How a jazz legend’s resting place was lost and found, 50 years after his tragic death: NPR
Joel Franklin/Courtesy of the artist
Lee Morgan’s final resting place is a hillside lot in a modest Bucks County cemetery, abutting the Pennsylvania Turnpike. On a recent afternoon, the winter sun cast shadows on his tombstone, on which a trumpet is carved with his name, EDW. LEE MORGAN, and the years 1938 to 1972 — the measure of a tragically cut short life.
Morgan was a hard-bop trumpeter of spectacular prowess and undeniable charisma, with a discography that spans some of the most iconic Blue Note albums of the 1960s. He is also one of jazz’s most infamous casualties, due to the circumstances of his death almost exactly 50 years ago on February 19, 1972. Morgan was playing a gig at the Slugs’ Saloon club in East Village. Between sets early Saturday morning, he had an altercation with his common-law wife, Helen, who shot him. A snowstorm delayed the arrival of medical help, and Morgan bled to death from his injury.
This story received powerful and sensitive treatment in the 2016 documentary I called him Morgan, by Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin. Now streaming on Netflix, it’s an empathetic portrayal of Lee and Helen Morgan, and a lucid view of their relationship, which helped lift him out of the depths of a serious heroin addiction. Rather than a conventional documentary arc, it evokes an aura of reminiscence and conjecture; among its subtexts is a wistful notion of what the world has lost with Morgan’s shock departure.
Last year, haunted in part by that sentiment, a jazz fan named Tommy Maguire set out to find Morgan’s grave, which he learned was a short drive from his home in the suburb of Philadelphia. Maguire had gathered information on the precise location of the plot, but as he wandered through the cemetery at White Chapel Memorial Park, he could not find it. He made a few repeat visits, always to no avail. Then, just after Christmas, he returned and managed to enlist the help of a gardener, who shared his bewilderment by studying a map that indicated where the grave should be. After planting a spade in a few rough spots along the hill, they heard a thud. About half an hour of determined digging uncovered the headstone that Lee shares with his father, Otto Morgan. It had somehow been swallowed up by almost a foot of dirt.
Since unearthing the marker, Maguire himself has become a minor figure in Morgan’s posthumous fate, a fact he acknowledges without insisting on the point. He works as an art director in a company that manufactures metal credit cards; he is an amateur guitarist but a great lover of jazz. I met him on a recent Sunday at Morgan’s grave, where he had already laid a bouquet of yellow roses. Standing there, it was almost hard to imagine the marker buried so deep in the hillside, even though I had seen a series of photos that Maguire posted to a private Facebook group, Jazz Vinyl Lovers. With a hint of wonder, he recalls a surreal moment that afternoon, during the dig, when it unexpectedly started snowing.
“There was no snow forecast,” he mused. “And, you know, if the blizzard hadn’t hit New York that night, the ambulance probably could have saved him. The toll highway is here next to us, and it sounds like a river once in a while, with the traffic. And I was standing right here with this guy with a big crowbar thing in the soft snow, looking at the letters on this dug up tombstone that was still about 10 inches below the ground. It was dramatic and it was really sad.
But while the inexplicable fate of Morgan’s tombstone amplifies a sense of tragedy, the sound of his music continues to transmit a frequency of unbridled joy. Last year, Blue Note released The Integral Live at the Lighthouse, which captures the entirety of a legendary club dating back to July 1970, on 12 LPs or 8 CDs. (Greg Bryant and me devoted an episode from the WBGO Jazz United podcast to this set; we agree that it is a wonder of richness.) What one hears in this music, and certainly in Morgan’s playing, is an irrepressible and almost defiant vitality. “What’s so fantastic is all the music he left behind,” says Kasper Collin, speaking from Sweden via video conference. “I mean, from the first recording in 1956 until the start of 1972, it’s so much music that it could be laid out for a lifetime. And we should be so thankful that it exists.”
As we approach the 50th anniversary of his passing, more efforts are underway to honor the fullness of Morgan’s legacy. A place-based public history project called All that Philly Jazz, led by Faye Anderson, works to secure a Pennsylvania historical marker for Morgan in downtown Philadelphia; she plans to submit the application package this Friday. On Saturday, Anderson says, she will make her first pilgrimage to White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery with some of Morgan’s family members, including a nephew, Raymond Darryl Cox.
“I told him to bring a broom, dustpan and gloves, just in case,” Anderson says. Thanks to the tenacious efforts of a curious fan, that won’t be necessary – not this weekend, and probably never again.