Upon being accepted beyond the Pearly Gates, hardly a given considering their typical lifestyles, recently deceased bassists snoop around from cloud to cloud hoping to figure out where Al Morgan hangs out. He may have been the greatest bassist in music history, at least if such a judgment were to be based on how much enjoyment listeners get out of the performances he participated in. Morgan's basslines weave a web through the development of jazz, R&B, and rock & roll, beginning where all such things should -- in New Orleans. A bassist that has "the Al Morgan thing" together is a master at all three of those styles, so no wonder there are musical angels looking for lessons.
In New Orleans, the surname Morgan brings up one of many musical dynasties, not just the bottom-end expert who went on to play on records such as Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher." Brother Sam Morgan led his own bands and played trumpet. Isaiah Morgan was also a trumpeter and bandleader, while fourth brother Andrew Morgan was a clarinetist and saxophonist. Clarinet was Al Morgan's first instrument as well, but his taste quickly swooped down. He was interested in creating momentum in the foundations of an ensemble, yet prior to the Roaring Twenties nobody in jazz was even sure what type of instrument was required for that task. Morgan mastered all available options -- string bass, baritone sax, tuba. Indeed, he even played a bass instrument with only three strings that quickly became an obscurity behind the thump of the four-string model.
If all artists have their masterpieces, Morgan's were created upriver from New Orleans in a period when the string bass had become firmly established in its backbone role. His involvement in great sides by Calloway, Fats Waller, and later Louis Jordan firmly cement the bond between great times and great music. Blues fans will hear something special the bassist added to classic records by guitarist T-Bone Walker, and Morgan likewise sets a high standard for swinging walking bass on mind-boppling sessions involving tenor saxophone masters Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Byas. Bass historians trace these skills back to the New Orleans legend Simon Marrero, who gave Morgan lessons circa 1919.
Isaiah Morgan's band provided early professional opportunities for the bassist before he slipped around the coast to Pensacola, establishing himself in Mack Thomas & the Pensacola Jazzers as well as in a combo with trumpeter and singer Lee Collins. By the mid-'20s, Morgan was back in New Orleans -- at least when he wasn't gigging up and down the Mississippi on a riverboat with the legendary Fate Marable band. Another of Morgan's bosses, Davey Jones, was still requiring him to double on tuba during this period. The St. Louis bassist Cecil Scott was Morgan's teacher in the Marable years, lasting up until the late '20s. Some rocking scholars thread a necklace from this St. Louis connection, the link running to Morgan's later role in Louis Jordan's band and the influence that music would in turn have on St. Louis homeboy Chuck Berry.
Recorded material finally becomes available regarding Morgan's activity thanks to "field trips" by musicologists or just plain talent scouts employed by the Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, and OKeh companies. The track strangely entitled "Damp Weather Test" features him with the Jones & Collins Astoria Hot Eight, a band from New Orleans, prior to Morgan's shift to New York City as a home base. This change coincided with a new decade as well, the '30s. Morgan jumped into the rhythm section of a group led by a reed player associated with early Duke Ellington ensembles, Otto Hardwick, at the hardly pedestrian Hot Feet Club. The bassist spent four years with Calloway beginning in 1932.
Morgan decided to leave Calloway during a California tour and subsequently had a solid association with the West Coast scene, including thick screen presence. His movie appearances include the "Drum Crazy" sequence in the turgid The Gene Krupa Story and a scene with Louis Armstrong in Going Places. Musically, his '40s output was strongly diverse. Morgan led his own band, held forth behind Fats Waller and in the Les Hite ensemble, joined an energetic small group led by drummer Zutty Singleton, and helped put across new, somewhat zany R&B stylings with Jordan. The next pages of Morgan's biography must include references to the pianist, singer, and bandleader Sabby Lewis. Their Boston-based association lasted more than a decade, with the bassist grabbing other work on Lewis' off-nights.
In early 1957 Morgan moved to California for good. There were further screen appearances such as King Creole, while the bassist continued developing the repertoire of singing pianists such as Nellie Lutcher. In the '60s Morgan was considered part of the furnishings at the Tudor Inn in Norwalk, regularly working by the side of pianist Buddy Banks. While the size of Morgan's discography is enough to devastate most competition, the bassist should still not be confused with Alun Morgan, a prolific writer of jazz liner notes, or a pianist and singer named Al Morgan whose recordings have been reissued by the Jasmine label. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi