The jazz trumpeter extraordinaire was a prodigy who inherited the musical mantle of Clifford Brown, as well as the latter’s untimely and tragic end. It’s a story of drugs, redemption, jealousy and rage that came to a head next to the stage at New York’s Slugs’ in the Far East nightclub.
by Burt Kearns & Jeff Abraham
February 18, 1972: New York City is in the grip of a brutal snowstorm. A car is racing through the streets, at least trying to, working its way in traffic through Manhattan to Alphabet City, the far East Village neighborhood of abandoned buildings, lowlifes, street dealers, and drug fiends. A jazz trumpeter named Lee Morgan is behind the wheel, aiming for a hole-in-the-wall jazz club called Slugs’ in the Far East that just might be his salvation.
At one time, Lee Morgan was regarded as one of the greatest trumpeters of the 20th century. He was a bebop prodigy out of Philadelphia. At age 15, he was gigging on weekends with his own group while joining Tuesday evening jam sessions at the Music City performance space on Chestnut Street, trading riffs with the likes of Miles Davis and mentored by the undeniably brilliant and influential young trumpeter Clifford Brown.
When Lee Morgan was 17, Clifford Brown left one of those Tuesday night jams and hopped into a car with his drummer Richie Powell for a ride to Chicago and a gig with his Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet. Powell’s wife Nancy was behind the wheel so the two men could get some shuteye. She was barreling through the rain on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when, just west of Bedford around 1:15 AM, the car skidded out of control and crashed. All three were killed.
Clifford Brown was only 25 when he died on June 27, 1956. With his death, everyone on the jazz scene seemed to be seeking the new Clifford Brown. That player turned out to be Lee Morgan, who had even taken some lessons from Brown. When he finished high school, Morgan won a spot in the trumpet section of Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band. He even soloed on Diz’s signature, “Night in Tunisia.” In 1959, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Drummer Blakey showed him how to work a crowd, expanded his musical horizons, and opened his arm to heroin.
Moanin’ – Lee Morgan with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
The junk hit hard, and wound up sidelining the young horn player for two years. In 1963, he began picking up recording dates again. Four days before Christmas, he recorded a long (over ten minutes), bluesy track at Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. “The Sidewinder” was the centerpiece of an album that became the fastest-selling disc in Blue Note Records’ history. Somehow, almost inexplicably, it became a pop hit, too. By January, “The Sidewinder” was number 35 on the Billboard chart. Some Madison Avenue hipster used it on a Chrysler commercial that ran during the 1964 World Series. The song was also used on television shows. Record companies kept pushing the new trumpet star back into the studio after that, hoping for a “Sidewinder” sequel — in vain. Or, we should say, in vein. Lee Morgan shot up most of his money and even hocked his horn.
When he met Helen More in 1967, Morgan had been sleeping in bars and even outside on the curb, often stealing to support his habit. Helen More was a hard-luck angel from North Carolina — or at least she seemed to be. She lived on West 53rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, around the corner from what was left of the jazz club strip on West 52nd Street. She met many of the musicians in after-hours joints and invited them all to her apartment to hang. “Helen’s Place” was known as a haven where jazzmen could chill and get a good meal. No drugs allowed.
When Lee Morgan showed up, “I looked at him and he didn’t have a coat,” Helen recalled. “I asked him why didn’t he have a coat. He just had a jacket. I said, ‘Child, it’s zero degrees out there and all you have on is a jacket. Where is your coat?’ And he told me he didn’t have a coat ’cause it was in the pawn shop. He had pawned his coat for some drugs.”
When she asked about his axe, he replied that his trumpet was in the pawn shop as well. She replied, “How is a carpenter going work without tools?” Helen More felt sorry for Lee Morgan. She went and got his trumpet and coat out of hock. After that, she said, Lee Morgan “hung on to me.”
Helen helped Lee Morgan regain not only his horn but his health. She got him into an outpatient drug treatment center and the two of them set up house on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Helen took over Morgan’s career, and kept a close eye on him, making sure he stayed on the straight and narrow. She became his manager. She also became his lover. Though they never married, she began calling herself Helen Morgan. She was thirteen years older than he.
By the 1970s, Lee Morgan’s musical style had evolved from the hard bebop of his early years to more dark, contemplative sounds. He was active politically in the Black Power and artists’ rights movements. He was among the jazz musicians who disrupted The Merv Griffin Show and other television tapings, marching onstage blowing horns and whistles, demanding more television time for black musicians.
At this point, Morgan had traded heroin for methadone. The opioid, taken by mouth not needle, eased him off the horse, lessening the withdrawal pain and blocking the high. Sometimes it caused him to nod off on the bandstand, so he was also snorting and shooting cocaine and, to be real, probably chipping a bit of heroin here and there. There were fights with Helen. She didn’t approve of the coke. He’d stand up to her, defiant with the confidence she helped build. The fights were public, and loud. She stopped coming to his shows.
