Lee Morgan’s Jam Session Turned Powerhouse Album

On the Trumpeter’s Underrated ‘Take Twelve’

On August 26th 2021 » By Ashawnta Jackson

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It’s late 1961, and Lee Morgan is a man without. He’d lost his place to live; his wife, Kiko, whom he’d married just a year earlier, had left him; and, desperate for drug money, he’d sold his trumpet. There was a silence in his life. But silences always find a way to get filled, and maybe this is a story about that. Maybe this whole album, 1962’s Take Twelve, is a story about filling silences, about figuring out sounds, about figuring out how to begin again.

By the summer of 1961, Morgan had been kicked out of his gig with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. It wasn’t his first experience with the group. Morgan had first played with Blakey in an earlier iteration in 1956. It was just a temporary thing this time around — he and his friend, bassist Jimmy “Spanky” DeBrest, were asked to join when Blakey had dates in Morgan’s hometown of Philadelphia. The invite didn’t come out of the blue. Morgan, then just eighteen years old, was already becoming a known player in the city’s jazz scene. His sister Ernestine, a musician and music-lover herself, bought Morgan a trumpet when he was 14.

He immersed himself in the music. How could he not? Maybe it gets lost in the conversations of the great jazz centers, but make no mistake, Philadelphia could and should be mentioned in any conversation about the great American jazz cities. The city was home — either by birth or by choice — to John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra, Nina Simone, Clifford Brown, the Heath Brothers and Shirley Scott, among so many others. And in Morgan’s time, the city couldn’t have been better. It was filled with clubs and performance spaces, and Ernestine filled his mind and ears with all of it when she brought him along to hear some of the greats like Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.

Morgan started his own band when he was 15. “Lee was like a child prodigy,” recalled bassist and Morgan’s childhood friend Reggie Workman in an interview with David H. Rosenthal in Rosenthal’s book Hard Bop. But it wasn’t just natural ability, he continued. “Lee worked very hard at his craft and understood the oral tradition of jazz.” That work included going across town to the nearly all-white Jules E. Mastbaum Vocational High School in the city’s northeast Fish Town neighborhood rather than his neighborhood school because of Mastbaum’s notable music program. As Jeffery S. McMillan wrote in an article about Morgan’s early life, “Black students were so uncommon within the student body that the only African American that [fellow student Mike] LaVoe remembered were four students in the band.”

Morgan travelled across town each day, to an unfamiliar neighborhood, full of unfamiliar people because his mind had been made up — it was music or nothing. After school, he’d put in even more work, taking the stage at clubs and performance venues across the city. By the time Blakey tapped him, he’d already led bands on sessions for Blue Note and Savoy, and the following year, he would join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. After the untimely death of trumpeter and Blakey bandmate Clifford Brown in a car crash in early 1956, Morgan was seen as the heir-apparent and became an in-demand player. “He had a little Clifford,” trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who’d replace Morgan in the Messengers in 1961, explained in Alan Goldsher’s book Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. “He had a little of everything, but he had his own little style. […] He was really incredible.” And even if his style wasn’t reminiscent of Brown’s, there was just something about Morgan that everyone could just plain feel. It might have been his confidence. Hubbard also called him a “cocky little guy,” after all. But it’s probably more like what pianist Horace Silver wrote in his autobiography about hearing a teenage Morgan playing with Dizzy in New York: “He was about 18 years old and playin’ his ass off.” The kid could play, and everyone knew it, including Morgan. In an interview in the 2016 documentary I Called Him Morgan, bassist Paul West put it simply, “No question about it. He knew that he was talented.” Morgan put it this way in a January 1961 DownBeat interview: “I’m an extrovert person … and hard bop is played by bands of extrovert people.”

But that was then.

By late 1961 even his talent couldn’t save him. He had been replaced as musical director of the Jazz Messengers by Wayne Shorter, and was turning up late or not at all to rehearsals and gigs. Morgan, who had once been a steady and reliable composer, was now struggling to create. “He could write hits,” Hubbard said, and, yeah, he could. Not only do the years before serve as proof, but in the years to come, he’d have certified pop hits. His wife was proud of his work ethic, writing in a 1960 article that “Lee is doing more composing now. In later years, he may or may not do this exclusively. But I don’t think so because he’s a performer first, an entertainer who personally likes to give to the audience the fruits of his work.” His work from the time gives her statement some weight. In his book Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan, McMillan points out that Morgan wrote five compositions, all of which were recorded the same year as his article, and released three albums as leader, with another four as a side player. It’s not that he wasn’t doing the work, it’s just that his addiction trailed him every step of the way.

