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Ack! What Fresh Hell Is This?





Slick Chick, or Helen Morgan's Jazz Life

By Nichole Rustin-Paschal



When Helen Morgan shot trumpeter Lee Morgan, she knew the price of the thing. In the aftermath, while locked up at Riker’s awaiting her arraignment, she reflected on her situation: “I said, ‘well Helen, you got to get yourself together. It’s done. You done put yourself in it now. So, you got to get yourself together. You got to get your mind together. You got to get yourself together mentally to accept what you have done.”

Helen, born in rural North Carolina, a mother of two by 14, and a widow by 19, had migrated to New York City in the forties. She first arrived on a visit to her late husband’s family; she stayed having made her place in the world among the music and musicians in an apartment near Birdland. Helen described herself as a “hip square” to Larry Reni Thomas in the only interview she ever gave about her life and the death of Lee Morgan.

February 1972 at Slug’s down in Alphabet City, during a blizzard, Helen snapped. Lee Morgan was in the middle of a week long stay at the club. She killed him with the very gun he’d purchased for her as protection during all those nights he wasn't at home because of the music. The two had been together for about five years, meeting another fateful winter’s night when she took in Morgan, then a junkie, with no coat, no horn, no prospects. She couldn't help but embrace him. “I said to myself ‘this little boy, you know.’”

Sympathetic to the musicians, including those who used drugs she never did, Helen opened her apartment to them. “I would let them in because they were people and one thing they were a mystery to me because I could never figure out how anything could make you in the dead winter time, zero weather, take off your coat and sell it.”

She got his horn back, got his coat back, helped him get treatment at a methadone clinic in the Bronx, where they soon moved together into an apartment on the Grand Concourse. She facilitated his rebirth. According to Slug’s owner Jerry Schultz, Helen was to Lee “his everything, his manager, his nurse, his old lady, his mama.” Paul West remarked of Morgan and Helen’s relationship, “His life was restored by Helen. It was a joy to watch. He was playing, he was producing, he was living.”

Lee Morgan dancing with Bobby Timmons, Louis Hayes looking on.

Morgan, before meeting Helen, had reached rock bottom. He was no longer the ebullient trumpeter of hard bop we see in stills from recording sessions at Blue Note, poignant images depicting the baby-faced exuberance of a teenaged musician, who had a distinct musical style and a penchant for looking clean, “Ivy League” said Wayne Shorter, at all times. Morgan liked fast cars; he smoked, he laughed, and he played the trumpet.

Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter[/caption]

Shorter, then a young musician, coming out of the army, recognized Morgan as a star the first time he saw him play in Dizzy’s band, the one that also featured Melba Liston. Shorter recalls Morgan’s ability to create a musical narrative in a solo. When he listened to him play, Shorter silently urged on Morgan to “Talk to thepeople; talk to the people, tell them your story.” 

Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter

Val Wilmer interviewed Morgan in 1971. He explained his artistic vision: “I find that the essence of creativity is the newness of things, and the only way to keep things new is to have constant changes of environment and surrounding and people and all that, you know. And that’s the thing that is so exciting about being a jazz musician.” The last new thing Helen could support was a girlfriend.

Valerie Bishop recalled, as news spread of Morgan’s new girlfriend, that “Nobody knew how [Helen] could endure this guy. He really owed her his life, let alone, at the very least, his respect. But he was just vile to her. He pushed her to the limits and beyond.” But, according to Lee Morgan’s niece, Donna Cox, “It was like Helen was addicted to him. She went everywhere with Lee. She didn’t just go to watch him play from time to time. She went every night and stayed for every set. The only time she wasn’t with him was when he was in the bathroom or something.” His sister-in-law commented that Helen was “Not so much protective. Helen was jealous.”

Helen knew her worth. “Like I made him. You know. I brought you back. You belong to me.” She rejected the idea that he could start “seeing this girl,” leaving her alone at home every night. “I was not one of the nicest persons either. I will not sit here and tell you that I was so nice because I was not. I was one who will cut you. I was sharp. Yeah. I had to be, had to be. I was sharp. And I…I looked out for me.” But Lee Morgan wouldn't accept the price. “He had somebody (his age) to play with,” recalled Helen.

