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A landmark for Lee Morgan, and the grassroots effort behind it

Trumpeter Lee Morgan performs in Central Park, New York City, in the early 1970s.
Shawn Walker/Getty Images
Archive Photos
Trumpeter Lee Morgan performs in Central Park, New York City, in the early 1970s.

Lee Morgan, the incandescent hard-bop trumpeter, played his last Philadelphia engagement at the Aqua Lounge, in late October of 1971. He’d just released an exceptional album, Live at the Lighthouse, and was leading a band with Billy Harper on saxophone, Harold Mabern on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. For Morgan (as for Merritt), it was a homecoming: 33 at the time, he was a proud Philly export, a native of the Tioga neighborhood and a graduate of Mastbaum Vocational-Technical School. His career was back on track after a desperate struggle with addiction. Things were decidedly looking up.

If you’re familiar with Lee Morgan’s story, you should know the cruel irony of what followed: a few months later, on a wintry February night in New York, he was shot and killed by Helen Moore, the woman who’d helped set him straight, between sets at the East Village outpost Slugs’. The story behind his tragic end, one of the most shocking in jazz history, has been sensitively told in the 2016 documentary film I Called Him Morgan. Still, the drama around Morgan’s death can occasionally threaten to obscure the more salient details of his life — an injustice that some in his old hometown are actively seeking to redress.

On Tuesday — International Jazz Day — a historical marker in Lee Morgan’s honor will be dedicated at 52nd and Chancellor Streets, the former site of the Aqua Lounge. That dedication comes on the heels of a resolution to recognize Morgan, introduced by Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie R. Gauthier and enacted unanimously on Thursday. Last week, the Library of Congress announced that Morgan’s signature hit “The Sidewinder” had been added to its prestigious National Recording Registry.

These rehabilitative acts around Morgan’s legacy are largely the work of Faye Anderson, the founder and director of All That Philly Jazz, a preservationist historical society devoted to the mid-century wonders of Philadelphia’s jazz scene. Four years ago, during the early phase of the pandemic, she fielded an unsolicited suggestion that Morgan was due for a historical marker. The idea marinated a while before she started the process in earnest.

“As the 50th anniversary of his death was approaching, I did not want that to be the only story, and so that was my goal,” she tells WRTI. “There’s too much emphasis on how he died as opposed to how he lived.”

The unearthed marker at Lee Morgan's gravesite in White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery near Philadelphia.
Nate Chinen
The unearthed marker at Lee Morgan's gravesite in White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery near Philadelphia.

It was around the time of that anniversary that I first connected with Anderson, for an NPR story about how Morgan’s grave marker in Bucks County had been buried and rediscovered. Speaking by phone this week, she alluded to a heartbreaking open letter published in the Philadelphia Tribune by Morgan’s sister, Ernestine Morgan Cox, in Feb. 23, 1974.

Writing two years after his murder, Cox laments the repercussions of his death on her family. “My mother is a broken woman who is still in a state of shock; to her it is still February 19, 1972,” she wrote. “My father cried openly, something I had never seen him do. He deteriorated rapidly from the day Lee died.”

Referring again to her father, Otto Ricardo Morgan, who had recently been laid to rest in a plot beside Lee’s, she added: “When we are strong enough to visit them I’ll be able to tell both of my children: ‘Here lies your uncle and your grandfather, two men in the Morgan family who led full and fruitful lives.’ This is my only consolation.”

With that message in mind, Anderson set to work on a tribute. “Typically historical markers are installed in front of a person’s home,” she says. “In this case, Lee’s childhood home is a vacant lot, so that wouldn’t do. So you look for places of significance in his life, which included Music City, and Heritage House, now the Freedom Theatre, where he went to after-school programs. Both buildings are still standing.” But a historical marker already exists in front of the Freedom Theatre, and the Music City site wasn’t heavily trafficked enough to be an ideal site.

“One day, Lee’s nephew, Raymond Darryl Cox, the executive of his estate, shared his address book,” Anderson recalls. “So now I’m thumbing through the address book, and the only jazz club listed is the Aqua Lounge.” By coincidence, around this same time she heard a live version of Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Is That Jazz?” — in which he name-drops the Aqua Lounge and Slugs’ in the same breath. She reached out to the proprietors of the African Cultural Art Forum, which resides in the old Aqua Lounge space. And when she got a call back, “it was as if he had been waiting for that call for 30 years.”

Raymond Darryl Cox, nephew of Lee Morgan, speaks at a meeting of the Philadelphia City Council on April 25, 2024, with Faye Anderson of All That Philly Jazz looking on.
Chris Mansfield
Philadelphia City Council
Raymond Darryl Cox, nephew of Lee Morgan, speaks at a meeting of the Philadelphia City Council on April 25, 2024, with Faye Anderson of All That Philly Jazz looking on.

Darryl Cox, as he is known, corroborated his uncle’s fondness for the Aqua Lounge. “After Lee moved to New York, he did not maintain a residence here, so he would stay with his sister Ernestine, who lived in Germantown,” Anderson explains. “So she would drive Lee to the Aqua Lounge, and that’s how Daryl, who was underage at that time, was able to get in. He just felt like he was home. And that’s a place that was significant to Lee. He loved the Aqua Lounge. So that’s why it’s there, and not any of the other places where he performed.”

The dedication of Edward Lee Morgan’s historical marker will take place at noon on Tuesday, April 30. Anderson will naturally be there representing All That Philly Jazz, along with members of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; members of Cox and Morgan families; Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes; and at least one additional special guest.

“I’ve asked speakers to limit their comments to two to five minutes,” says Anderson. “But there’s one speaker who can talk as long as he wants, and that’s Billy Harper.” Now 81 and still breathing fire on his tenor saxophone, Harper was a witness to Morgan’s death at Slugs’ that fateful night more than half a century ago. But far more important than that is the fact that he can also testify to the crackling life that Morgan brought to the bandstand — at Slugs’ and elsewhere, including the Aqua Lounge, where his legacy will now be permanently inscribed.

To learn more about the Lee Morgan marker unveiling, visit All That Philly Jazz.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.