The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan
December 18, 2013 5:31 PM   Subscribe

If You Didn't Know Already Morgan was killed in the early hours of February 19, 1972, at Slug's Saloon, a jazz club in New York City's East Village where his band was performing. Following an altercation between sets, Morgan's common-law wife Helen More (a.k.a. Morgan), shot him. The injuries were not immediately fatal, but the ambulance service was reluctant to go into the neighborhood where the club was located. They took so long to get there that Morgan bled to death. He was 33 years old. According to an eyewitness, Miss More (13 years his senior) walked out of the club just before the last set. She returned and the band was already on stage. Lee was trying to get up there, but was talking with some people. He just started to get up the stage, when she entered and called his name. He turned around and she shot him. She then turned the gun on the club's doorman Ernie Holman, who grabbed her wrist and took the gun away from her. She started to scream, "Baby, what have I done?" and ran to him. She was later committed to a mental institution for some time. Soon after, Helen Morgan returned to her native North Carolina. Reportedly she never spoke publicly of the incident, until she granted an interview a month before her death. She died in Wilmington, NC, from a heart condition, in March 1996.

Capra Black must be one of the most beautiful and touching jazz tunes to ever appear in this world. Written by Billy Harper, Tenor Sax player on Morgan's Last Sessions album (1971), it's one of those tunes that should be right up there with the likes of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat or Night in Tunisia as a standard of modern Jazz.
posted by metagnathous (22 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Man i love to listen to Lee Morgan play. He's so often compared to Clifford Brown, but i find his solos to be a bit more melodic and playful, if not always as blindingly fast and technical. I guess we'll never know if he would have moved beyond the boogaloo sound, but I'd love to believe he would have had a long, inventive career had it not been for his tragic death.
thanks for the post.
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:46 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're very welcome OHenryPacey. I've only just recently discovered him, and I would urge everybody to check out his older blue Note albums. Classic stuff, that - and as good a point as any to dive into quality jazz which should not by any means be overlooked.
posted by metagnathous at 6:00 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hu! A role that Doris Day refused.
posted by unliteral at 6:05 PM on December 18, 2013

His Live at The Lighthouse set is great. Here's the opening cut.
posted by the sobsister at 6:16 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out his early work with Jimmy Smith. Brash, raw, humorous. Good.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 6:18 PM on December 18, 2013

unliteral, the subject of The Helen Morgan Story was a different Helen Morgan (she died in 1941, decades before Lee Morgan was shot).
posted by RichardP at 6:23 PM on December 18, 2013

Just came back to post that I made a mistake.
posted by unliteral at 6:33 PM on December 18, 2013

I love love love Lee Morgan. I gave up my albums only two years ago.

The first one I got was passed to me by my brothers friend as he passed me in the subway. "Yo, little sister!" "Yes?" "I got this. This is for you from your brother. You'll love it." I was 15, it was The Sidewinder, and I know every sound of that album because he was right, I loved it.

My brother and I didn't live in the same house, obviously, so we sneaker-netted a lot of vinyl around town. But this one took me by complete surprise.

Tragic story. Such a loss.
posted by dabitch at 6:58 PM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

From roughly 1965 to 1970, Helen was Lee’s true and trusted confidant, manager, and spokesperson. If anyone called their apartment and asked him about work, he handed the phone to her. She did the negotiating with the employers, the arranging of airline flights and transportation needs and Mrs. Morgan was the one who made sure they had hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, Lee concentrated on practicing with his band and recording. He let her handle the business end. No doubt he loved and respected her, so much so, he wrote a composition called “Helen’s Ritual,” which was inspired by Lee watching her take hours getting ready to go out and rubbing generous portions of lotion on her legs and the rest of her body in the process. She was not only the band’s manager, she was their cook, coach, cheerleader and probably their best critic.

Helen's Ritual. Morgan's solo starts at 2:38.

Great link, metagnathous; thanks. We almost never get to hear the stories of the women in jazz lore episodes like this, and Helen's is particularly interesting. I get that we're hearing faded memories from a woman who might want to paint herself in a better light before she dies but it reads pretty honest. Her take on Art Blakey was surprising.

