Frank Morgan

updated 07/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1988 01:00AM

For three days the recording session went smoothly enough. Veteran saxman Frank Morgan, a onetime heir apparent to Charlie "Bird" Parker, had come to Fantasy Studios in Oakland, Calif., last January, full of smiles and infectious enthusiasm. "It's a dream," Morgan had said, obviously pleased by the prevailing sense of good feeling and fellowship.

Then, on the fourth day, everything changed.

Maybe the dungeonlike atmosphere of the windowless studio had taken a toll. Or perhaps Morgan, 54, was simply feeling the tension as producer Orrin Keepnews nervously paced the floor ordering second and third takes. Suddenly, Morgan exploded and ordered the producer back to the control room with an angry volley of curses. "I felt like I was back in jail, you dig?" Morgan says. "Orrin probably wasn't even conscious of it, but having him pace back and forth and stand over me reminded me of the gun-rail guards in prison."

It was surely an unwelcome flashback to a time when all the promise of a brilliant career seemed irretrievably lost to drug addiction and thievery. Certainly Morgan's talent was never in question. "There is no one around who is better on alto saxophone," says trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who regards Morgan as a mentor. "What comes out of his horn is soulful, full of fire and timeless."

For many years, though, anyone who wanted to hear that horn had to go to prison to do it. After being hailed in the '50s as a possible successor to Parker, the king of bebop jazz, Morgan embarked on a nightmare odyssey of heroin, cocaine and life behind bars. For a time even some of his friends had given him up for dead. Then, 2½ years ago, Morgan burst back on to the jazz scene and gave notice of his resurrection with a quick succession of remarkable albums: Easy Living, Lament, Bebop Lives!, Double Image and Major Changes.

"I am blessed to have been spared by the Creator," says Morgan, "even though I tried to check out many times. That's why I feel I have to work harder now to preserve the purity of the music I believe in." In private, Morgan is soft-spoken, solicitous and surprisingly relaxed. He credits his ever-present companion Rosalinda Kolb, 35, an artist and former model, for helping him make his life work again. "There were times when I didn't have the strength necessary to avoid the self-abuse," he says, "but I had the strength to say I am not going to hurt Rosalinda any more." Rosalinda admits that their life together has never been easy. "I tried to run away from him many times," she says. "But I could never stay away because there is a bright side to Frank which is as brilliant as his dark side is dismal. I felt a great warmth and tenderness in him and in his music which he seemed afraid to let out. I guess we got addicted to each other."

Morgan didn't always know such love. He fondly remembers his father, Stanley, a guitarist for the Ink Spots, strumming tunes by his crib. But as a traveling musician, Stanley was rarely at home. Nor was Morgan's mother, Geraldine, a 14-year-old Minneapolis schoolgirl at the time of his birth, prepared to be anyone's mother. Morgan was shuttled between his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother until he was 6, then was sent to Milwaukee to stay with Stanley's mother, "Mama Coot." It was there, two years later, that his father came to take him to the Paradise Theater in Detroit, where Charlie Parker was performing. "When Bird stood up with his sax and took his first solo on "Hootie Blues," Morgan recalls, "something jumped right out of the music and grabbed me." His own calling, he decided, was to play alto, too.

When Morgan turned 14, Mama Coot found some marijuana in his pocket and shipped him back to his father, who was divorced by then and running an after-hours jazz club in Los Angeles. Morgan was still in high school when he landed a house-band job at the Club Alabam, backing singers like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker and jamming with jazz greats passing through. Trumpeter Clora Bryant used to drive him to school in the morning straight from the club. "He was a real pussycat, a little kitten," says Bryant. "Charlie Parker was the same way. They both desperately needed affection but had a hard time finding genuine friendship and love."

The first time Morgan shot heroin, at 17, he saw it as a rite of initiation into the brotherhood of bebop, an insurrectionist school of jazz led by Parker. "I couldn't wait to tell Bird, to let him know I had become a member of the club," Morgan says. "I gave him the news at one of his concerts, and he started lecturing me. He said, 'Man, can't you see what it's doing to me. It's killing me.' But then I told him I had brought along some heroin and cocaine, and that changed everything. He was ready to party."

In retrospect, Morgan believes he set out to sabotage his own career because of a crippling fear of success. "I couldn't be Little Frankie, the child prodigy, forever," he says, "and I think I preferred facing defeat by heroin to facing whether I could really cut the mustard. Then I ended up falling in love with my drug habit. My habit became my old lady, my main loved one, because it was totally dependent on me. I'd wake up in the morning with the monkey on my back, biting my neck, and say, 'Don't worry, baby, I'll take care of you.' By the time I'd begged, stolen or borrowed enough money for a fix, I often felt like I was about to die. After that, there is nothing in the world quite like the warm feeling snaking its way up from your belly when you inject. You're talking about a cloudy, cloudy day becoming sunny real fast."

On March 12, 1955, Morgan was playing at the California Club in Los Angeles when he heard the news that Charlie Parker was dead. "We used it as an excuse to take an extra long intermission," Morgan says, "and I paid tribute to Bird by getting high, which is what I would have done anyway. Instead of frightening me, Bird's death clouded my thinking even more. I decided it was kind of on me to carry the torch, not as a musician, but as a dope fiend."

As Morgan's heroin habit grew more demanding, he slipped into a life of crime. "The name of the game changed from Frank Morgan the saxophonist and drug addict to Frank Morgan the drug addict, petty criminal, burglar, forger and then, maybe, saxophonist," he says. "Music was just too slow to support my habit." A series of misdemeanor arrests and brief jail sentences didn't discourage him. "I think I really wanted to prove that I was superman, that I could survive anything, including prison," he says. In 1962 Morgan got his wish. Refusing to inform on his partners in a forgery ring that had passed $600,000 in bad checks, Morgan took the rap and was sent to California's San Quentin prison.

