Residing in Manhattan and originally from Texas, Carol Morgan is a jazz trumpeter, composer, author and college professor. A Juilliard graduate who has worked with many remarkable teachers including Chris Gekker, Mark Gould, Ingrid Jensen, and Dennis Dotson, her discography includes the CDs ‘Classic Morgana’ and ‘Passing Time with the Carol Morgan Quintet’. She has performed on releases by DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Hawk-Richard Jazz Orchestra, NPR’s ‘The Engines of Our Ingenuity’, Henry Darragh, Thomas Helton and Calvin Owens whilst as a composer, Carol has been commissioned by DiverseWorks, the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and St. Thomas Presbyterian Church, Houston.
In 2008, she authored the textbook ‘The Practicing Improviser’ which has since become a highly-regarded methodology for the study of jazz improvisation. Currently, Carol is a member of the New York-based DIVA Jazz Orchestra and leads her own trio which features bassist Harvie S and Richie DeRosa on drums. The trio’s first CD, ‘Opening’, is on the Blue Bamboo Music record label.
H. Allen Williams: Hello, Carol. It’s very nice to meet you and become acquainted with your music. Thanks for agreeing to speak with me today.
Carol Morgan: Thanks for your time and interest. I’m happy to meet you, Allen.
H. Allen Williams: I’d like to start off the interview by congratulating you on the tremendous success of your new trio CD, ‘Opening’. As of right now you are #19 on the CMJ Jazz Chart. Because it’s that recording has brought us together today, let’s talk about that first.
Carol Morgan: Cool.
H. Allen Williams: What do you think it is about the album that is thrusting your career into the national spotlight?
Carol Morgan: Hmm I’ll just take a moment to digest that phrase. Actually, I feel like I’ve had a little bit of a head start on this question, which is nice, because Richie (DeRosa) asked me the exact thing just a couple weeks ago. I was very fortunate in that every aspect of the project was all about my personal taste. Chris Cortez who is the owner and producer of Blue Bamboo Music basically saw the group fully formed and wanted to record what we do. I love the chordless trio format. I’m a big fan of those Sonny Rollins sides. So, last year, when Todd Barkan invited me to bring in a group for a week of ‘After Hours’ sets at Dizzy’s, that was the instrumentation I was thinking of, trumpet, bass and drums. Richie and Harvie (S) were literally the first guys that came to mind when the time came to make those calls. Besides being brilliant players, they are both sweethearts and I know that I need people who I trust personally. People who I know will always put the music first when they’re on stage. I don’t want to feel like I need to hide or protect any part of my soul on stage. The whole point is truth. For my part, I tried to record exactly what I like to experience in listening to and playing jazz, strong melodies and the sharing of stories. Sometimes when I hear current releases they sound synthetic, removed from life, and somehow like they are trying to sound like some abstract concept of intense jazz. I think Chris Cortez truly captured the ‘real-ness’ of what the trio does. That, to me, is what this success is all about. I do feel that who I am, and who Richie and Harvie are, and who we are together, is captured in these sounds and I’m so happy to see that rewarded in reviews and radio play, because it confirms my beliefs about jazz.
H. Allen Williams: Which are?
Carol Morgan: Well, from years of teaching music appreciation to college students, I do have a bit to say about that. In short though, (the college students always appreciate a summary), for music to be called jazz, it must be ‘about’ the players themselves who are improvising. This is what can give the music relevance to our audience. Giving our audience a real and present connection to the sounds makes a future for our music. I don’t believe I can over emphasize the significance, the impact, of genuine spontaneity. The level of that communication is unique and essential to jazz. Sure, in order to accurately categorize it as jazz, there are other huge factors in creating music at a fine art level. All styles of music have those defining parameters. But I think that what interests me in jazz, and has compelled me (as someone who certainly did not grow up in an environment where I was aware of jazz) to pursue this music, are the powerful stories that are told by all of the jazz masters. When I hear the earliest recordings, I know what a man who was told he did not matter, and couldn’t vote in this country, sounds like. When I listen intensely, I know him. And I hear genius. When I hear Trane I feel connected through his sounds to eternity and creation. I hear love. I want to hear the lives of great Americans (and yes, great people of the entire world) when I listen. So as a student of this music I want to live an honorable life as the music’s nature dictates. I want to study my instrument, theory, and train my ears to a point where I can begin to convey my experience. That’s a constantly humbling mission and one that fills me. Music is life sustaining to me and I try to awaken my students to the real power of it.
