Making up for lost time on an unprecedented scale, the brilliant alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, whose quartet is playing at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood through Saturday, is attaining objectives in his 50s that most emerging jazz stars reach in their 20s.
By now he is tired of talking about the 20-plus wasted years in non-paying jobs at places like San Quentin, Chino and Synanon. The drug problems several years behind him, he recorded an album as a leader--his first in the two decades--in 1985 for the late producer Richard Bock. At the age of 53, Morgan finally got to play in New York, at the Village Vanguard, in December, 1986.
"Max Gordon of the Vanguard was wonderful to me," Morgan says. "He got me on the CBS 'Sunday Morning' TV show, and a story in 'Newsweek.' I played the Vanguard again this June--my fifth time there, and the first since he died. It was sad and strange."
In the summer of 1987, as national magazine stories exploded around him, Morgan made his first trip overseas. He has become a virtual transatlantic commuter. This year alone there has been a trip to Europe about once a month.
"The European audiences are fantastic. At Palermo last March, when I got off the bus at the concert hall, a whole bunch of signs were hoisted up and a Frank Morgan chant began--I had a fan club waiting there for me! It was so beautiful it made me cry.
"I did a TV show in Madrid and a festival in Barcelona. I didn't know I had a tremendous following in Spain until I found out at a concert that (pianist) Cecil Taylor was opening for me!
"Every concert in Italy was sold out too. In France, where I made my third visit in June, I played with a select group of 16 of the country's finest string players, with Michel Legrand conducting, as part of a series of concerts recorded for the National Archives. The series was put on by Madame Danielle Mitterrand, the president's wife. I had an audience with her afterward. Also during that Paris trip I played in an 'Alto Sax Summit' with Jackie McLean, Phil Woods and others."
During 1987 Morgan, who had long been California-based, decided to move to New York. He and his wife Rosalinda Kolb, a painter, now have a home in Brooklyn. The obvious potential dangers of the social scene in New York had long prevented him from making the move.
"I'd always wanted to live in New York, but I wasn't brave enough--it sort of meant facing everything I'd been running away from. But my manager, Ken Greengrass, said he didn't want to handle me unless I moved east."
Another new experience in 1987 was his acting debut, in a play called "Prison Made Tuxedoes," which gave 10 performances at a Midtown Manhattan church. Morgan was on stage almost continuously, re-enacting what he says was a combination of his life story and that of the playwright, George Trow.
"It was very frightening--I had lines all through the performance, but I got to play a lot too."
For his return to Catalina's (he was last there two years ago), he will bring his own pianist, Ronnie Matthews. The opening will be a doubly special occasion for him: "The CNN people were at my house last Wednesday, filming Rosalinda and me, and they're going to film the opening at the club."
As if his cup were not already overflowing, Morgan has signed a contract with Island Records, and after the Hollywood date will return to New York to finish up an album, with no less a special guest than Wynton Marsalis, who was unborn during the first of Morgan's two lost decades.
"The Island people are really behind me--they are putting together a record-company-sponsored tour. Yes, I guess you could say this is my best year ever. I'm just sorry Dick Bock and Max Gordon aren't around to see it happen."