“Did I love him? Or did I think he was my possession? And I think part of that might have been my fault because I might have stopped being…I might have started being too possessive or too much like a mother to him.” The musicians who witnessed the shooting and were profoundly angered by her actions, still found that they could accept and embrace her afterwards. Bassist Larry Ridley said “The anger just went away” when he later saw her. David Rosenthal sees the shooting as definitely marking the death of hard bop.

After pleading not guilty in April 1972, Helen posted bail in May. In 1973 she pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter. According to Lee’s biographer, Jeffrey McMillan, despite speculation that she’d been sent to a mental institution, exact information about Helen’s sentence is unknown, as her case file had been taken from the County Clerk’s office. She moved back to Wilmington in 1975 and died in 1996. According to her son, Al Harrison, her life in the Methodist church was devotional penance.

Love, heartbreak, forgiveness, redemption: the narrative arc of a jazz life.


 **cross-posted from nicholerustinpaschal.com**




Yes! It’s National Poetry Month!



You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford (New York: Atheneum, 2016)

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2017)


Let’s dive in with poetry for middle grade readers. Each selection warrants repeated readings, as poetry typically does, to ruminate over the themes, the exquisite language, and the outstanding visuals.

Carole Boston Weatherford, poet, and her son, illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford, collaborated on the 2016 book, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen. You can hold the book in one hand, its petite size belying the vastness of the themes captured within. The work pulls you into the 1940s and the historical experience of young black men and women eager to make their mark during an era of upheaval and change.

Weatherford writes of segregation, racism, gender, and patriotism during World War II, through the eyes of an Airman who seized the chance to fight and fly. “You hail from big cities and country roads/and are not run of the mill by any measure./Thirteen men—not thirty-five, as expected—/and not an “average Joe” among you.” Ambitious young men are not the only stars of the book. We learn as well of the bravery of those black women allowed into the Army Nurse Corps because the military faced a shortage of nurses. “You cannot go to war without a medical corps./…It really takes a good nurse to KEEP ‘EM FLYING.” Weatherford doesn’t shy away from the fact that black people were fighting on two fronts, abroad and at home where “In this war, the enemy is you./In 1941 and 1942, eleven black men—/if you count the three boys—/were lynched in the United States.” Black newspapers pressed the point in reportage and editorials; William Henry Hastie, “a freedom fighter,” pressed the military: “How could a black man be expected to fight,/he asks, and defend a country/that doesn’t respect his rights…?” In depicting Dorie Miller’s bravery at Pearl Harbor, boxer Joe Louis’s and songbird Lena Horne’s support of the war effort, Weatherford emphasizes the complexity of African American patriotism. For the Airmen of the Fighting 99th, “The color barrier was granite,/but you not only chipped away at it,/you did victory rolls over the rubble.”

Jeffrey Boston Weatherford’s scratchboard illustrations are like woodcuts from the era. The images are intimate (we see an Airman studying the picture of his girl, other Airmen playing cards and listening to the jukebox) and expansive (the Fighting 99th in flight formation in the sky, a rendering of the bombing of Pearl Harbor); they capture black cultural figures (Horne, Louis) and American segregation.

Check out a discussion between the two here:

As Weatherford shows, we turn to poetry for inspiration, whether to tell a story about the past or, as Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth do, to show how our own art draws on the beauty of others. The book’s title draws on poet Lucille Clifton who understood that “Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” That wondering is the task Alexander, Colderley, and Wentworth task themselves in Out of Wonder. They embrace the art of twenty other poets, such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, e. e. Cummings, and Rumi, and create new work inspired by them.  As Alexander explains, “I believe that by reading other poets we can discover own wonder…. The poems in this book pay tribute to the poets…by adopting their style, extending their ideas, and offering gratitude to their wisdom and inspiration.” (Brief bios of each of the poets referenced are included for further exploration.)

