Friday, July 10, 2015

Sidewinder 77: Praising Lee

It's Friday and I am back with a birthday tribute to one of my all-time favorite musicians ever.
The sad story of his life should be made into a Hollywood biopic. It has it all: unparalleled talent and potential, triumph, innovation, tragedy, despair, drugs, redemption and untimely, violent death. That he is but a footnote to the history of American music, barely thought of today, drives me to write this post and make my feeble attempt at disclosing how much he means to me.
There will never be another Lee Morgan. That he only lived to be 33 years old, and in his short time experienced so much agony and trouble, does not diminish his impact and influence, particularly among other musicians. His story should serve as a cautionary tale-among-tales to anyone thinking there is any refuge in hard drugs.
He burst upon the scene almost fully formed, a protege of the legendary (and also gone too soon) Clifford Brown, hired at age 18 by Dizzy Gillespie... then (along with Miles Davis) the pre-eminent practitioner of the trumpet. When finances forced Diz to disband his orchestra and return to smaller ensembles, Lee started making his own records for the Blue Note label he would come to almost singlehandedly save from bankruptcy. In the process, he helped to popularize a precursor to the music that rules every corner of the world today. All on the strength of one song, that wasn't even supposed to be on the record in the first place.
See, what we know and love and call "funk" today wasn't always a staple of popular music. At one time, it didn't even exist outside of the New Orleans "second line" revelers at Mardi Gras. That all started to change at the end of 1963, all because Lee needed one more track to fill out the comeback LP he was recording.
He likely never would have had to come back, had he not met Art Blakey and joined the Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s. Ol' Art might have been a great drummer, but the man was a dirty rotten devil in disguise, having introduced several of his sidemen to heroin as a mechanism of controlling them. He promised Lee he'd have him "turned on" by the time he was two weeks in the band, and he was worse than right. His trumpeter took to the drug like a duck to a dinner plate, and it haunted him for the rest of his brief life.
Of course, it wasn't just Art's fault... he was a lifelong junkie too, albeit a "functional" one. The broader blame lies with the wretched, shallow trench called The Music Business. Back in the day it wasn't the thieving technodweebs of Spotify and Apple Music destroying the artists; it was the racist club-owners and label honchos, who in many cases paid the players in drugs. Lee -- barely in his twenties -- was cast into a labyrinth of lowlifes and was never able to completely extricate himself from its web.
When he returned from rehab (with a fridge full of Methadone) to New York City in 1963, having left The Messengers a couple of years previous, he set about recording the album and the song that would come to define both him and a whole new style of music, called Boogaloo. An antecedent of the deep Funk sounds that would, by the time 10 years had passed, take over the world, this style found its apotheosis in a throwaway track Lee scribbled out on a roll of toilet paper in the studio when he needed one more number to fill out the record. It was called The Sidewinder, and it changed the world in ways that still resonate to this day, 43 years after he left us.
The Sidewinder was a first, all right. It raced up the pop charts -- heck, all the charts: Jazz, R&B, you name it -- throughout 1964 on the strength of its unauthorized use in the Chrysler ads that had aired during the previous autumn's World Series telecasts. 
Lee, or anyone at Blue Note for that matter, were never asked by the carmaker for permission, hence it became one of the first modern examples -- perhaps the very first -- to precipitate a lawsuit for copyright infringement in a TV commercial. Nowadays, every corporation has 22 lawyers on call 24 hours a day to make sure no such litigation ever becomes necessary, and Lee jumping out of his chair watching the auto moguls make off with his song is one reason why. It was by no means the end of his activism on behalf of musicians and composers.
He, and several other heavyweights including (most worthy future blog post) Rahsaan Roland Kirk, once interrupted a live taping of The Merv Griffin Show in 1970 by walking onstage banging on percussion instruments, demanding that network TV give airtime on their talk and variety programming to Jazz music, which was then on the serious decline that has ended with its sad status, today, as the least popular genre of all in the country of its origin. Had he not battled heroin addiction for much of his time, there is simply no telling what he would have accomplished, both musically and in terms of the social activism in which he became involved toward the end of his days.
But back to 1963 and The Sidewinder. You could make the argument that the song Lee tossed off in the studio is the Ground Zero of Funk... the track that demonstrated exactly how popular and profitable music built upon the various New Orleans dance rhythms could be. Once that song hit, everyone started to get in on the act. The story goes that James Brown saw Lou Donaldson's band play in 1965 -- Lou being another Blue Note stalwart who'd jumped with both feet onto the bandwagon The Sidewinder had started, taking it even deeper into the pocket with the assistance of drum deity Leo Morris (Idris Muhammad to you) -- and decided then and there it was time to unleash the Cold Sweat-inducing, head-bobbing ultra-funk he had in mind upon the world. And the rest is history, as they say.
Lee Morgan, forced as he was to lead off almost every record after that first foray into funk with a track designed by the label to duplicate the success of the slithering Sidewinder, resisted the profit play of the easy cash-in even though it would likely have made him a very rich man. Towards the end of his life, he began to integrate electronics and dance rhythms back into his music, but only in his own, iconoclastic way. 
After he died, some of the musicians with whom he surrounded himself -- from Headhunters reedsman Bennie Maupin to flautist Bobbi Humphrey (the first female artist ever signed to Blue Note) -- carried on in his wake in pursuit of The One. But the most singular element of his tragedy, to me, is what he would have gone on to do -- in the aftermath of the advent of the fusion he helped to inadvertently invent -- after his last record in 1972, finished just days before he was killed by the woman who had rehabilitated him back to the bandstand in the mid-Sixties only to shoot him dead between sets at a club date in NYC when he drifted from her imperious control.
Forgive the length of this scattershot screed, but I feel it necessary to presage today's share with at least some of the story of this most extraordinary musician. Maybe someday his life will be made into the film he so richly deserves. Until then, it might all seem like water under a leaky bridge, but I have always felt compelled to tell the tale of the pioneers who got scalped, so to say... that's one reason I have this page in the first place, you know? So please accept this mammoth concert -- recorded for French radio in 1961, towards the end of Lee's time with Blakey, and issued over 20 years ago as part of the flood of gray-area releases that came out on fly-by-night labels when the European copyright laws lapsed in the early 1990s (and meticulously remastered by me all day yesterday) -- as but a small token of the esteem in which I hold the music and legacy of the man who is, for me, the Jimi Hendrix of Jazz: the most magnificent Edward Lee Morgan.
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
Paris, France
EN pre-FM remaster

