I was sorry to read about the death of Etta James, although it wasn’t unexpected because she’d been in ill health for quite a while. But even though I was a fan, her life story is being well-covered everywhere so I thought I’d go in a different direction. Thinking about some of the problems she encountered in her life caused me to once again consider the many musical stars whose careers have been affected by substance abuse — guys like Frank Morgan, an alto sax wizard who lost three decades of his prime to drugs, but eventually managed to rebuild his career and finish strong.
As the son of Ink Spots’ guitarist Stanley Morgan, Frank Morgan grew up surrounded by music, and initially emulated his dad by taking up the guitar. However, he was inspired by the legendary Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker to switch to woodwinds, taking up both clarinet and alto sax and eventually settling on the latter for most of his career.
By his late teens, Morgan was fully a part of the post-war Los Angeles jazz scene, performing with some of the biggest names around, including Freddy Martin, Teddy Charles, and others, and by the early 1950s was even leading his own group. Unfortunately, he was also falling prey to the dangerous and risky behavior that was so prevalent among his contemporaries, and he soon began a dark period in his life that included heroin addiction and stints in prison. (Including San Quentin, where he formed a quartet with another troubled jazz star, Art Pepper.)
But Morgan eventually fought back, and by the mid-1980s he’d managed to turn his life around. From that point until his death in 2007 he did some of his best work, spinning out album after album and even working his way past a stroke in 1998. By the time he died at age 73 he was a favorite of many jazz fans.