H. Allen Williams: What you are describing reminds me of the name of your release, ‘Opening’. Were your students in mind with the naming of the release? What inspired the title?
Carol Morgan: My students are always somewhere in the mix of my thoughts. I also think of myself as one of my students. In this case it’s probably more about what we all have in common as people, than thinking in terms of a student - teacher relationship. I’m always the most motivated to teach when I am instructing my students about things I need and want to learn more about. They may be on a lesser or different rung of a particular topic, but going through the basics and fundamentals leaves my mind lingering in those regions, and generally inspiration and direction come for me as well. ‘Opening’ is referring to my feelings of a new beginning. Learning to allow the re-discovery of myself and learning to feel safe in that opening. I named the project ‘Opening’ to claim the opening up of my life, like a little flag planting. And it also references an annoying streak of optimism that makes me know that there’s a space for my music to be, room that has been waiting for me to find for far too long. Well, and then, I’m really not sure how many people can appreciate that my title is a gerund, but those are my peeps. Of course, what makes it best is it’s ‘open’ to interpretation.
H. Allen Williams: Am I right that this group’s first gig was at Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center?
Carol Morgan: Yes, that’s correct. It was a bold move by Todd Barkan and his confidence in my ability was quite a personal boost to me. He’d heard me solo with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra and after one of our sets approached me about playing there.
H. Allen Williams: Seems like you started at the top. Where else has the trio performed?
Carol Morgan: Yeah, it was a pretty posh debut. We just finished a couple of CD release performances this past week. We got to play at Small’s in the Village and that was great. I remember going there back when I was in still in grad school and it had just opened up. It was a little different, no liquor license even. They had jugs of fruit juice and water on a counter. You paid your cover and could drink juice if you wanted. I remember seeing the John Fedchock New York Big Band in there. That was crowded! Anyway, it was a wonderful feeling to bring in the trio for Small’s Friday Showcase. Spike (Wilner) and Mitch (Borden) were very kind to us and it was a very appreciative audience. Then just a few days later we headed down to D.C. to play at Blues Alley. That was another great experience. Bob Israel was so considerate about informing us of all the logistics and again the management and staff were wonderful. I have to confess, I was surprised with just how smoothly it all came off. We’ve also played at the Deer Head Inn which is a great room in Delaware Gap, PA, and then down in Houston just before the recording sessions last May.
H. Allen Williams: You mentioned “grad school” in your response and also alluded to not having grown up around jazz music. Can you share a bit of your educational background?
Carol Morgan: Sure, that gives me a great opportunity to say thanks to some people. My first real experience with jazz music was the summer before my senior year in high school. I got to attend the Interlochen National Music Camp. When I arrived they did not have an improvising trumpet soloist for the jazz ensemble. Vern Howard and Tim Ries heard my audition and Tim asked if I could ‘play changes.’ I’m sure I had a very blank look on my face. Realizing that they still had an opening for 2nd trumpet in the band Vern was a little more sympathetic. He asked if I knew any music theory and, because of my piano teacher’s insistence on a very rounded approach to studying music, I could satisfy his questions. The best part of camp was on Friday in the jazz class. Vern would tell us the stories of Bird, Lady Day, Miles, and on and on. I was so taken with these people. American heroes; I’d never studied about people like this before. That’s really what turned my life in this direction. And at the same time I was improvising on my trumpet for the first time. So I actually have cassette tape recordings of my very first improvised solos from the concerts that summer.
H. Allen Williams: That’s intriguing.
Carol Morgan: Those are staying in the vault!
H. Allen Williams: So college was only a year after that experience. What thoughts went into your decision making at that point?