He moved in with another woman. Helen responded by swallowing poison. She survived. Lee Morgan went back and forth between the two women. Helen booked his final week at Slugs’ in the Far East, and Lee Morgan was determined to make it to Slugs’ that Friday night. As he wound his way downtown and worked his car closer to the East Village, he rounded a corner, saw open road, hit the gas, and lost control on a patch of ice. The car jumped the curb and crashed.
“Goddamn it!” Morgan reached over and grabbed his horn, left the wrecked car steaming on the sidewalk, and started walking, past the trash can fires, sniffling junkies and strung-out hookers on the way down Avenue B, turning left on East 3rd Street to number 242.
Slugs’ in the Far East had been called “Slugs’ Saloon” when it opened in 1964, but changed its name to reflect its far-East Village location because New York City regulations prohibited the use of the word “saloon.” The joint was longer than it was wide, with a bar stretched along the left side and a stage at the back. It had been a hangout for the street dealers before it began attracting the jazz crowd. Avant-garde jazz artist Sun Ra and his Arkestra had a regular Monday night residence from March 1966 through late 1967, and continued to appear there, along with free jazz musicians like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. The official capacity was probably around 75, though the place often heaved with twice that number.
When Lee Morgan opened the door and entered along with a gust of wind and snow, he was shaken. “Man, I almost died,” he told sax man Billy Harper, who’d arrived earlier. “We were making this turn and the car slid, and I thought we were gonna die.”
“Well, you’re here,” Harper replied.
Talk turned to Clifford Brown, who was killed in that car wreck on a rainy Pennsylvania Turnpike back in the summer of ’56.
Morgan and his quintet went on stage for the Friday night show. They finished their second set around 2 AM Saturday with a tune called “Angela,” dedicated to activist Angela Davis. At around 2:15, Morgan’s girlfriend was there, and he and the cats in the band were again talking about Clifford Brown, when Morgan noticed that Helen was in the place. Morgan and his quintet had performed all week at Slugs’, and this was the first time she’d shown up.
Morgan walked with her to the bar and they argued. Helen said she knew the “other woman” was in the room, and made what witnesses called “the usual threats that women make in a situation like that.” Ultimately, she struck him.
Much later, journalist Larry Reni Thomas got Helen’s side of the story for his book, The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan (in recordings later used in the 2016 Swedish-American documentary I Called Him Morgan):
“We was talking and the girl walked up and she said, ‘I thought you wasn’t supposed to be with her anymore.’ And he said, ‘I’m not with this bitch, I’m just telling her to leave me alone.’ And about that time I hit him. And when I hit him, I didn’t have on my coat or nothing but I had my bag. He threw me out the club. Wintertime. And the gun fell out the bag. And I looked at it. I got up. I went to the door.
“I guess he had told the bouncer that I couldn’t come back in. The bouncer said to me, ‘Miss Morgan, I hate to tell you this, but Lee don’t want me to let you in.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m coming in!’ I guess the bouncer saw the gun because I had the gun in my hand. He said, ‘Yes, you are.’”
Four-fifths of the quintet were already on stage and Lee Morgan was just stepping up to join them when he heard Helen call his name.
He turned around. She fired one shot from a silver-plated .32 caliber pistol.
The bullet pierced Lee Morgan’s heart.
The only person who seemed more surprised than Lee was Helen herself. She fainted.
When Helen was revived, Lee Morgan was on the sawdust floor, bleeding out with each beat of his heart, but still alive. She recalled running to him and saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Helen, I know you didn’t mean to do this. I’m sorry too,” she said he replied.
Lee Morgan’s life may have been saved if not for the snowstorm and difficult driving conditions. It took a long time for police and an ambulance to arrive to take him to Bellevue Hospital. Lee Morgan bled to death on the floor of Slugs’ in the Far East on February 19, 1972. He was 33.
Helen More was arrested, pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter and spent some time in prison before being released on parole. She returned to North Carolina and died there from a heart condition in March 1996. When Larry Reni Thomas interviewed her a few weeks before her death, Helen told him, “I ain’t never seen that girl since. I think she thought she was next. But she never entered my mind. You know, it’s a funny thing, she didn’t enter my mind. When that gun went off it snapped me back to reality to what I had done. I didn’t have a coat. I didn’t have a bag. I didn’t have nothing. I was just sitting there, you know. Seemed like it hadn’t registered. I said, I couldn’t have did this. I couldn’t have did this. This must be a dream and I’ll wake up…”
Had Lee Morgan managed to walk a few more steps and make it to the bandstand before turning toward Helen More, he would have died onstage and earned a place in Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns’ new book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, coming in September 2019 from Chicago Review Press’ A Cappella Books.