On an icy night in 1967, one of the world’s greatest trumpeters didn’t own a trumpet. His horn was in the pawnshop, along with his winter coat, sold to pay for heroin. Three years after releasing one of the most successful jazz albums of the 1960s, Lee Morgan was in the depths of a drug habit that had consumed him for nearly a decade. Even if he’d had a trumpet, he was so out of practice that he could barely play. That was the night he met the woman who would save his life.
A transplant from North Carolina, the woman who would become Helen Morgan was known in jazz circles as “the little hip square.” She didn’t touch heroin, but her apartment was a refuge for struggling musicians, including many addicts. After the clubs had closed, “Helen’s Place” was somewhere to get warm and get fed. On that particular cold night, she says in “The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan,” Morgan came by, “raggedy and pitiful…and for some kind of reason, my heart just went out to him.
“I said, ‘Child, it’s zero degrees out there and all you have is a jacket. Where is your coat?'”
“In hock,” he said. She got the coat back for him, along with his trumpet, and like a lost puppy, he followed her home. From then on, she said, “he hung on to me,” and in turn she “took over total control” of Lee Morgan, helping the onetime prodigy grow into the musician he was meant to be. Helen would get him well, she would get him working, and five years later, she would end his life.
“She was a sucker for people who were suckers,” says Larry Reni Thomas, author of “The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan.” “He was a sucker for heroin.”
Morgan was fifteen when he first challenged Sonny Stitt, a veteran saxophonist known for encouraging up-and-comers with tough love. In Tom Perchard’s biography of Lee Morgan, one of Morgan’s childhood friends tells of the time Stitt came to Philadelphia and Morgan asked to sit in.
“Ah, Lee Morgan,” said Stitt. “I been hearing some real good things about you.”
Head tilted back, eyes half-closed, Morgan shrugged: “Yeah, man.”
“You wanna play something, Lee?”
“Yeah man, that’s what I’m here for.”
“Well, what d’you wanna play?”
And Lee, with all the arrogance of youth, said, “Anything you wanna play.”
Morgan playing with the Jazz Messengers, 1959.
To put the young man in his place, Stitt called for “Cherokee,” an intricate tune played in the fastest tempo possible. By the time he got his trumpet to his lips, Morgan was already way behind. “He just spluttered and stuttered and was so embarrassed,” the friend who witnessed the incident told Perchard.
That summer, Morgan disappeared into his bedroom. He practiced endlessly, obsessively—and when fall came, he could play “Cherokee” as fast as anyone could ask for.
Morgan was acutely aware of his own talent, and did what he could to draw attention to himself, lighting cigarettes to burn, not to smoke, and walking with what a classmate described to Perchard as “one of those bebop walks, man…it sang.” As his encounter with Stitt taught him, style meant nothing without the skill to back it up. Morgan cultivated what one bandmate called “a very pure, open sound. Clear tone, and very legitimate—how the trumpet’s supposed to sound.”
“He sings out, sometimes roars, and never mutters,” the music critic Nat Hentoff would later write. Morgan summed up his style best, once saying, “I like to hear a trumpet shout.”
His brashness carried him very far, very fast. A month after graduating from high school, he found a spot as a featured soloist in Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary big band, shining bright enough to earn a contract with Blue Note Records. He recorded six albums in just over a year, and was soon being hailed as one of the best trumpeters in jazz, after only Miles Davis and Dizzy himself.
When Gillespie disbanded his orchestra in early 1958, Morgan settled in New York, and applied to study at Juilliard. Before he could begin his studies, he got an opportunity for a more practical education, when he was invited to join the Jazz Messengers, a quintet led by the famously intense Art Blakey. A 1959 video of the band playing “A Night In Tunisia” shows the relentless power of a Blakey performance, with Morgan playing as loud as he can to be heard over the drums. After his solo (which begins at 2:57), he takes a sheepish little bow, and it’s easy to see he is still just a boy.
Blakey taught Morgan how to control an audience, to carry them from climax to climax, leaving them exhausted and begging for more. He also taught him to love heroin. A lifelong addict, Blakey was notorious for introducing his young bandmates to the drug, and dropping them when it began to affect their performance. Perchard writes that when Morgan and the young pianist Bobby Timmons joined his band, Blakey told them, “I’ll have you guys turned on in two weeks.” He kept his word.
“Art Blakey was famous for this,” said an anonymous musician quoted in Perchard’s book. “That’s the way he paid a lot of the guys off. In other words, he gave them drugs, and when it was time to get paid, he took the money.”
“It was a really bad addiction for him,” Kiko Yamamoto, a model and dancer whom Morgan married after a two-week courtship in Chicago, told Jeffery S. McMillan, author of “Delightfulee.” He brought Yamamoto home with him, first to New York, and then — after his escalating habit forced him to leave the Messengers — to his parents’ house in Philadelphia. Once it became clear that he had no interest in anything but heroin, she left for good.