There’s a host of books, papers, anecdotes and a hell of a lot of lived experience dealing with jazz musicians and addiction. It almost feels like addiction is another part of jazz’s story. The names, the dates. Too young. Too soon. Like ghosts that haunt the music. In his book, Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs, Martin Torgoff writes, “More than anything, dope was a whole way of life, like living in a world of your own construction, inside a walled city with those of your own kind, where you could make up your own language, create your own set of rules.” Jazz consistently, boldly, bravely rewrote the rules note by note. But life under those rules was, for all of its freedom, painful in its own way. And yet, so many played by them. As Torgoff notes, “Jazz historian James Lincoln Collier estimates that as many as 75 percent of jazz musicians used heroin during the Forties and Fifties.” Morgan wasn’t able to escape that.

His struggles with addiction took him to a point where, desperate for some stability, Kiko turned to Morgan’s family for help. The couple moved back to Philadelphia to live with his sister Ernestine. They were kicked out soon after his brother-in-law discovered Morgan was still using. They then moved to Morgan’s parents’ house. Morgan wasn’t getting clean; it wasn’t about that. He was in too deep at that point. As McMillan writes, he “fed his habit with money he either stole or got from pawning whatever he had left of value.” It was a dark time for Morgan, but a little light was coming in the form of a contract for Jazzland Records. But when you’re trapped in the dark, a lot of things can look like light.

Morgan was fairly aimless after being kicked out of the Messengers. He’d tried to keep up the pace of his former life, his former glory. But even a week-long local club date proved to be too much for him. Rumors were swirling around the local press that he was set to join the army in a desperate, last-ditch effort to kick his drug habit. What he got instead was an offer from Riverside Records — a deal to record two records that would be released on the label’s Jazzland subsidiary.

“With everything that happened in Morgan’s life in the period ‘Take Twelve’ was created, it is, in so many ways a wondrous, miraculous thing, and here it is, once again saved from ‘the where ever.’ The fact that it’s not only here, but good? It’s almost like a defiant act, and evidence of an artist who, despite his illness, despite his losses, was still able to create an album that spoke to the ever-changing jazz scene of the time.”

Riverside knew what they were getting — a heroin-addicted trumpet player, who’d sold his trumpet and hadn’t really played in over six months. But it’s not like Morgan’s story was a new one for the company. Orrin Keepnews, the head of the label, knew that Morgan was like a lot of players before him. “There were those for whom the most amazing thing got to be how such a creative artist was able to maintain such an unquestionably high level of performance despite a pretty overwhelming drug problem,” he told Torgoff in an interview. He also knew that making a deal with someone who was as unpredictable as Lee Morgan in 1961 was, in some ways, contributing to his habit. “I was always having to balance emotions and practicalities, between my compassion for them as people and the hard requirements of running a business. And there was always the question of whether I was doing them any fucking favor by giving them any money for dope in the first place. […] It became a pretty consistent part of my life.”

But Morgan knew what he was getting, too: a chance to come back to the thing he’d loved nearly his entire life. His Jazzland experience was going to be a little different though. As Richard Cook writes in his biography of Blue Note, one of Morgan’s previous labels, “[Blue Note] offered musicians paid rehearsal time, sometimes for a couple of days, to ensure that any sloppiness — particularly on any ambitious and original music — was going to be ironed out before the players got to the date.” There wasn’t going to be any such luxury at Jazzland; he was going to have to come prepared to play. Morgan, like all of the other Jazzland artists, got one day — total — to make a record. Morgan was ready. He borrowed a horn, he composed on his sister’s piano, and he assembled a band — Clifford Jordan, pianist Barry Harris, drummer Louis Hayes and Bob Cranshaw on bass. Just one day to bring himself back, one day to reclaim, to return. And he did it.

It’s easy to lose the significance of this album when looking at the Morgan’s catalog as a whole. Take Twelve came just two years before The Sidewinder, a record that would not only cement Morgan’s place in jazz history, but further propel jazz into pop music territory. But let’s not talk about what came before or after; history has already sorted that out. Let’s talk about what happened in that Jazzland studio in New York on January 24, 1962. Let’s talk about how a man without became, once more, a man with everything to give.