Each section of the collection has a short introduction covering ideas around style, feeling and theme, and connection. Chris Colderley, in celebrating Nikki Giovanni, writes,

people forget…poetry is not just words on a page…it is…

a snowflake on your tongue…a tattoo on the inside of your arm…a dashiki and a kaftan...

 poetry is remembering the things that matter…the ones you love…

when night comes softly…like ripples on a pond


That’s why, after your first read of Out of Wonder, you must lay it flat on a table and dive more deeply into Ekua Holmes’s mixed-media collages. (See her work above.) Each poem is illustrated in exuberant colors and textures that spring from the page. Holmes gives us the stillness of nature and the urgency of the city, the playfulness of young children and the blues of adults. She expertly depicts the variety in scope of the poems, teasing out the fullness of the poets’ words in her art.

Kwame Alexander was interviewed on NPR by Rachel Martin about Out of Wonder; check it out here:   


Music that is "...for all the world to see."

By Nichole Rustin-Paschal

To watch “A Band Called Death,” followed by “Sound City,” and ending with “NY 77: The Coolest Year In Hell,” is to be draped in sheets of sound that sometimes suffocate with their relentless, frenetic energy and sometimes comfort with the nostalgic evocation of time and place. From Detroit to Burlington, from Seattle to Los Angeles, from the Bronx to SoHo, these documentaries depict the emergence of punk rock, disco, and hip hop as reflecting particular socioeconomic, geographic, and racial experiences of late twentieth century youth culture. “We are here, we are here, we are here.”

“A Band Called Death” recounts the fantastic resurrection story of a punk rock band of black brothers from Detroit. David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney, taught always to back up their brothers, formed a band in the early 1970s, playing music that veered from “traditional” black music genres like gospel and R&B to rock; they played rock so loudly and gleefully the police were called several times to the family home. Despite their recognized talent, nobody wanted to record a band called Death and David, the eldest brother and leader, refused to change the name. His brothers argued with him about this privately, but accepted his decision. “Death” grew from David’s encounter with mortality, a tragic car accident leading him to think about life, music, and faith more deeply than he had before. David believed in the importance of Death’s music, despite the continued rejection the band encountered, and that people would come looking for their music, structures the story of the band’s history. Their music lives now because of family, because of record collectors, an intrepid reporter, and fans for whom the music represents truth.

In “Sound City,” David Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana, having taken his mother's advice, crafts through the history of a soundboard at the acclaimed recording studio, Sound City, an engrossing story about the transformation of the music business and the art of musical collaboration in the wake of digital technology edging out analog recording techniques. Grohl insists, and shows through the scenes of his own collaborations with other musicians in making the film, that music is intensely intimate, and is at its most expressive when musicians work together in live, musical dialogue. Analog recording technology represents an ideal setting for this dialogue because it forces musicians to make decisions about what they will create and how within the context of set parameters. Digital technology makes it all too easy and sanitizes what ought to be truthful expression of musical ideas. The engineers, producers, and musicians Grohl films echo him as they recount stories of how music brought them to Sound City. Within the limits of their recording budgets and the technology itself, those who recorded at Sound City found freedom.

The oldest of the films, “NY 77: The Coolest Year In Hell” focuses broadly on the state of New York City in 1977, viewing that year as a turning point politically, culturally, and musically for a city that had reached its lowest point financially and socially. Nearly bankrupt, wracked by the leadership of an inept mayor, rising rates of crime and poverty, New York’s woes were the fodder for music practices that shaped a generation. The history told isn’t new, but it resonates with its depiction of a gritty, grimy, but beautiful seventies era New York whose bravado, speech patterns, dance rhythms, and sartorial style continue to influence us. NY in the seventies was free, but the cost has been its “Disneyfication.”

These films explore how and why music is born—through the dialogue musicians engage in as they arrange a composition in preparation for recording, through the transformation of material disadvantages into dynamic art, through the awkward embrace and rejection of new technologies to create and record, through the knotty racial intricacies of influence, ownership, and reception, through the intensely individual work of learning an instrument inside and out such that it reshapes your subconscious, and through the social networks that keep music alive.