Frank Morgan, Betty Buckley & Kenny Werner
January 1, 1970Been wondering what became of your newsletter the past couple of week? Believe it or not, there were technical difficulties of different types two weekends in the row. Last weekend's problem apparently had something to do with the company hosting the website upgrading its system. Most of the other websites experienced no such difficulties, but mine somehow turned up a problem that couldn't be fixed until President's Day was past. The other problem seemed to be on the host's end as well. In any case, the problems are now fixed, so here is the newsletter of February 11. That of February 18 will follow right afterward.
It wasn't my idea to use the word "despondent" in the Frank Morgan story, by the way. That was some editor's doing, and I wish he or she had left well enough alone. "Despondent" is too strong a word for Parker's reaction, which Morgan has told at least one previous writer was to shoot up some heroin from Morgan's stash — presumably after he had finished crying. The sentence as I turned it in read: "But Parker wasn't happy," which fits the circumstances better.
My barber was shocked when I told him what had happened (I got my hair cut the same day the story came out, so my irritation about the switch was still fresh enough to gripe about). It hadn't occurred to him that the words that appeared underneath a writer's byline weren't always the writer's own. But it happens with some regularity, and when an editor substitutes words unwisely it can make a writer ... well, maybe not despondent, but certainly unhappy.
Mind you, most readers would fly right past the word despondent without sensing anything is amiss. See if it bothers you when you come upon it below, now that I've pointed it out.
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A long road back to the sax
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | February 10, 2006
Thomas Wolfe famously titled his final novel "You Can't Go Home Again." Frank Morgan, who'll perform with a quartet at Scullers on Wednesday, would beg to differ.
Last October, the great alto saxophonist returned to live with family in his birthplace of Minneapolis, nearly seven decades after moving away. It was merely the latest chapter in one of jazz's most intriguing life stories.
Morgan, 72, visited the city twice shortly before relocating there, first to be with his 88-year-old mother, Geraldine, just before she died, and then to perform at her memorial service.
"I discovered I had a huge family that I didn't even know," says Morgan by phone from the house he now shares with a cousin and the cousin's wife. Morgan has the house to himself all day to practice while the others are at work, and the cousin's financial-consultant wife has straightened out the haphazard bookkeeping that kept putting Morgan in hot water with the IRS. Morgan is delighted with how well things have worked out.
"I guess we all want that, to be accepted by our families," he says. "And with my back ground, I wasn't sure how it would go. It's been a beautiful experience. It's taught me a lot about life, and it continues to every day."
Morgan's background includes a three-decade gap between recordings, much of it spent in California prisons for crimes committed to support an addiction to heroin. Forgery and burglary were his specialties.
"I became almost, well, I can't say an 'expert' criminal, because I ended up in jail a lot," Morgan says with a rueful laugh. "But I really made a lot of money in crime. I guess I made up my mind that 'If I'm going to be a junkie, I'm going to be a good one. Whatever I have to do to make the money to get it, I'm always going to be able to have as much as I want.' And that cost me. It practically cost me my life, but it certainly cost me many, many years of my life."
Morgan took his first shot of heroin at age 17, following in the footsteps of his hero Charlie Parker. "I thought he'd be happy" about it, says Morgan. But Parker was despondent.
"He cried when he found out I was using," recalls Morgan. "He said, 'That's the last thing in the world I want. Your common sense should have seen how it was treating me.'"
Morgan had met Parker at age 7, when his guitarist father, Stanley Morgan, took him to see Parker play with the Jay McShann Orchestra. His father had been teaching him guitar since age 2, but that changed forever when Morgan saw Parker blow his horn.
"My father said that the first time Bird stood up and took a solo, I turned to him and said, 'Hey, Dad, that's it for the guitar,'" says Morgan. "'That's what I want to play.'"
Parker sent two musician friends around the next day to help Morgan select his first horn a clarinet, which Parker insisted a young player should start with before graduating to saxophone. But by his mid-teens Morgan had moved to Los Angeles and was backing Billie Holiday and others on alto sax. His first album, "Frank Morgan," came out in 1955, when he was 22. And then, as far as the record-buying public was concerned, a long silence.
Morgan didn't leave jail for good until 1985. The next year, he made the first trip of his life to New York to perform at the Village Vanguard, and over the next few years his extraordinary story drew unusual attention from mainstream media: short profiles in Newsweek and Time, appearances on the "Today Show."
Two decades on, the buzz about Morgan's comeback has faded. But he is playing his alto saxophone better than ever this after overcoming a 1998 stroke that doctors feared would be insurmountable.
"He's playing stronger with more of a commitment," says Berklee percussion professor Yoron Israel, who played drums behind Morgan last summer in Marblehead and will do so again Wednesday, joined by Alan Palmer on piano and Essiet Essiet on bass. "Prior to that Marblehead performance, I hadn't seen Frank, let alone played with him, for about two years. And that was the thing that I really enjoyed in that performance: that level of commitment that he still has all these years later. His playing has gotten stronger. Every precious second means something."
In November, Morgan recorded his first studio album in several years, collaborating with legendary producer Rudy Van Gelder for the first time. On it, he plays a tune that's taken on added meaning for him in recent years: the theme from "Love Story."
"See, I played it for my father's funeral in Hawaii a number of years ago," Morgan explains. "And I made a recording of it a number of years ago with McCoy Tyner, but kind of swung it. It's a beautiful song, you know."
Morgan's mother thought so. Before she died, she asked that he play it at her memorial as well.
"She said when she goes she wanted to have me do 'that same song that you played at your father's funeral,'" Morgan recalls. "So that's kind of become a family thing, I guess.
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Betty Buckley and Kenny Werner
Regattabar, Charles Hotel, One Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-395-7757. 7:30 & 10 p.m. $35.
The eight-day Regattabar Jazz Festival, which kicks off tonight with folk singer Judy Collins, is almost comically misnamed. Collins and fellow headliners Bo Diddley (Friday), Johnny Winter (Sunday), Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul (Wednesday), and the Fabulous Thunderbirds (next Thursday) don't play jazz, for one thing. Nor are they performing in the Regattabar, but rather down the hall in the hotel's Charles Ballroom. The closest thing to jazz at the Regattabar all week, in fact, is the two sets Betty Buckley (rght) and Kenny Werner will perform on Saturday. Buckley herself is a stretch, jazz-wise. She's a Tony Award-winning actress best known for singing "Memory" in the megahit Broadway musical "Cats," and the singing she does in clubs is more in a cabaret vein. Werner, though, is a killer jazz pianist, as anyone lucky enough to catch him mixing it up with George Garzone, Scott Colley, and Antonio Sanchez at the R-bar last month can attest. In 17 years as part-time collaborators, Buckley and Werner have recorded a handful of well-received CDs, including the Grammy-nominated "Stars and the Moon." Last spring they played a six-week run together at the Café Carlyle, but they'll only be in Cambridge for one night.
Sun 2-12 Danny Aiello The Academy Award-nominated actor's 2004 debut disc, "I Just Wanted to Hear the Words," hit No. 4 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz chart. He'll make his Boston club debut Sunday backed by a swinging eight-piece band. Scullers, Doubletree Guest Suites Boston, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston. 617-562-4111. 4 & 7 p.m. $35, $75 with dinner.