March 2008

Frank Morgan (12.23.33 – 12.14.07)

On a rainy day last March, I stood on a stage with Frank Morgan at the Berklee College of Music and listened as he played a solo called “Lullaby.” Over the past 12 years or so, I had probably heard him play the song eight different times and eight different ways, either live or on record. And this time was no different. He made the same song a new song. He made it his. He made it unique. He did this because Frank Morgan was unique.

I’m no jazzman. I’m a writer. I had the privilege of being on that stage with Frank because we were asked to come to the school and talk to the students about the connection between music and words, about the origin of creativity. I had met Frank briefly once before and had used his music to score small films I had been involved with. More importantly, I had used his music as personal inspiration. It helped me write a series of novels about a detective who has overcome great obstacles and is relentless in his pursuit of the truth. I knew Frank had overcome great obstacles and was just as relentless in his own pursuit of the truth. You could hear it in every note he played.

While we were on the stage, Frank tried to explain his secret to the students and their teachers. Ultimately, he said he would rather play it. And he did. To Frank, a master class wasn’t talking, it was doing. It was simply playing.

But in short talking riffs between the bebop and the ballads, he delivered the lesson. He spoke of creating a beautiful and unique sound. He talked about the care of one’s body and spirit, and the desire to lead by example. He said the relentless pursuit of life is where all the best music comes from. And he said that at age 73 he still practiced every day, trying always to get better.

I don’t know if those students were convinced by what Frank told them. But his music didn’t lie. At the end he played “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and made it sound like no one had ever heard it before. He made it his own. Then he smiled and waved goodbye. Frank is gone now but his music and inspiration certainly survive. I still play “Lullaby” before sitting down to write. And I hope a lot of students at Berklee check out the recording made on that rainy day in March and learn about the relentless pursuit of life.

When Frank and I were finished that day, we went back to our hotel to rest a bit before having dinner. Alone in my room, I took off my shoes, spread out on the bed and put on the TV. But soon I heard something in the background and turned off the box. It was music I heard, the sound of solo saxophone, coming from another room somewhere in the hotel. It floated down the hallways and through the air vents like smoke from a relentless fire. Somewhere Frank Morgan was practicing, trying always to get better.

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