Peak Moments: Lee Morgan Edition

We all have have songs/movies/books/etc. that we love. But what about the peak moments in those experiences–the moments that stop the breath, prickle the skin, freeze the heart?

Lee Morgan (1938-1972)

I remember the first time I “got” jazz. It was “Ysabel’s Table Dance,” from Charles Mingus’ Tijuana Moods. At first, I only heard chaos. But then, seemingly with the flip of a switch, a controlled kind of swinging bop kicked in, only to fall apart once more. The pattern repeated itself, each time highlighting the work of bass, horn, and percussion. That’s when I learned about the concept of “trading” in jazz: “trading eights,” “trading fours,” and so on. James Baldwin describes the phenomenon beautifully at the end of his short story, “Sonny’s Blues”:

Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again.

A short time after that, I bought John Coltrane’s Blue Train, released in 1958. My favorite track, “I’m Old Fashioned,” is a standard twelve-bar blues, allowing the musicians to “trade twenty fours” in a more predictable and anticipatory fashion than I heard in “Ysabel”; it’s easy to intuit when the hand-offs are coming up, based on the cadence at the end of each solo.  

The exhilarating thing about the hand-offs here, though, is that, even though the blues pattern demands a clear breaking point, the musicians sometimes jump in too soon, as if unable to contain themselves. At the end of Curtis Fuller’s trombone solo, for instance, before he’s finished his “turnaround lick,” pianist Kenny Drew comes in a beat too early, intruding on Fuller’s final bar while also carrying the momentum forward into the next iteration.

But that’s only a hint of the peak moment to come.

Drew’s final, sustained note has not even faded away before Lee Morgan hits us with the first flurry on his trumpet. Then, for at least two bars afterward, there is an explosion of notes, the pent up energy releasing like a race horse out of the gate, or a flock of birds bursting into the sky. The joy is overwhelming. Only then, after the original, dizzying flight, does Morgan begin to settle back to earth: the notes are held longer, the breathing becomes quieter, and he allows himself to become again “part of the family,” influenced by the melody and the easy swing of Paul Chambers’ walking bass.

Whenever I listen to the mad rush of notes at the opening of Morgan’s solo in “I’m Old Fashioned,” I am reminded of how the British novelist, Anthony Trollope, once described Niagara Falls:

To realize Niagara you must sit there till you see nothing else than that which you have come to see. You will hear nothing else and see nothing else. At length you will be at one with the tumbling river before you. You will find yourself among the waters as though you belonged to them. The cool liquid green will run through your veins and the voice of the cataract will be the expression of your own heart. You will fall as the bright waters fall, rushing down into your new world with no hesitation and with no dismay: and you will rise again as the spray rises, bright, beautiful and pure. Then you will flow away in your course to the uncompassed, distant and eternal ocean.

“Oh, my friend,” Trollope continues, “let there be no one there to speak to thee then; no, not even a brother.” True enough; God help anyone who interrupts me while listening to this piece of music.

Then again, I don’t listen to Blue Train much any more. It scares me. It has too much of what philosophers call “the sublime,” and Italians call “timore reverenziale”–reverential fear. Also, to quote Rilke, from The Duino Elegies,

For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.


Let’s end with another passage from “Sonny’s Blues”:

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something happens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

I always imagine Morgan waiting for his turn to speak, listening closely to the conversation, trumpet poised. And he went last. Just think of it! It must have been almost unbearable—not merely the waiting, but also sensing the terrible roar of the approaching wave, and longing for the plunge.

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