I guess we'll never know if he would have moved beyond the boogaloo sound

I dunno, unless you're using "the boogaloo sound" as a stand-in for all relatively funky mid-late 60s jazz, that seems a bit off to me. Isn't it pretty clear Lee Morgan had moved beyond "the boogaloo sound" for a while before his death? We lost a great future in jazz, no doubt, but part of the reason we know that is because Morgan had already "moved beyond boogaloo" for a while.
posted by mediareport at 8:34 PM on December 18, 2013

Which albums should I start when exploring Lee Morgan's music?
posted by Auden at 11:23 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love Lee Morgan so much. He's my favorite jazz musician. What an amazing sound.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 11:24 PM on December 18, 2013

Auden: He did good early with with Art Blakey and also on Blue Train. For his solo stuff, check out Search for the New Land, Cornbread, the Gigolo, and Sidewinder. The title tracks on all of those solo albums are amazing.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 11:26 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wow, Capra Black is great. He really kicks it up a notch with the solo at 3:15. I'll have to check out his other stuff, thanks for the post.
posted by foobaz at 12:36 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

What a miserably depressing story.
posted by thelonius at 3:34 AM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Auden, I don't know how familiar you are with or how much you like 60s jazz, but The Sidewinder is a great and totally accessible album. The title track is one of those groovy boogaloo-based hits OHenryPacey mentions above (a lot of his subsequent albums started with a similarly funky hit), but the rest of the session rocks too, with a fantastic line-up, great writing and smart, fun solos. dabitch linked the full album but all the individual tracks are available on YouTube (which is true for almost all of Morgan's stuff). Try "Boy, What A Night" or "Gary's Notebook" for classic Blue Note bop and Morgan's soloing, and then the other three albums professor plum mentioned above. And yeah he's great on Coltrane's Blue Train album.
posted by mediareport at 5:27 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

"boogaloo" is term I haven't heard since reading Carol Kaye's bass books....that late 60's Blue Note thing is usually called "soul jazz" or something, isn't it?
posted by thelonius at 5:41 AM on December 19, 2013

One other thing about Morgan: he surrounds himself with fantastic personnel on his solo albums. I mean, Billy Higgins, Bob Cranshaw, Grant Green, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock. It's the Blue Note all star team.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 5:58 AM on December 19, 2013

To me, thelonious, "boogaloo" is a fairly specific beat/trend/craze/whatever that's a small subset of the broader, vaguer category "soul jazz." Yeah, Morgan used that beat in a lot of songs, but used other styles at the same time (including classic hard bop and modal jazz). The point was that claiming Morgan hadn't "moved beyond boogaloo" is something of a mischaracterization of his career.

Anyway, here's Morgan's "Untitled Boogaloo" from the Sonic Boom album, and here's an interesting take on the success of "Sidewinder" from the bio at

On returning to New York in 1963, he recorded The Sidewinder (1963), which became his greatest commercial success. The title track cracked the pop charts in 1964, and served as the background theme for Chrysler television commercials during the World Series. The tune was used without Morgan’s or Blue Note’s consent, and intercession by the label’s lawyers led to the commercial being withdrawn. Due to the crossover success of “The Sidewinder” in a rapidly changing pop music market, Blue Note encouraged its other artists to emulate the tune’s “boogaloo” beat. Morgan himself repeated the formula several times with compositions such as “Cornbread” (from the eponymous album Cornbread) and “Yes I Can, No You Can’t” on The Gigolo. According to drummer Billy Hart, Morgan said he had recorded “The Sidewinder” as filler for the album, and was bemused that it had turned into his biggest hit. He felt that his playing was much more advanced on Grachan Moncur III’s essentially avant-garde Evolution album, recorded a month earlier, on November 21, 1963.

Ooh, I'd forgotten Lee Morgan played trumpet on Grachan Moncur's Evolution. It's a complete gem of early 60s Blue Note jazz, a perfect antidote to anyone who thinks Morgan never moved beyond boogaloo.
posted by mediareport at 6:19 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Damn, just a fucking tragic story no matter what side or angle you look at it from. Gorgeous music, but damn.

And reading about his teeth getting knocked out. Every trumpet player I've known has been so obsessive about his teeth. I mean, obviously it's something plenty of people deal with and go on to be fine, but still.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:50 AM on December 19, 2013

The comments on that article are pretty incredible.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:50 PM on December 19, 2013

A wonderfully-told and tragic story. Thanks for sharing it.

It's a strange coincidence that this post is on the front page at the same time as this one about Linda Taylor, another woman born in rural poverty in (most likely) 1926, who had her first child in her teens and made something of herself — but there the similarities end. I hope Helen Morgan found peace in her later years. Linda Taylor seems not to have, and arguably deserved none.
posted by daisyk at 3:25 PM on December 19, 2013

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