The Sidewinder: Lee Morgan

The Sidewinder is an album which polarises opinions. The title track is an extended jazz soul number which inspired numerous imitations. It also set a mould for other albums within the Blue Note stable and beyond. Success resulted in some damning it with faint praise and others despising its success. Even Lee Morgan himself came to view it as something of a burden that he sometimes felt disinclined to visit, as he apparently recorded it as a filler track.

Sidewinder cover

Lee Morgan was a young talent who got his first break with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and who was already recording with Blue Note when he was 18 years old. In 1957 he played with Hank Mobley and on John Coltrane’s classic Blue Train session. In 1957 he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

During his period with The Jazz Messengers, Morgan’s increasing dependency on heroin led to his reliability being severely compromised and by the time of The Sidewinder session in 1963 his career was in decline. However, despite an initial pressing of under 5000 copies The Sidewinder became Blue Note’s biggest immediate seller and Lee Morgan was back.

The tune was used without permission in Chrysler Cars TV commercials before Blue Note’s lawyers intervened and put a stop to that and it later became an anthem of the 1980’s jazz dance scene. Have a listen courtesy of MusicForYourFunk on YouTube.

I enjoy listening to it and the rest of the album is well worth hearing too. Joe Henderson, a Blue Note session regular at the end of 1963, is in action on tenor saxophone while Barry Harris contributes piano steeped in soul. Totem Pole is so-named because the head of the tune has a short phrase in which trumpet and tenor sax seamlessly alternate notes within a musical bar. This was reminiscent of a native American totem pole in Lee Morgan’s mind as he recounted to Leonard Feather in what are informative sleeve notes filled with helpful insights. Given the eventual response to the album it was perhaps fortunate that Feather was onboard at the outset.

After the boogaloo beat of the title track, those wondering about the terpsichorean location of Gary’s Notebook, will learn from the sleeve notes that it is a fast jazz waltz. Apparently, Gary was a close friend of Lee Morgan’s, who is referred to in the interview linked to below. Boy, What a Night is both energetic and energising, a second fast blues waltz on the set with a solo by Joe henderson that I particularly enjoy. I’m less keen on Hocus Pocus, which sounds, to my ears like an improvisation on a Broadway show tune- a bit of a filler perhaps.

Lee Morgan was 25 years old when he recorded this session. There’s a fascinating interview with his former partner, Helen More, which can currently be found by following this link to the website of Jason Palmer (an eminent trumpeter and Professor of Jazz at the world renowned Berklee College in Boston).

As you may have read, Lee Morgan was killed by Helen More in February 1972, when their long term relationship turned very sour.

Lee Morgan played a significant part in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Jazz and People’s Movement which fought for increased coverage of the music of black America mainly by direct action and disrupting live recordings of television programmes. The tactic achieved tangible results and led to Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and others appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The band etc:- Lee Morgan (Trumpet); Joe Henderson (tenor sax); Barry Harris (piano); Bob Cranshaw (bass); Billy Higgins (drums). Recorded: On 21 December 1963. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Produced: Rudy Van Gelder. Sleeve Notes: Leonard Feather. Cover photos: Francis Wolff. Cover Design: Reid Miles. Issued as Blue Note 4157.

I currently have two copies of The Sidewinder: a vinyl Blue Note DMM (Direct Metal Master) copy which I bought in the mid-80’s and which sounds somewhat lifeless on my system (especially the drums) and a CD copy from the RVG remaster series, which is preferable to listen to.

Just in case you are interested I have added this terpsichorean footnote (from I never knew that the boogaloo and the shing-a-ling were essentially the same dance:-

The Boogaloo or Shing-A-Ling was a 1960’s freestyle Fad dance which kinda caught on with the public thru American Bandstand and gained momentum in the late 1960s. Originally, It was considered a Latin dance because of it’s Mambo patterns, but was used in the Blues and Rock and Roll as well. The Boogaloo replaced the popular Latin Pachanga dance in popularity. The dance basically means to do simple weird movements with your feet, hips and body (kinda like speaking in tongues, but in dancing .) It makes sense only to the dancer who is doing it at the moment.

It would seem form the above description that lots of us do the boogaloo without really knowing that our dancefloor efforts actually have a name!


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