Death of a Sidewinder

He was one of the greatest trumpeters of all time, but Lee Morgan’s young life was stopped short by a toxic romance with a woman who saved him, then shot him dead.

Death of a Sidewinder

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.

Lee Morgan (Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images LLC, used by permission)
Lee Morgan (Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images LLC, used with permission)

“She was a great cook. So much food it was unbelievable, it was like Thanksgiving all the time,” drummer Kenny Sheffield told McMillan. “She did not have that kind of knockout beauty; she was kind of homely, but she was important to Lee because she kept him in check. She was like a mother to him.”

If she acted like a mother, she was also his manager, collecting his money, booking dates and paying his band. She was ever-present when he played live — something that, as the methadone treatment took effect, he was doing more and more — sitting right next to the stage, sunglasses on, her purse clutched in her lap.

“It was like Helen was addicted to him,” Morgan’s niece told McMillan.

“She had helped him with the drug thing, and she was from the streets too,” says Harper. “They was just like two peas in a pod. Helen was his helper. She seemed like she was giving a lot of her life to Lee. That was her project. As we went along, of course, and Lee wanted to change everything, he also wanted to change her.”

On August 27, 1970, a whistle interrupted a taping of “The Merv Griffin Show,” and a dozen or more jazz musicians — including Lee Morgan, Billy Harper and Rahsaan Roland Kirk — took the stage, blowing on horns and whistles. As the taping ground to a halt, the Jazz and People’s Movement faced the cameras and demanded more black musicians on television.

“The airwaves belong to the public, and we’re here to dramatize that fact,” Morgan said in a TV interview after the stunt. “Jazz is the only real American music, but how often do you see jazz musicians in front of the camera?”

Morgan had always been interested in artists’ rights — a natural result of years of being taken advantage of by record companies — and as the musicians around him, particularly Kirk, became more involved with the civil rights movement, he followed suit. By the summer of 1970, Morgan was engaged politically like he had never been before. With Kirk and others, he campaigned for opportunities for black artists, control of publishing rights by musicians and government support of jazz. He had always been outspoken — now he had a cause.

“His philosophy was very close to Malcolm X,” says Harper. “He wasn’t talking about compromise. He was straight ahead, like he played the trumpet: bold, straight ahead and with authority.”

For the first time in a long time, his music was changing as well, becoming moody and thoughtful in a way that sounded entirely different from his Sidewinder-era recordings. After twenty-five years of bebop and hard bop, Morgan said he was “tired of playing that shit.” He also began experimenting with the flugelhorn, as shown in a video from the New York public television show “Soul!” recorded in early 1972. It’s a mellow performance, with none of the high-flying intensity that had for so long characterized his sound. At thirty-three years old, Morgan sounds chill.

Just as Clifford Brown had mentored him in Philadelphia, Morgan began teaching music in New York schools, sharing his deep technical knowledge of jazz with the next generation of musicians. Eating in a restaurant in Harlem with one of his young pupils, Perchard writes, Morgan took out his trumpet to illustrate a point. The sound of the horn crackled through the packed restaurant, and the man at the next table was not amused.

“Man, what you doing playing here?” he demanded. “Who you think you are, Miles Davis?”

“No, motherfucker, I’m Lee Morgan.”

How clean Morgan was at this point is hard to say. He was still taking methadone, which occasionally caused him to fall asleep on the bandstand, but he had also to some degree replaced heroin with cocaine — a change many people made at a moment when, after years of ready availability, heroin became incredibly scarce in New York.

“I don’t think he ever stopped using heroin,” says Thomas. “I think she got him to a point where he was cleaned up for a minute or two…[Helen] point blank said that he wouldn’t even perform unless he had some drugs; until he had a shot of dope he wasn’t going to perform period.”

More and more, Helen nagged Morgan about his cocaine use — to the point, she told Thomas, that “I might have stopped being a lover and might have started being too possessive, or too much like a mother to him.” Even decades later, she was not sure if she had loved him, or if she’d considered him a possession.

“Like I made him,” she said. “You know, ‘I brought you back. You belong to me.'”

The more capable Morgan felt, the more politically engaged and musically adventurous, the more he wanted to be independent from Helen. As he pulled away, she clung tighter, and they began to have vicious fights in front of their friends.

