Doug Moe: A sweet man who made smooth jazz

2012-12-23T08:15:00Z 2012-12-23T08:20:35Z Doug Moe: A sweet man who made smooth jazzDOUG MOE | Wisconsin State Journal | dmoe@madison.com | 608-252-6446 madison.com

Last June there appeared in The New York Times a fascinating story about the crime novelist Michael Connelly and a documentary film he is trying to make on a brilliant but haunted jazz saxophone player named Frank Morgan.

Fans of Connelly — myself among them — know that Harry Bosch, his fictional Los Angeles police detective, likes jazz.

I couldn't immediately place the name Frank Morgan, although according to the Times, he is Bosch's (Connelly's) favorite jazz artist. The author and his creation are particularly moved by Morgan's performance of "Lullaby."

"The song wasn't even a minute and a half long," Bosch observes in one of the novels, "but to me it said all that ever needed to be said about being alone in the world."

Connelly told the Times he played "Lullaby" every morning before sitting down to write his first Bosch novel two decades ago.

A day or two after the Times article appeared in June, I was with Ben Sidran, Madison's own jazz legend. I mentioned the story. Had Ben seen it? What might he know of Frank Morgan?

As it turned out, Ben knew plenty. Morgan — who died in 2007 — had a significant Wisconsin connection. He grew up in Milwaukee. Years later, when he got out of prison — he was done in by a heroin addiction — Morgan moved back to Milwaukee. Sidran brought him to Madison to play gigs. Morgan performed on Ben's album "Mr. P's Shuffle."

There was more, but we were at a dinner party, and the conversation shifted. I made a note to follow up.

Now seems like a good time. Earlier this month, "The Black Box," Connelly's latest Harry Bosch novel, was published. The book moved quickly to the top of the best-seller lists. As for the Morgan documentary — tentatively titled "Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Project" — its Kickstarter page indicates it is now fully funded. Connelly is executive producer.

I spoke again to Sidran recently, the morning of the blizzard. Ben had no trouble remembering the circumstances of his first encounter with Frank Morgan. It wasn't long after Morgan's release from prison in 1985.

"That was a big deal for jazz fans," Sidran said. Morgan's sound was authentic. He was a disciple of Charlie Parker. "He was celebrated when he came back," Sidran said.

Ben himself was in the middle of an acclaimed run hosting the series "Sidran on Record" on National Public Radio. He spoke to many jazz greats. They were conversations more than interviews. Still, having tracked Morgan down, he could hardly imagine how their chat would begin.

"During the years I spent in prison," Morgan said, "I used to listen to your radio program all the time. It was a dream of mine to meet you, and now here we are."

Born in Minneapolis, Morgan moved to Milwaukee when he was 6. He lived with a grandmother. The boy's father, Stanley Morgan, was a guitarist with the Ink Spots. He taught his son guitar and occasionally took him on the road. One trip, Easter vacation, they were in Detroit. Stanley took Frank — the boy was 7 — to the Paradise Theater, where he heard Parker.

"I heard the voice that I would like to be," Morgan told Sidran on NPR.

He took up the saxophone, and the family moved to California. There, at 17, Morgan first tried heroin. He made a distinguished first album, but the drugs got him. He spent much of the next three decades in prison. He said later it saved his life — forcing him clean — but, of course, it took a toll, making him question the good fortune that came later.

"I am having difficulty with success," he told Sidran at one point. "I was very good at failure."

They were playing together, Morgan having moved back to Milwaukee in the early 1990s. They played at Mr. P's in Madison — joined by Ben's son, Leo, on drums, Leo's first professional gig — and Cafe Montmartre. One time Richard Davis sat in with them on the Union Terrace.

"He was looking for some roots here," Ben said, but it wasn't to be. The music department at UW-Madison wasn't interested. Morgan left Wisconsin again.

"He was a very serious musician," Sidran said. "Focused. Passionate. He didn't cut Leo any slack. He told him when to play brushes, when to play sticks. That's how you learn."

The documentary should introduce more people to the musician Sidran remembers as "a sweet and vulnerable man." Here's to Michael Connelly for making it happen. Here's to Harry Bosch, and, of course, Frank Morgan.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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