at the Lighthouse” would lend ample room for Morgan’s vision and his burgeoning group’s raw ideas musically. In a year that saw other similarly progressive releases — Ahmad Jamal’s “The Awakening,” Jackie McLean’s “Demon’s Dance,” and Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” — “Lighthouse” not only epitomized the turbulence of those changing times but also allowed Morgan to redefine who he was at what would tragically turn out to be the twilight of his career.
With expansive tracks like “Neophilia” and “Absolutions” (penned by multireedist Bennie Maupin and the late bassist Jymie Merritt, respectively), in their two weeks at the Lighthouse Cafe, together these men would render a work that was both forward-thinking and highly cathartic.
“I just noticed that he was excited about being out in California,” says drummer Jack DeJohnette, who sat in with the group at the Hermosa Beach club on Morgan’s composition “Speedball.” “His plan represented that dose of freedom, being out in California and by the ocean, just being more relaxed and feeling upbeat about the future. He was really in a good mood and thanking Helen [Morgan] for all she’d done to help bring him back. It was a good moment for everyone.”
That moment is collected in full on “The Complete Live at the Lighthouse,” an expansive 12-LP, eight-CD box set released by the iconic Blue Note label. This document of their engagement at the renowned jazz club in Hermosa Beach includes Morgan famously telling his audience that he wouldn’t play any of his older hits or take any requests.
The original album was the final one released during his lifetime, as he died less than two years later in an incident that remains contentious. Though a bittersweet final recording, these performances show that at this point in his life, Morgan was most definitely still looking ahead.
Already performing professionally on the weekends by the age of 15, Morgan was co-leading his own group with bassist Spanky DeBrest, and they soon got the opportunity to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers during one of the group’s stops in Philadelphia. Later, Dizzy Gillespie hired Morgan to replace Joe Gordon in his big band. While working with Gillespie, he had ample opportunity to shine with several unforgettable solos, notably on “A Night in Tunisia.”
When Clifford Brown, one of Morgan’s chief stylistic influences, died in a car crash at 25, that created an opening to join the group. With the demise of Gillespie’s big band in 1958, Morgan soon rounded out the third iteration of the Messengers, contributing to some of their groundbreaking albums like “Moanin’ ” and “The Freedom Rider.” Several of the Messengers often backed Morgan on his later releases as leader, particularly pianist Bobby Timmons and saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Hank Mobley.
Between 1956 and 1971, his prolific output for Blue Note resulted in 25 albums as leader and nearly twice as many recordings as a sideman and featured player, with Morgan always balancing his early influences and searching for new directions.
“I think the reason that the Blue Note catalogue has been so extraordinarily relevant and enduring is that the artists that have recorded with the label, by and large, have been artists who assimilated all the music that came before them,” says Don Was, president of Blue Note Records.
“[They] understood the foundation on which the music was built, and then had not just the knowledge and the chops, that alone doesn’t do it,” Was continues. “But [also] the large charismatic attitude in the playing that transcends time and transcends fashion, that leaps out so large that it’s timeless and relevant at any point in time. It’s not about technique or notes. It’s about attitude and eloquence and emotion in the ability to touch people.”
His recording of the now-classic “The Sidewinder” in 1963 signaled a turning point for Morgan. After kicking his heroin habit temporarily for the first time, he soon emerged with a 10-minute, driving blues number that he reportedly jotted down on toilet paper during the session.
Featuring bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Barry Harris and then-rising tenor reedist Joe Henderson, the title track combined Morgan’s hard-bop signature sound with elements of funk and blues. “The Sidewinder” not only became his biggest-selling hit, crossing over into the pop charts, but it also was famously used in a Chrysler ad campaign and as theme music for television shows, and made him something akin to Blue Note’s cash cow.
“They were putting him in every combination they could because they thought, ‘Lee is our guy, and he’s going to attract a bigger audience for the label,’ ” says Jeffery McMillan, author of “Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan.” “They had him with a sextet; they had him with a septet. They had him fronting a big band. He’s even recording a soundtrack and organ groove records with Dr. Lonnie Smith and Larry Young — they were trying him in every different combination.”
In a short time, the focus had shifted from an artist who created powerful pieces that spoke to the tumultuous times to being pressured to deliver yet another “Sidewinder”-caliber hit for the label. “He suffered for some time when he recorded so much similar-sounding sessions in the mid-’60s, and many of them were shelved and released several years after they were recorded,” says Kasper Collin, director of “I Called Him Morgan,” a 2016 documentary.
Morgan finally got clean by the late-’60s, with the help of his common-law wife Helen Morgan (nee Moore), and was determined to turn his life and career around with a vision. He soon formed a new band, continued to tour and perform locally, and put together his first-ever West Coast tour as leader. “The one thing [Blue Note] hadn’t done, what Lee really wanted to do, was to document as a live band with an audience in the room,” says McMillan.
Produced by Zev Feldman and trumpeter David Weiss, “The Complete Live at the Lighthouse” reissue contains all 12 sets from the three nights in 1970, recorded by Blue Note between July 10 and July 12.
Morgan’s stellar group featured pianist Harold Mabern, drummer Mickey Roker and bassist Jymie Merritt. Bennie Maupin played tenor saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, and is the last surviving musician from that group.
“We were actually in rehearsal, looking through Horace [Silver’s] music,” Maupin recalls of his first time meeting Morgan. “The door opened from the hallway, and it was Lee Morgan. He walked in smiling, and everybody was really excited that it was him. He told Horace that he just wanted to speak to me for a second, and then right in front of everyone, he asked me if I would do a recording with him. That was how I met him.”
At the end of his tour with Silver, Maupin decided to give Morgan a call on a whim. While talking with him, Morgan told him that George Coleman was getting ready to leave the band and asked Maupin to replace him. “That kind of worked out really great for me because when you’re not working in a band, and you come back to New York, then you kind of have to start all over again in a sense. There was no lag time with that. I was able to start working with Lee [right away] and rehearse with him. He was very open to me bringing my music. I brought something to rehearsal one day, and he liked it. He asked me if I had some more. In all, I ended up recording five of my original pieces [for] ‘The Lighthouse.’ ”
The performances at the Lighthouse unleashed the freedom that Morgan had yearned for, which the group immediately shared and felt. “It was great because first of all, we’re playing my music as well as his music and the music of Jymie Merritt’s,” Maupin continues. “Everybody wrote compositions except for our drummer Mickey Roker. But Mickey made those compositions come to life, so in a sense, he’s like the fifth writer.”
The newly formed group never got to realize its full promise and potential. A little over a year after the initial release of “Lighthouse,” Lee Morgan was shot and killed by Helen Morgan outside of Slugs’ Saloon in Manhattan on Feb. 19, 1972. He was only 33 years old. She served a short time in prison for the killing. The relationship between the two is explored in Collin’s documentary.
Morgan would fight many battles, both personally and professionally, in his lifetime. He experienced a modicum of the success and notoriety that many of his musical successors reap the benefits from today. While his legacy has been primarily shaped by a handful of his early studio releases, Morgan was able to deliver perhaps his most evocative statement as an artist during his final months.
“I found an interesting interview, which was never published, that the brilliant British writer and photographer Val Wilmer made with Lee in the fall of 1971,” Collin says.
“I remember from that interview that he was very happy with this live recording and the following studio album [“The Last Session”] that would become his last album. He was happy that these recordings represented a new phase in his life. When ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ was released by the end of 1970, it actually represented how Lee Morgan sounded in 1970. That is quite an important thing.”