“They were like rocky, out-in-public arguments,” saxophonist Bennie Maupin told Perchard. “He dumped a bottle of Champagne over her head one day, [shouting], ‘Bitch, get the fuck out of here, leave me the hell alone,’ so on and so forth.”

In 1971, he began seeing another woman, spending nights at her house to avoid going home to the Bronx. Soon, Helen stopped coming to see Morgan perform. The new woman had taken her place at the front table. Helen attempted to poison herself, but she survived. Sometime around this point, she began carrying a gun.

It was cold the night Lee met Helen, and it was even colder in February 1972, when his band signed on for a one-week engagement at Slug’s Saloon, a narrow little bar in the depths of Alphabet City that record producer Michael Cuscuna describes as “like a railroad flat,” with grimy windows and sawdust on the floor.

“As you walk in there’s a long bar, and then the stage would be right after the bar ends, in the middle of the room,” he says. “Once you stepped off the curb on Second Avenue, you were kind of in no man’s land until you got to Avenue B.”

On February 18, a bitter winter storm snarled traffic throughout New York. Driving to Slug’s, Morgan was turning a corner when his car hit a patch of ice, spun out of control and smashed into the curb, totally wrecking it. Rather than wait for a tow truck, Morgan grabbed his horn and walked the rest of the way to the gig. Billy Harper had arrived earlier and remembers Morgan showing up at Slug’s extremely shaken.

“He was like, ‘Man, I almost died,'” says Harper. “‘We were making this turn and the car slid, and I thought we were gonna die.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you’re here.’ And that’s a funny omen to be starting out with.”

The wreck steered the talk towards Clifford Brown, Morgan’s mentor from back in Philadelphia, who had died in a car accident on a snowy night fifteen years earlier. It was a conversation that would stick with Harper.

Back in the Bronx, Helen was sitting with a houseguest, stewing about Morgan’s absence. Despite the snow, she decided to do something she hadn’t done in a while: go see him perform.

“On that Saturday,” Helen told Thomas, “I don’t know what possessed me. I said, ‘I’m going to Slug’s.’ He was working down there that whole week. I hadn’t been down there that whole week. And I had a gun.”

She arrived well after midnight, during a break between sets. Harper saw her silhouetted in the saloon doors, like a villain in a western. She entered, saw the woman sitting at Lee’s table, and the shouting began.

“And he was being Lee,” says Harper. “He was being kinda cocky about it. She said, ‘You know I have the gun.’ And he said, ‘But I got the bullets.'”

Finally, Morgan took Helen by the arm and threw her out the front door, sending her sprawling onto a foot-high bank of fresh snow.

“I didn’t have on my coat or nothing, but I had my bag,” Helen recalled to Thomas. “He threw me out the club. Wintertime. And the gun fell out my bag, and I looked at it. I got up. I went to the door….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…He said, ‘Yes you are.’

“And I saw Morgan rushing over there to me and all I saw in his eyes was rage.”

“It was really, really something,” says Harper. “We were still at the bar, and then we were talking, but I heard a POP. It wasn’t a loud kinda thing — like POP. It didn’t seem real. Lee was standing, so I thought everything was cool. But then pretty soon he fell down, and he’d been shot near the heart, and Helen was screaming. She was out of her head or something, she was crying and standing over Lee. The other lady was scared away.”

Lee and Helen Morgan pictured in the Afro-American Newspaper.
Lee and Helen Morgan pictured in the Afro-American Newspaper.

Helen, paralyzed, handed over the gun and waited for the police. She would spend three months in jail before making bail, and according to her interview with Thomas, she never went back to prison. She eventually pled not guilty to second degree manslaughter, but the loss of her court transcripts means her sentence is unknown. She spent the rest of her life in North Carolina, a fixture at the local church, and died two months after telling her story to Thomas.

At Slug’s, Morgan lay on the sawdust floor, waiting for the ambulance that, because of the snow, took more than twenty minutes to arrive. Morgan died before reaching the hospital. He was thirty-three — a kid forever. In the months that followed there would be memorials and benefit concerts, speeches and song dedications, but there was no better epitaph than a line he had said long before, in a 1961 interview with DownBeat magazine, about Clifford Brown and John Coltrane.

“Every time I heard Clifford, and now when I hear ‘Trane,” said the trumpeter, “I get the impression that the doctor told them, ‘You’ve got to play everything you know today because you won’t get a chance tomorrow.'”

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