Take Twelve sounds like an announcement: I’m back. There’s no hesitancy, no unsure moves, no doubt. But from the first notes of the opening track, the propulsive Morgan-composed “Raggedy Ann,” it’s clear that the magic, the spark, the thing that made him so special never went away. It’s urgent, driving, never letting up. When the beat slightly relaxes about two minutes in, it’s not so much an easing, it’s the feeling that you’ve been holding your breath, exhaling at last. Is it in the knowing? Knowing all that it took to record these notes? Maybe.

Reviewers at the time didn’t have the luxury of history to look back on when they first heard the record. While praising Morgan for his maturity (Morgan was 24 at the time), in 1962 a DownBeat reviewer wrote that “the promise of what he may become overshadows the music itself, leaving the listener with the uncomfortable feeling of having been unrewarded for his efforts.” While it may be true that some of Morgan’s greatest work came from his time with the Jazz Messengers, there’s nothing unfulfilled about this album. It’s painful to think about future promises when everything in this record is so clearly the here and now. Morgan was a man in need, and it sounds like it. The ballad, “A Waltz for Fran,” is a soft and contemplative piece. And because here we are, nearly 50 years removed from it, knowing all we do, there is something sad and aching about it. “Lee-Sure Time,” another Morgan composition, has the makings of the sound that would become so familiar on his later albums. It’s almost like a conversation between trumpet and sax, Morgan and Jordan. One speaks, then the other, before the notes tumble into each other. “I like to hear a trumpet shout,” Morgan told DownBeat in 1961, and you can hear that shout on the Jordan-composed “Little Spain,” but he stresses that he also “wants to play lines and pick out pretty notes.” There is something that is both intense and softly pretty about the way he plays. Brash and confident. Soft and beautiful. Two sides brought together for the length of an album, for the length of a life.

As for that second Jazzland album? It was likely never recorded, though there is some evidence of new compositions that were planned for it. Jazzland itself was folded back into its parent company in 1962, leaving behind a musical mystery.

Two years later, Morgan would return to Blue Note to record his signature album, The Sidewinder, the one that secured his spot in jazz history. And maybe its shadow would just cast too dark a shade for Take Twelve to be remembered for both its musicianship and everything it took to find its way to us. There’s a line in an Amiri Baraka essay about his circle of friends who carved their lives from the music coursing through New York City. They, he wrote, were special. They were “allowed to hear wonderful, even miraculous, things before they pass into the where ever.” With everything that happened in Morgan’s life in the period Take Twelve was created, it is, in so many ways a wondrous, miraculous thing, and here it is, once again saved from “the where ever.” The fact that it’s not only here, but good? It’s almost like a defiant act, and evidence of an artist who, despite his illness, despite his losses, was still able to create an album that spoke to the ever-changing jazz scene of the time.

It’s a sad footnote, but in that Baraka essay, he writes how so much of what they loved was played from the stage of Slugs, a club in New York’s East Village. It’s a place that hangs heavy in the heart of every Lee Morgan fan; it was the same place he was fatally shot on February 19, 1972. Normally, that would be the final chapter — stories begin and then they end. But this isn’t a story about Lee Morgan’s death, this is a story about his life, and how it carries on in record after beautiful record, daring us to forget it, to forget him. Take Twelve is a reminder that all isn’t lost, all isn’t impossible. For one January day in 1962, despite it all, Lee was Lee again, all extroverted and cocky, commanding and here.

In that same 1961 interview, Morgan talked about his love for Clifford Brown and John Coltrane. He connected their playing styles (“a wealth of ideas and command of their instruments”); it’s loving, but standard, praise. But sometimes the things we see in others are really things we keep within ourselves, pieces of us that we can recognize in other people, pieces that, sometimes, we don’t want to admit live within us. There’s another thought about the pair Morgan shares with the interviewer, one that gives Take Twelve and all of Morgan’s work an extra weight, “I get the impression that the doctor told them, ‘You’ve got to play everything you know today because you won’t get a chance to tomorrow.’”

Ashawnta Jackson

Ashawnta Jackson is a writer and record collector living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared at Bandcamp, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily and Consequence of Sound, among others.

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