To consider jazz in a political and sociological light – even the history behind the term “jazz” itself (debatably pejorative) – is, to some, the only true context of the art form. It is at least one way to regard the 1972 shooting death of trumpet player Lee Morgan by his wife Helen. The factors at play in this on-stage tragedy included love, jealousy and hate; addiction; artistry; and a culture of racial divisiveness.
Still writing, talking about music and laying bare the rawness of our history, author Larry Reni Thomas (through eons of research and the persistence that ultimately won him an interview with Helen Morgan) shines a glaring, unadorned light bulb on this chapter that ended Lee Morgan’s life.
How long was this story in the making?
She was a student of mine. I have had people ask me did I know Mrs. Morgan on a personal basis, specifically, had I had any of her much-talked about good cooking? I just knew her as a student who sat in the front row. Strictly a student-teacher relationship.
Why have you gravitated to Lee Morgan’s story?
Helen told me that he was her husband. I am an historian. When I found out who she was, I asked for an interview. She said she would think about it. I knew that the interview had to be done for historical significance. I knew that there was not much written about her perspective of the entire sad affair. Whenever I would see her I would say: “Mrs. Morgan, I still want that interview.” After about six years she decided she would let me interview her. Never in a million years did I think that the interview would be used in such an acclaimed movie. I didn’t conduct the interview to be in a movie or to write a book. I did it because I consider myself a gentleman, a scholar and a servant of the people.
Was it a shock to the jazz world or were there signs?
It was a shock to most of the “jazz” world. Those who knew them up close were not that surprised. Some people told me that in the latter stages of their relationship, Lee and Helen would argue a great deal in public. One lady told me that she thought Lee abused Helen verbally and that she was not that surprised when she heard that Helen shot and killed Lee.
By the way, I don’t call this majestic music the negative racist term “jazz,” which is short for “jack-ass”. I call it American Classical Music. I found it interesting that in the documentary “I Called Him Morgan” Lee called it “Black Classical Music.” I credit the Swedish film maker Kasper Collin with having the courage to put that in the film. I doubt if a Hollywood film maker or any American film maker would have put that in a film about Lee Morgan, or any other musician for that matter.
What do you like most about his music – favorite songs/albums etc.?
Lee Morgan was a very confident, highly-intelligent, acutely aware musician who was conscious of the history of the captured African in America. He was also a student of ancient African history, before the European invasion of the continent. If you look at the cover of the Blue Note 1974 release called “The Lee Morgan Memorial Album” you will notice that the ancient Egyptian image of the sphinx is in the background and that he is wearing a red, black and green ring. These are the colors of the African Liberation movement. It was used by Marcus Garvey and all pan-Africanists, including myself. Red is for the blood that was shed by Africans and our ancestors. Black is for the color of the original people. Green is for the land–Mama Africa! His music was reflective of his effort to uplift the cultural awareness of African people throughout the world. His compositions, with names like “Mr. Kenyatta” and “Search For A New Land,” were clear examples of that. He also recorded a tune called “Angela” which was dedicated to Angela Davis and was written by the bassist Jyme Merritt.
What besides the loss of a man was the most poignant part of Morgan’s whole story?
Let me answer that by saying that I am a recovering heroin addict, too, who spent a great deal of time in Harlem during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. I think Mrs. Morgan picked up on that vibe, that I knew that scene. I knew where she was coming from when she talked about how low a junkie could go. We used to call them “dirt dobbing junkies,” who wouldn’t wash or groom themselves for days because all they wanted was a shot of dope. I was never quite that bad. Lee was. In Harlem at that time, there were thousands of cats like Lee, who were brilliant. They say he read the New York Times every day. Most of the junkies I knew were serious intellectuals. I met some junkies who would go down to Times Square and make money playing chess, fast style, then they would go back uptown to cop drugs. Lee wrote and recorded a composition that he dedicated and nicknamed for New York City. He called it “Suicide City.” I guess the most poignant part of the story is that he didn’t escape from New York soon enough like so many of us did. I left that scene, came back down South, went back to college and got my M.A. in History and a minor in Journalism. That experience help me become a better writer.
This “Baby, what have I done?” reaction by Helen: was she so disconnected with the consequences of her act?
As an historian, I have found that there are three sides to every story. There is always one side and then there is another side. The truth is usually somewhere in between. Helen didn’t say, “Baby, what have I done?” in my interview with her.