In those days, the San Quentin band, led by alto saxophonist Art Pepper, was the pride of the prison, and Morgan received a warm welcome. "Five minutes after they took me to the cell block, about 40 inmates gathered outside my door," he says. "They had four or five alto saxophones for me to try out. I was offered my choice of homosexuals. I had cocaine. I had marijuana. I had cigarettes, candy, hair grease and a line of credit."

Treated like a superstar, Morgan dressed in a prison-made tuxedo every Saturday night to play for Bay Area curiosity seekers who paid $7.50 apiece for a penitentiary tour and a chance to hear the warden's famous band. Between concerts, his fellow inmates paid in their own way to hear Morgan and the other musicians. "I was loaded in some form every day that I was there," says Morgan, "whether it was on alcohol, pills, weed, cocaine or something from the hospital." Despite the handouts, Morgan still ran up a dangerous drug debt. "At one point I had to ask my mother to bring me $300 to pay somebody off," Morgan says. "I told her, 'Mom, either you do it or I die.' It's a cold son that places that kind of proposition to his mother. You have to understand that Quentin is a place where someone might kill you over a pack of cigarettes."

Released in 1967, Morgan was anything but rehabilitated. "I had one thing on my mind, and that was dope," he says. "So I got back into the same old pattern. I was a jewel thief, burglar, confidence man—whatever the traffic would bear, as long as it was inside the line. I didn't believe in violence." Though he never returned to San Quentin, over the next two decades Morgan spent more time in confinement than out. "Left to my own devices on the street, I didn't play hardly any music," he says. "But the prisons were a resting place where I could regain my strength and practice my horn."

When Morgan met Rosalinda, in 1978, he was in an outpatient drug-rehabilitation program and playing at night at the Century City Playhouse in L.A. "We were introduced during intermission," Morgan says, "and the moment I looked into her eyes I fell in love." Raised on grand opera by her Viennese father, Rosalinda quickly found herself cast in the role of self-sacrificing tragedienne. "I saw this brilliant person who was lonely and unhappy," Rosalinda says, "and my rescue instincts came into play." Though Morgan tried at first to hide his drug use and criminal activities, money kept disappearing from their apartment and his horns were constantly in hock. Then, in 1980, he nearly drove Rosalinda off a cliff after taking money set aside for brake repairs and buying drugs instead.

"That night," says Rosalinda, "I dreamed I was a porpoise floating in this beautiful blue sunlit water, and all of a sudden a shark came along and bit my head off. I figured I couldn't equivocate with a dream like that. I told Frank he could go ahead and kill himself, but I was not going to stick around to watch." Within a week Morgan was busted on seven felony counts, including auto theft, burglary and possession of stolen checks. "It seemed that through the most perilous means possible," she says, "Frank worked his way back to a place of safety—prison—rather than confront the feelings buried deep inside himself."

While Morgan resumed his tour of treatment centers and jails, Rosalinda waited and hoped. "It was always good to visit him," she says. "The longer he stayed in prison the healthier he looked. And he'd always give me the thumbs-up gesture on my way out." Released in April 1985, Morgan got a break when Fantasy Records offered him a recording contract. But by the time he entered the studio two months later to record Easy Living, he was back on drugs and a warrant was out for his arrest. "I set myself up for failure because I was scared," Morgan says. "Deep down inside I still thought of myself as a lowlife, so how was I supposed to handle a big recording deal? But when I did that album, it felt so good I thought, 'This is where I belong. I've been in the studio for three days and I ain't stolen nothing.' "

At Rosalinda's insistence, Morgan surrendered after the session and spent the next four months in jail. He also made a solemn promise to her that he would finally go straight. "The difference this time was that I had something to come out to," Morgan says. "Easy Living was released two weeks before they set me free. And when I walked out of the prison gate, Rosalinda was standing by her car with my horns and a pair of Reeboks. She said, 'We made it, baby.' It was the most beautiful thing in the world."

Last November, after two years of freedom, Morgan starred in an off-Broadway musical, Prison-Made Tuxedos, based in part on his San Quentin experiences. Morgan reveled in his positive reviews by New York critics but in private expressed ambivalence about the role. "While I was standing out there on the stage I thought, 'What happens if this becomes a big hit and I have to relive all those painful experiences from my past over and over again? I'm not San Quentin Slim anymore. That guy is dead.' " Extremely edgy during the play's 10-day run, Morgan went directly from the theater each night to a gig at the Village Vanguard, where he soothed his nerves by tenderly caressing each note on even the most up-tempo melodies. Snapping his fingers in time with an old Charlie Parker tune one night, he turned to his fellow musicians and said, "Don't wake me up if this is just some penitentiary dream."

Despite his recent success, Morgan has always lived dangerously and always will. In jazz, of course, risk is the prime requisite. "I try to live on the edge of the beat, on the edge of the harmony," he says. But even with two new records from the January recording session due to be released soon, Morgan has little money in the bank and has to fight an impulse to steal. "It's difficult for me to be broke," he says, "especially when I know I am capable of making $20,000 or $30,000 a week by illegal means." Having recently moved from Oakland, he and Rosalinda are renting a modest apartment in Brooklyn. He visits a clinic daily for methadone, and to cope with the mounting pressures of his new life, recently had his dosage increased "as preventive medicine. I've been wrestling with methadone for years. I don't dig being on it, but it helps keep me comfortable enough to stay clean and take care of business." Given his history of self-immolation, Morgan realizes the temptation to backslide will always be strong. "I know how to fail. I know absolutely what doesn't work for me," he says. "I also know that if I just show up and play my horn, there is a good life out here for me."

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