01 The Summit
02 Yama
03 Close Your Eyes
04 Dat Dere
05 'Round About Midnight
06 So Tired
07 My Funny Valentine

01 It's Only a Paper Moon
02 Noise In the Attic
03 Moanin'
04 I Didn't Know What Time It Was
05 Blues March
06 A Night In Tunisia

Total time: 2:29:39

Wayne Shorter - tenor saxophone
Lee Morgan - trumpet
Bobby Timmons - piano
Jymie Merritt - bass
Art Blakey - drums

1992 Trema Records CDs, out of print since forever, remastered by me
I apologize that these words are so rambling and inarticulate; it's impossible to tell Lee's story in any kind of truthful, unsugarcoated way and not have to be typing through these tears hitting the keyboard right now. Do yourself a favor and honor him today -- first by pulling down this barn-burner of a concert in which the front line of Lee, living musical monument Wayne Shorter (now, perhaps, the greatest living Jazz composer), and Bobby Timmons (yet another casualty that Art Blakey found it necessary to "turn on") destroy the Paris Olympia with chorus after chorus of blazing, chops-defying solos -- and then purchasing the man's albums like The Rumproller, Search for the New Land (my personal all-time favorite Jazz composition), and of course the mighty Sidewinder that kind of started it all. Lee Morgan -- an almost-forgotten hero born this day in 1938 and gone way too soon from our midst -- merits every iota of your undivided attention.--J.
7.10.1938 - 2.19.1972

1 comment: