Alto saxophonist Frank Morgan is a survivor -- three times over. First came drugs. Then came 35 years in and out of the California prison system. Then came a medical reminder of how fragile one's life is.
After a jazz history checkered by the better part of four decades in prison for drug-related offenses, Morgan feels fortunate to have survived a stroke that sidelined him briefly four years ago, and from which he's still recovering.
Morgan suffered the stroke in August 1998. He was aboard a plane on the first leg of a flight from Albuquerque to Detroit en route to a performance at the Flint, Mich., Jazz Festival when his right foot began dragging and he realized something was wrong.
"It wasn't the first time that it had happened, but it was the most severe," he said. "Somebody was looking out for me. A doctor and three nurses, one of whom worked with stroke patients, were on the plane."
An ambulance met the plane in St. Louis, where Morgan had been scheduled to change flights. He spent a month in a physical rehabilitation facility, and then flew to his current home in the high desert of Taos, N.M., to continue his recovery. Morgan said he still has a right leg limp but works out with a stationary bike and swims. "I was lucky enough to play two months later, although I could barely stand up."
"Having that stroke did a lot to help me with my life," he said. "It was the first time I'd been in the hospital. We have to appreciate life. We all have to realize that people need people. I feel very fortunate to be alive."
When he's not on the road for various jazz engagements, such as his weeklong club run last month at the Big Apple's Jazz Standard, Morgan, 69, is enjoying the precious moments of a natural high life at home in Taos at 7,500 feet elevation.
"I like the sun, I like the people and can see for miles," Morgan said.
When he was a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, Morgan idolized bebopper Charlie Parker. Unfortunately, he thought playing the horn the way Parker did also required emulating the drug habit that eventually killed the jazz legend.
"Charlie Parker felt responsible for all the people who messed their lives up. The knowledge of that was killing him," Morgan said. "The last time I saw Bird before he died, he said: 'Frankie, I'm surprised. I thought you were the one person who had sense enough to take the music and leave the bad part of it. Take the good and leave the bad. My example should show you that.'"
In spite of that advice, Morgan became consumed by a $1,500 a day heroin and cocaine habit that turned him into a forger and fencer of stolen goods. "I was 17 when I went to sleep," Morgan said, in a polite summation of his decades in and out of prison.
Now, Morgan says he has been embraced by "a whole community that loves me and treats me like a king."
Morgan moved to Taos shortly after performing there at the Taos Inn with pianist John Hicks. "The audience was so in tune with us, I said I wouldn't mind living there. They encouraged me to.
"You can really feed on all that positive energy when people are with you. It's gotta be better than dope, particularly in these times when there is such a need to communicate. It is a joy to have great change and contribute to it rather than be a drain," he said.
Morgan finds himself between recording contracts after a string of fine post-prison releases in the late 1980s and '90s with the Contemporary, Antilles and Telarc labels. He said he is getting some expressions of interest from several independent labels and is looking for a chance to record his way.
"I'm hoping to do something with the other true beboppers; I would really like to do something with Hank Jones, Roy Haynes, maybe Percy Heath. I'm spoiled in that I want what I want. The real bebop is defined by the masters - and they're still doing it," Morgan said.
Frank Morgan, master bebopper and lyrical alto sax player with a light but full tone, should have said: "we're still doing it."