In the early 1950s, alto saxophonist Frank Morgan was a rising jazz artist who played with the likes of Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Ella Fitzgerald. But the jazzman said the best big band he ever played with was in San Quentin prison.
The Minneapolis native followed his idol and mentor Parker into heroin addiction and spent 30 years serving time for thefts to support his habit. He made an impressive comeback, though, starting in the mid-1980s.
Morgan, who left the Twin Cities as a child and returned two years ago to be near family, died Friday in his Minneapolis home of complications from colon cancer and other ailments.
Morgan lived with his second cousin, Melanie Taylor, and her husband, Lance Taylor, who recalled his recovery from addiction in the 1980s.
"From there, he got a second chance and just took off," said Lance Taylor, who said he'll never forget Morgan's signature line when he performed. "After a song or two, he would get a grin on his face and say: 'Isn't it great to be alive?'"
Morgan told Taylor: "The greatest big band I ever played in was in San Quentin," reported Taylor, saying a handful of other top jazz artists formed the core of the prison band.
Morgan's comeback was punctuated by his lead performance in an off-Broadway play about his life ("Prison-Made Tuxedos"), appearing on national talk shows, winning critics' polls and releasing a series of recordings, according to a June 23, 2006, Star Tribune article, published on the day he performed at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival.
Radio broadcaster and jazz supporter Leigh Kammon said Morgan "was tremendously talented from an early age. And after battling his addiction, he added several layers of warmth and mellowing that was an imprint on his style.
"His sense of the melodic was a signature in his playing."
Morgan last played on a Minneapolis stage in a tribute show to Kammon in September at the Dakota Jazz Club.
Two weeks ago, Morgan wrapped up a European tour. He felt ill after returning to Minneapolis, where his inoperable colon cancer was diagnosed.
When he was a child, Morgan played guitar, like his father Stanley Morgan, who played with the Ink Spots.
Inspired by Charlie Parker, Frank Morgan turned to the clarinet and alto sax, said Taylor.
The Morgan family moved from Minneapolis when he was a youngster, eventually winding up in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. When he was a teenager, he played in a club's house band, backing stars such as Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday.
He was married twice, and divorced twice.
He is survived by his former wives, Rosalinda Kolb of Taos, New Mexico, and Sharon Schnittker of Los Angeles.
A memorial gathering is being planned.