It was bitterly cold at the East Village jazz spot Slug's on the night that trumpeter Lee Morgan's common-law wife shot and killed him. It was February 19, 1972, and Helen Morgan had come downtown to confront her husband upon learning of his plan to leave her. Billy Harper, the powerhouse tenor saxophonist who served as the sparkplug for Morgan's brash, freewheeling band, was at the club that night. "He was trying to clean up, living straight without the drugs, and he wanted to change his whole life," the 67-year-old Harper recalled recently. "He had changed his whole direction, playing freer, and he also wanted to change his mate. But I didn't know there was a problem. I was sitting at the bar with Helen, and she said, 'Well, Lee wants to leave me.' At the break, he was talking to her, and pretty soon there was pushing. She said, 'You know I have a gun.'"
In an art form littered with lives cut short by substance abuse, car wrecks, and illness, Morgan's death at 33 remains a brutal, shocking loss. After gaining early fame as an eighteen-year-old phenomenon showcased by Dizzy Gillespie, Morgan blazed an incandescent trail. Possessing awesome technique, a huge tone, crackling articulation, and phrasing so soulful that he's still a pervasive influence today, Morgan quickly emerged as a creative force, playing an essential role on John Coltrane's first indispensable album as a leader, 1957's Blue Trane. The following year he swaggered through another definitive Blue Note hard-bop session, Art Blakey's Moanin', while recording a series of classic albums of his own for the label, such as 1963's chart-topping boogaloo The Sidewinder and the coruscating freebop of 1964's Search for the New Land. Later on he helped launch a protest movement to push back against jazz's invisibility in the media.
"He was interested in doing something that might help the social situation," Harper said. "Lee and pianist Harold Mabern and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and myself started the Jazz and People Movement. One of the first things we did was disrupt the Merv Griffin Show."
So, not surprisingly, when trumpeter David Weiss put out the word last year that he was launching a project exploring Morgan's music, some of jazz's most prodigious players answered the call. The ridiculously talent-laden band Charisma!, which opens a four-night run at Yoshi's on Thursday, features a cast of supremely eloquent improvisers, including Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and reed expert Bennie Maupin, who were all closely associated with Morgan. The rhythm section is equally formidable, with pianist Geri Allen, bassist Dwayne Burno, and drummer extraordinaire Billy Hart. Weiss, who produced the three-CD reissue of Morgan's classic 1970 album Live at the Lighthouse featuring Maupin on flute, bass clarinet, and tenor sax, says he assembled the band for his "own selfish reasons, wanting to play with the best."
"These cats are so strong and are still unsung," Weiss said. "Billy Harper, especially, is one of the most powerful tenor saxophonists on the planet. He's just an amazing force. But there's no middle class in jazz. Bennie is having a little renaissance lately, but it hasn't translated like it should. The contrast between them, with Billy on tenor and Bennie on soprano sax and bass clarinet, is always fascinating."
Maupin has strong ties to the Bay Area, dating back to his days with Herbie Hancock's pioneering electro-acoustic San Francisco-based Mwandishi Band (which also featured San Francisco-raised trumpeter Eddie Henderson). When that sextet didn't flourish commercially, Hancock disbanded the group and created the jazz-funk combo Headhunters, which released an eponymous debut album that remains one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Maupin was the only Mwandishi holdover.
The Detroit native was already a jazz-fusion veteran, having made his bass clarinet recording debut on Miles Davis's seminal album Bitches Brew. And when Davis embraced thicker textures and more intricate rhythmic patterns on Jack Johnson, Big Fun, and On the Corner, Maupin's reed work contributed greatly to the kinetic sonic matrix. While never prolific as a leader, Maupin has remerged as a venerable elder on Southern California's creative music scene in recent years, releasing several albums of his spacious, patient compositions for Cryptogramophone.
Like Billy Harper, Maupin contributed several tunes to Morgan's book, tunes that make up the bulk of Charisma!'s repertoire. Always open to new ideas, the trumpeter encouraged his sidemen to bring music into the band. As Eddie Henderson remembers, Morgan was equally generous off the bandstand. Introduced when Morgan came through San Francisco with Blakey's Jazz Messenger's in 1961, Henderson really got to know the trumpeter several years later while studying medicine at Howard University. Reacquainted by fellow trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, Henderson ended up going to school on both masters.
"I'd run up to New York and be at Freddie's house and he'd show me things, and on Sunday I'd be at Lee's house," the 69-year-old Henderson recently recalled. "He was such a talent. There was such humor, such sassy wit in his playing. He played ballads so beautifully, from the heart. He was very nice to me. He asked me over to play duets together, and showed me a couple of his trademark licks that he said he learned from Brownie [Clifford Brown]. He'd make a melody come alive with so much feeling, made it a living presence. Now I teach at Juilliard and show young students what Lee showed me note for note."