What she did say was that when she ran over to Lee when he was laying on the floor bleeding to death, was: “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to do this.” She said Lee said: “Helen, I know you didn’t mean to do this.” The bass player Paul West, a friend of both of them, and an eyewitness who was sitting at the table with Helen before the shooting happened, told me that he heard Helen say, “Lee! Why did you make me do this!” Billy Hart said that somebody told him that Lee said: “Get away from me, you dirty bitch.”
Three different accounts, three different interpretations. Who knows which one is true. I had an historian tell me once that an eyewitness account is not always a good source. Sometimes I think he may be right. But, to answer your question, I am convinced that Mrs. Morgan snapped and that she had reached a tipping point where she lost touch with reality. She said so in the interview. She kept saying, “I lost it. I lost it.” I think she died of a broken heart.
Has your research led to any other story ideas— are there other books in the works?
I have been working on a book for a few years called “The Carolina Shout: The North Carolina Jazz Connection: A Wonderful Spiritual Blessing” . It will highlight the fact that there are over 75 and counting “jazz” musicians who were born in North Carolina, and the fact that so many “jazz” musicians have a North Carolina connection.
I have been giving lectures on that subject since 2007. I think the fact that John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone and Max Roach were all born in North Carolina is significant. So was Percy Heath, Woody Shaw and Dr. Billy Taylor. Duke Ellington’s father was born in North Carolina. He left and moved to Washington, D.C., because there was a high rate of male lynchings in his home town of Lincolnton. The question I always asked my audience when I talk about Ellington’s father is, “If there hadn’t been such a high rate of male lynchings in Lincolnton, and his father hadn’t migrated to D.C., would there have been a Duke Ellington?” I don’t usually wait for an answer. My reply is “No!”
The Wilmington Ten – your first book? What did you learn from the process?
I am a native of Wilmington, North Carolina. During the 1970s, there was a great deal in the news about the Wilmington Ten. There were articles in Time magazine, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine and other major publications. CBS-TV’s “Sixty Minutes” did a piece on their story. Amnesty International declared them “political prisoners” who had been arrested, framed and falsely tried, convicted and sent to prison. They were a group of mostly students who stayed out of school, protested, marched and boycotted what they called “unfair conditions” in the local school system, when the local all-African-American high school was closed and they were assigned to European-American schools. They were arrested in 1972 for burning down a grocery store during a week (February 1, 1971 to February 7, 1971) of racial violence in Wilmington.
I decided when I was in graduate school in the late 1970s, at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that I wanted to write my thesis on the Wilmington Ten, because I knew some of them and could interview them. In 1979, when I got ready to do my research, my advisor said that it was “not history yet.” So, I decided to write my thesis on what led up to the violence and their arrest. I went all the way back to the beginning of Wilmington and found out that “the town is almost synonymous with racial violence.” My work was finished in 1980 and called “A Study Of Racial Violence in Wilmington, North Carolina Prior to February 1, 1971.” Later, I published it as “The True Story Behind The Wilmington Ten.” I have sold thousands of copies since then and because I interviewed over 100 people, I later decided to write and publish a fictional account of the affair called Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!: A Fictional Account of The Wilmington Ten Incident of February 1971. It was first published in 2006. Both of them deal with The Wilmington, North Carolina Massacre/Coup of 1898 and the impact it had on American history. It is the only example of a successful coup d’etat in America. Because of my research, I was contacted by a film maker who produced a documentary movie called “Wilmington On Fire”. I am also in that movie.
Are you involved in radio now?
My radio career began in 1978, when I was in graduate school. I developed a bleeding ulcer and my doctor decided I needed a “stress buster.” I did two things. I became a daily jogger, something I do almost every day. I also began doing a weekly jazz show on the student-operated station, WXYC-FM. When I went over to WXYC to audition, the manager said that I had “a radio voice.” I didn’t know what that meant then, but, I think I do now.
I grew up listening to American Classical Music. My father was a mailman who loved Count Basie’s music. He would come home from work, fix himself a drink, put on some music and relax. He dug the big band music, people like Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Billy “Mr. B” Eckstine. He later told me that he sang in a big band when he was in college. He thought he was the new “Mr. B.” We didn’t dig the music when we were young, but, we learned to appreciate it later on once we matured. I think exposure has a great deal to do with whether a person can learn to appreciate it. I was fortunate. Some folks aren’t. It is, as far as I am concerned, the most sophisticated music in the world, created by the most sophisticated people in the world: African-Americans. My first paying job was at WDBS-FM, Durham, North Carolina, while I was in graduate school. My shift was from 2:30 am to 6:00 am., six days a week. Rough gig, but, most satisfying. I got to know all the local “jazz” musicians. They called me “Dr. Jazz” because I put a scholarly spin on the music. I found out that most people want to know what is the name of the selection you just programmed, the name of the album, the personnel on the piece, the date of the recording and any information that’s pertinent to the recording. They also want to know the time and the temperature and the weather. They want it to be brief. They listen for the music, not a lot of talk. They could care less about your personal life or how you are feeling. Your job is to make them feel good, to help them heal and to stay out of the way of the music. The less unnecessary talk the better.