Carol Morgan: I grew up in fairly small town in the panhandle of Texas, Pampa. If our high school program had included serious jazz instruction, I probably would have made the obvious choice to head to North Texas. But I had no clue. To me NTSU (that dates me) was just an average college that was far too close to home to be cool. Because I’d done well academically at my high school I had the option to go to any state school in Texas with a tuition waver. Looking at those options I headed to the University of Texas in Austin solely based on the fact that Rick Lawn taught there and he had composed a chart we’d played in the band at Interlochen. While I was at UT I worked on classical and jazz trumpet as an applied trumpet major. In the summer I would attend the Aspen Musical Festival because at that time it was the only summer program where you could play in an orchestra and play in a jazz band. Vibist Ted Piltzecker ran the jazz program and I got to meet and play with some really remarkable musicians. Most of the band was brought in on fellowships. I played next to Ryan Kisor when he was 16! That was unbelievable, especially because here I was in college getting schooled by a high school kid and it didn’t bother me a bit. He was (is) such a nice guy. There was only inspiration to gain. In the Aspen Jazz Ensemble I also got to meet and play with Clarence Penn, Brad Goode, Paul McKee, Sam Skelton, Greg Ruvolo, Megan Foley and, among others, Todd Hastings. On the classical side of things at Aspen I got to study with the most significant teacher I had in my trumpet development, Chris Gekker. In fact, the summer before my last year at UT, he suggested that I come up and audition for Juilliard. I’m not kidding, I literally laughed when he said it. Then I realized he was serious. Oops.
H. Allen Williams: So he was inviting you to come and audition for the classical trumpet studio at Juilliard?
Carol Morgan: That’s right. This was before they had a jazz program. I wouldn’t recommend this to any student now, but I only applied to two graduate schools. I didn’t expect to get into Juilliard but I definitely didn’t want to pass up the chance to fly up to NYC for the audition. I had no idea if I wanted to try to be a ‘legit’ trumpet player or play jazz. And to be quite honest, wasn’t sure I could be either. I guess I decided to let someone else decide. I auditioned at North Texas and at Juilliard and told myself that I would go wherever they seemed the most interested in me. Then, if it was North Texas, I’d focus on jazz. If it was Juilliard I’d focus on classical. Much to my surprise (and I later found much to my parents’ shock and awe, too), Juilliard offered me a better scholarship (although it was still much more expensive with their tuition and living in the city), and I found myself unable to pass up the chance to move to NYC. Of course, after about a month of sitting in orchestra sections with guys who are in the top orchestral chairs in the country today, I knew that orchestral playing was not what I wanted to do with my musical life. I loved the music. I also knew I could love it in the audience just fine. Fortunately my two trumpet teachers at Juilliard had tons of respect and knowledge of jazz. Chris (Gekker), and then later Mark Gould, were both entirely supportive of my ‘jazz habit.’ Hah, perhaps they thought I was a better orchestral audience member as well.
H. Allen Williams: So it sounds like, in a way, that college, even ‘grad’ school, was really just the beginning of your jazz training. I do know that you studied with Ingrid Jensen for awhile as well. How did that come about?
Carol Morgan: Oh, I’m so glad you asked that. That story itself has proven to be a most important lesson for me. I’d just gotten my master’s degree from Juilliard and despite getting credit card offers with $50,000 limits (seriously, apparently the banks needed to compare the Juilliard grad ‘starting salary’ with somewhere besides similarly competitive schools like Harvard), I really didn’t have anything going on which, for living in the city, was a rather unsustainable state. I did like to go out and hear music when possible but must confess that sometimes the venue choice was more dictated by the menu choice. Yeah, that was definitely the case with one of the incarnations of The Five Spot. Oh man, they had the most delicious pork chops; Irresistible; Great food. So I’d be looking through the ‘Voice’ for who was playing but was checking out the Five Spot first. Now this is where the story starts to get ugly. (Ha, it may already be seeming ugly to those of us who have since become vegetarians eh-hem). My friend Lydia sees that this woman, Ingrid Jensen, is playing trumpet at the Five Spot one night. It is very important to me that I share my honest reaction to seeing that ad. I’d never heard of Ingrid Jensen so, being a bit erroneously convinced that I knew a lot, this might have been enough for me to assume that this Ingrid was not worth checking out. Sadly, even that wasn’t all of it. True confession: I immediately assumed that she couldn’t be any good because she was a female trumpet player. Guilty: I was there, hook, line and sinker, just like all of the attitudes I’d ever been around. Girls can’t play trumpet. Girls can’t play jazz. What I now understand from that experience is that I didn’t actually believe this stereotype. It was that I had really never thought about it. I had just accepted that kind of culture. Now, duh, I’m a female trumpet player and hadn’t thought about it. How much then can I expect from someone who is not female, who does not play the trumpet, who does not listen to jazz, etc., etc? Well, Lydia and I did go to the Five Spot that night. Why? Here we go, because of the pork chops. And then I heard Ingrid and of course totally freaked out. Seeing Ingrid play was the first time I realized how different what I do is. It’s not a normal thing to see a woman playing jazz trumpet. Hah, and I guess it’s even less normal to be a female jazz trumpeter. Anyway, I’d never seen it and yet it is what I wanted to do most in the world. Heavy night: I started lessons with her the next week. Trust me, I ‘get it’ when women tell me how they feel inspired after seeing me perform; but I also ‘get it’ when people are ‘surprised’ that I can play. Because of my own previous, thoughtless prejudice, I can know that those attitudes are not about me. However, what is ‘about me’ is an awareness and compulsion that I must work extra hard to overcome those assumptions with genuinely skillful and informed improvisation. I also know that this is exactly the type of will that compelled the masters. I can look to the model of Louis Armstrong and try harder to make music with a startling degree of complexity and emotional depth while knowing that those who are closed will never hear it.
