After a 30-Year Detour, Saxman Is Back on Track

Thirty-five years after he was touted by fellow players, critics and fans as the heir apparent to Charlie Parker’s be-bop throne, saxophonist Frank Morgan is beginning to realize his musical potential.

Morgan, 56, took a 30-year side trip, a chaotic, heroin-induced odyssey that included stops at some of California’s finest penal institutions: Chino, Tehachapi, San Quentin. The highlight of his old life was leading a prison band that included trumpeter Art Pepper.

But by 1985, Morgan, who opens five nights at Elario’s in La Jolla tonight, was ready to change.

“It was after I went into the studio and made ‘Easy Living,’ ” Morgan said, referring to his comeback album. “Right after that, I turned myself in and went back to prison. The state of California had an all-points bulletin out on me. I was a parole violator, for using (drugs) and not showing up after I tested positive--three or four different charges.


“It was clear to me where I belonged: in the studio, with Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins and Tony Dumas, rather than trying to find something to steal. I thank Rosalinda, my wife. She knew the parole department was looking for me, and told me to take care of that. She said, ‘You just made a good album. If you position yourself, it can change our whole life.’ ”

He did, and it has.

Although Morgan had long dreamed of playing New York City, in front of the music world’s best and brightest, he didn’t make it until 1986, when he headlined several critically acclaimed nights at the legendary Village Vanguard.

“Every time they used to try to send me to New York, I’d go back to prison. It was really a . . . game I was playing with myself, but that was then and this is now, and I really love it.”

Fans seem to love Morgan’s newest recording, “Mood Indigo,” which, according to him, is setting sales records for Island, his label.

“For the first time in my life, I’m going to get some real royalties. I’ve gotten some already,” he said.

The album marks a departure for the man weaned on the searing bop lines of Charlie Parker. This time around, Morgan focuses on softer ballads, slower tunes, nice melodies, although the bop influence is frequently apparent in rapid-fire strings of notes.

Among 11 songs are two by Duke Ellington, one of Morgan’s heroes. In 1948, guitarist Stanley Morgan, who led the Ink Spots until his death last year, took his 15-year-old son backstage to audition for the legendary bandleader after a show at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

“It was just an awesome time, taking my horn out in Duke Ellington’s dressing room to play ‘Sophisticated Lady.’ I was extremely nervous. I’m always nervous, especially before I start playing.”

Ellington liked what he heard. Johnny Hodges was quitting the band and Morgan was invited to replace him, but he couldn’t leave high school to go on the road.

The new album’s title track and “In a Sentimental Mood” are Morgan’s most recent homages to Ellington. The latter is stripped to basics, with Morgan’s whispering alto lines carrying the melody over the spare accompaniment of pianist George Cables, Morgan’s frequent musical partner.

A highlight is the presence of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who takes an awesome bop solo on John Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues.”

Morgan contributed “We Three Blues,” describing his composing technique as strictly spontaneous.

“I’ve never really written a tune at home and taken it to the studio,” he said. “ ‘We Three Blues,’ I just started playing a lick and developed a motif. Then I tried to remember it when we got ready to record.”

As his vitality has returned, Morgan’s career has soared.

There’s talk of a movie about his life. Morgan might even play himself, not that far-fetched an idea considering he received good reviews for a role in an off-Broadway play in 1987.

Morgan hopes to record with a symphony orchestra under the direction of Zubin Mehta.

“In 1975, he brought the L.A. Philharmonic into Chino and I played with him there; 15 years later, I did what he asked me to do: contact him when I got out. He’s putting it in motion. We’ll commission someone to write music for us.”

Next up is an album with a pianist, probably Cedar Walton, although Morgan won’t say for sure.

“I don’t put my future plans in stone. I think my thing is recording what I feel at the moment. I don’t like to pick tunes or do anything that makes me have to go with what I planned two months ago. I’m not going to feel the same two months from now as I do today.”

Morgan believes his playing at any given moment is a snapshot of everywhere he’s been, everything he’s done.

“Change is constant. For me to play ‘Mood Indigo,’ it’s part of my life experience, going back to the Shrine Auditorium.” Those early memories of Ellington go through Morgan’s mind each time he plays the song, he said. “I seek that in any tune I play. I believe in playing tunes that mean something to you.

“It’s important to know the words. Songs aren’t just chord changes and notes. There’s a story. The story is the thing. That’s what I’m trying to do when I play, not just a series of licks, or how fast you can play.”

No matter the city or the audience, Morgan feels he has the massive history of jazz to live up to.

“I don’t want to underestimate the ability of people to listen. The fact is, people can listen far better than I’ll ever be able to play. Take a person who’s been listening to this music as long or longer than I’ve been playing it. Think of all the things they’ve heard, all the masters they can go into a record store and take home to digest and ingest for years. You think they don’t know when they’re hearing the real (thing)?”

In San Diego, Morgan will be joined by bassist Bob Magnusson, drummer Tootie Heath and pianist Bob Hamilton. Showtimes are 8:30 and 10:30 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 9, 10:30 and midnight Friday and Saturday.