“Some people, like Art for instance…Art always controlled it, you know,” Yamamoto told McMillan. “It never really took over his life. Art was able to work and do whatever else he had to do. Lee wasn’t like that. He was not a functioning drug addict. At first, yes, but as he got more involved with it, it just became impossible.”
Morgan spent two years strung out, his trumpet sold, his chops decaying slowly. In late 1963, he went “to take the cure” at the infamous Narcotic Farm, a Lexington, Kentucky, hospital which hosted nearly every famous addict of the period, from William S. Burroughs to Chet Baker. Rumors circulated that he had joined the Army, or that he had died, but by November 1963, he was back in New York, ready to record.
“It was like magic or something, man,” one musician who played with him at that time told McMillan. “He came back powerful.”
Lexington hadn’t cured Morgan of anything, but it taught him to manage his addiction so he could stay clean long enough to record the song that would make him famous all over again: “The Sidewinder.”
It was never supposed to be a hit. When his band ran out of material to record during a Blue Note date in late 1963, Morgan disappeared into the bathroom. He was gone long enough that his bandmates began to worry he would emerge too high to play, but he returned with “The Sidewinder,” a driving, ten-minute blues number scratched out on a few sheets of toilet paper.
“The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan.
Jazz was already in decline by 1963, the public’s attention shifting to the new icons of rock and roll, and Morgan’s new album — also called “The Sidewinder” — was given a limited release. It sold out so quickly that Blue Note had trouble pressing enough copies. It climbed the pop charts throughout 1964, reaching as high as thirty-five, an unheard of ranking for instrumental jazz. It may be the record that saved Blue Note Records. It certainly saved Morgan’s career.
“It was like a gift from God,” Morgan said in a 1968 interview with journalist Bob Houston.
Wanting to replicate the album’s success, Blue Note immediately signed Morgan to a new contract, and he began recording again immediately. While once he would have spent as many nights onstage as possible, he made enough on each recording date to survive for weeks. For the next few years he worked only a few days out of each month. The rest of the time he drifted, and the $15,000 he made from “The Sidewinder” slowly disappeared.
By 1967, that money was long gone, and Morgan was seen, McMillan writes, “sleeping on the curb outside Birdland without shoes, sleeping on pool tables in bars, wearing a dirty suit over his pajamas, stealing a television set from a hotel lobby for quick cash.”
The man whom Helen Morgan met in the winter of 1967 looked more like a junkie than an artist. She would know how to handle him.
If Lee was the boy who never grew up, Helen was the woman who grew up too fast. Born in a small town in North Carolina in 1926, she had two children by the age of fourteen, when she abandoned them to move to Wilmington with her mother. There she fell in love with a bootlegger, who won her heart the first time she saw him counting his money.
“It was the most money that I had ever seen in my life,” she says in Thomas’s The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan, the only existing biography of her. “He took a liking to me, and I took a liking to the money.”
He was twenty-two years older than her, but they got married anyway, spending two years together before he died, suddenly. The official cause of death was drowning — a hazard for any rumrunner — but one of Helen’s sons told Thomas a different story.
“She said that he drowned,” Thomas says. “Her son told me that Helen told him that she killed him. Stabbed him in the back. You don’t know who to believe!”
By the time Lee Morgan was twenty, he was one of the most famous jazz musicians in the country. By the same age, Helen was a mother and a widow, fighting to make a new life for herself in New York City. She found work with the drug dealers of Harlem, who trusted her to carry packages of heroin because she never used it herself. To make it in New York, she learned to be tough, and Thomas says she never lost that edge.
“I wouldn’t call her a cold-blooded lady,” he says, “but just judging by her demeanor and everything, I could see her shooting him.”
Not much is known about Helen’s life after she moved to New York, and before she met the man whom she always referred to as “Morgan.” Even her last name is in doubt. Some sources refer to her as Helen Moore, some as Helen More. When she spoke to Thomas, she introduced herself as Helen Morgan, but also said that she had gone by many other names in the past — adopting the last names of both her children’s fathers, for instance, when she was still with them.
Within a year of meeting Morgan, she had taken his name, and they began introducing themselves as husband and wife, even though they never married. (Perhaps because, according to McMillan, he was never divorced from Yamamoto.) In her own words, Helen “took over total control of Morgan’s life.” She kept watch over him constantly, waiting until he was asleep to leave the apartment and run errands.
“They was so tight, it was like, you think of Lee, you think of Helen,” says saxophonist Billy Harper, who played with Morgan regularly for the last years of his life. “Helen, Lee.”
To Morgan’s friends, who had spent years tortured by his unreliability, she was a godsend. The couple moved to an apartment in the Bronx, on stately Grand Concourse, and Helen got Lee into an outpatient rehab program.
“I went by to have dinner with them one night,” one friend told Perchard, “and I opened the Frigidaire, and it was full of methadone…He seemed like he was getting himself together.”
When he was growing up, Morgan’s mother had invited any musicians passing through Philadelphia to dine at her table. Now Helen did the same. Musicians were welcome. Junkies were not.