H. Allen Williams: It’s obvious you’ve done a lot of honest thinking about your work and direction.
Carol Morgan: Actually, two years ago I wrote a book for my college jazz improvisation class. That was a great experience for me, kind of like making an album. I really took time to look at myself and my story, analysing what I had learned about improvisation so far and also where and whom I had learned it from. It’s kind of a strange music book actually. The only musical notation is in the appendices in the back. It’s all prose about my experience and assignments that challenge the student to use my guidelines to try to create their own approach. It’s called The Practicing Improviser and it’s a way of integrating what the experience of improvising is actually like with your preparations (practicing) for improvising. You aren’t looking at notes, you are listening for your melody, whatever you believe is missing and needs to be added to the sounds around you. Anyway, writing that book really forced me to look at myself and understand better what I believe, and why I believe it.
H. Allen Williams: That sounds like a unique approach, which isn’t surprising since I’m no longer expecting you to be ‘normal,’ you know. You said that in your book you refer to your own learning experiences. Clearly you are an Ingrid Jensen fan. What other contemporary players do you enjoy and find inspiration from?
Carol Morgan: Living in NYC, I have the privilege to hear and hang with great musicians constantly. And I think I’m becoming partial to listening to the players that I know personally but mostly because when I hear them play I can then hear their personality, passion and humour in their improvisation. On trumpet, I love Tim Hagans, Tom Harrell, Herb Robertson, Dave Douglas, Avishai Cohen, Greg Gisbert, Brandon Lee and someone I am fortunate to hear quite frequently, Nadje Noordhuis. All of them sound as unique as their personalities merit yet they are fluently telling their stories in a jazz, post-bop type language. Other instrumentalists that I try to hear play whenever I can, are Joel Frahm, Brad Mehldau, Sharel Cassity, Tony Malaby, Omer Avital and Jonathan Blake. This is a little dangerous; wonder who I’m leaving out? Of course, there are many masters among us. That’s just a whole other level, like going to church. You’ve got people like the Heath Brothers, Lou Donaldson, Billy Taylor, all quite senior in years, and playing great. Playing with stuff you cannot speak until you are quite senior; Treasures.
H. Allen Williams: Those are all players I’d like to hear and a rather eclectic collection. I would, though, like to add Carol Morgan to my list. Moving forward with your current and deserved success, what’s next for you?
Carol Morgan: Thanks, Allen. Right now I’m really looking forward to working with a new group that’s got a little different focus. The working title so far is Carol Morgan’s Case Study and I’m so pleased that Helen Sung and Mike Moreno will be joining me for this group’s first venture. We will be doing more of my compositions, plus a few gems that need to be heard. We’ve got some dates coming up with DIVA, including a jazz cruise in the fall. The jazz cruise is a great hang with Sherrie (Maricle) and all of my close friends in the big band, but also a great opportunity to meet some other players that are on-board as guest artists. I was so excited to see that the Heath Brothers and Marcus Belgrave will be on this one. For the record, I am crazy about Tootie Heath. Blue Bamboo Music has kindly asked me to record more for them so I’m taking some time to consider making another album that I would want to listen to. With that philosophy it’s been ‘so far, so good’. Most importantly, I’ve learned that I must constantly focus on improving. Playing this music is a life-long pursuit and I am grateful to have found this purpose. When I’m practicing, and through that practice, remaining conscious of what I can and cannot do. Life feels right.
H. Allen Williams: Carol, thanks for answering my questions today, and all the best to you for these upcoming projects. I’m hoping that many more people will get a chance to hear ‘Opening’ soon and begin to enjoy your story as much as I am.
Carol Morgan: Thank you, Allen. It’s a pleasure to share my thoughts and music with you.
H. Allen Williams
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