Lee Morgan was one of hard bop’s greatest trumpeters, and indeed one of the finest of the ’60s. An all-around master of his instrument modeled after Clifford Brown, Morgan boasted an effortless, virtuosic technique and a full, supple, muscular tone that was just as powerful in the high register. His playing was always emotionally charged, regardless of the specific mood: cocky and exuberant on up-tempo groovers, blistering on bop-oriented technical showcases, sweet and sensitive on ballads.
In his early days as a teen prodigy, Morgan was a busy soloist with a taste for long, graceful lines, and honed his personal style while serving an apprenticeship in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. As his original compositions began to take in elements of blues and R&B, he made greater use of space and developed an infectiously funky rhythmic sense.
Extroverted works such as “The Sidewinder” emphasized the blues side of Morgan’s playing and songwriting. His attack was aggressive; half-valved, slurred, and stuttered notes lent expressive character to his lines. Emotional complexities, from exuberance to dark moods, were typical of his improvising, as evidenced by his melodic intricacy and great rhythmic poise. A prolific composer, he was fond of using half-modal, half-chord-based harmonic structures, flatted-fifth voicings, minor keys, and elaborate rhythmic settings.
Morgan recorded prolifically, producing such works as Search For the New Land which reached the top 20 of the R&B charts. His work became increasingly more modal and free bop towards the end of the sixties, but remaining grounded in tradition. He had begun to lead his own group, featuring Bennie Maupin as a multi-reedist.
He became more politically involved in the last two years of his life, becoming one of the leaders of the Jazz and People’s Movement. The group demonstrated during the taping of talk and variety shows during 1970-71 to protest the lack of jazz artists as guest performers and members of the programs’ bands.
Lee Morgan was murdered by his common-law wife, Helen More, with whom he was breaking up, following an argument between sets at Slug’s, a popular New York City jazz club. Despite his extensive recorded legacy, Morgan was only 33 years old. Many of his unreleased Blue Note sessions began to appear in the early ’80s, and his critical standing has hardly diminished a whit.