A few years ago, I met an elderly smiling couple who approached me after I was the MC of a concert. “You don’t know us, but we know you,” said the husband. “My wife and I listen to you all the time.” “Really?” I said. “Yeah,” he said. “We like it because when you come on, my wife gets amorous.” His wife blushed and we all laughed.
After being at WDBS for about two years, I went home to Wilmington, and got a job in 1984 as the late night host at the local public radio station WHQR-FM. I was there for almost ten years. I left there and worked as the station manager at WWIL-AM in Wilmington for almost a year. In 1994, I left Wilmington to work at WNCU-FM, a 24-hour jazz station in Durham, North Carolina. I was there for about eight years (1995-2003). I worked as an evening jazz host, program director and interim station manager. I have hosted shows at WXDU-FM and WCOM-FM, where I am now. My program is called “Sunday Night Jazz.”
Talk about jazz on the radio aside from paid models like Sirius — is there a market?
American Classical Music, commonly called “jazz,” is simply a musical reflection of the African American experience. That’s all it is. It not something that should be exploited, something to make money off of. Blood suckers, thieves and parasites, i.e. club owners, record company owners, promoters, booking agents, took it over when they realized that it was a money-maker. It was first called N[_ _ _ _ _ _] Music, then coon music, then jungle music, then jack-ass music, but, when the ass refused to be kicked, it became JAZZ, a meaningless, absurd term which seeks to deny it its dignity. It didn’t work because it is still vibrant after over 100 years.
Also, swinging (4/4) is a very important part of the music. When the musician says “swing man swing” he or she is speaking in codes. They mean “swing me out of this racist system or swing me out of the blues.” They won’t tell you this, but I will. It is not for everybody. Nor should it be. It’s an acquired taste–like whole wheat bread or a fine wine. Some will never get it. Some folks don’t want to get it. I have learned that it’s a waste of time to try to figure out why some folks don’t dig it and prefer “smooth jazz’ or “contemporary jazz.” I tell people that “Take The A Train” is “contemporary jazz” because the A Train is moving as we speak and you can’t get any more contemporary than that. This music is the music of the future. We are just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. You dig?
In a phrase, what do you like most about jazz?
Jazz is a term that was given to American classical music around 1900, by the New Orleans aristocrats who after visiting the whorehouses and hearing the black musicians play the sounds of freedom, sought to deny it its dignity when they realized that they couldn’t play it and that their associates could not play it either. It has never belonged to black people nor will it ever. When the aristocrats realized that they could exploit it and make money off of it, the music, which is a reflection of the African-American musical reaction to the modern era, they took it over and have controlled it ever since. The first recorded “j-ass” (short for jack-ass) recording was performed by a group of people who the aristocrats selected. It would have been unthinkable and unprofitable to use black people to record black music.
American classical music has always had trouble with its African-American core because it has always been given a negative meaning. I interviewed Art “Buhania” Blakey several years ago after a concert at Duke University and he was highly ticked off because there were almost no black people in attendance. When I asked him was there a conspiracy to keep the music away from black people, he said, “Hell, no!” Buhania went on to say that black people don’t particularly like it and have been told by black preachers not to listen to the music because it was “devil’s music.”
I have been a jazz radio announcer/writer for over three decades and have heard many blacks tell me that they don’t like jazz because it moves too fast or slow, there is not enough soulful singing, or that white folks like it. These are all absurd reasons of course, but that’s reality. How do we solve it? How do we reverse decades of fear and ignorance? Good questions. The answer is to keep on doing what we are doing by promoting it, playing it on the radio and by posing such questions and challenging the status quo when they keep trying to make it something that it isn’t. It is BLACK MUSIC and it will continue to be for another 100 years. Just like we know that the Old Dixieland Jass Band was some watered down, mediocre music, we will know that most of the music we hear these days that passes itself off as American classical music (jazz) is as fake as a three-dollar bill.
Links and photos courtesy of Larry Reni Thomas.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018