Opinion

Mystery, jazz, and Frank Morgan in Madison

Novelist Michael Connelly and Ben Sidran were fans

It only takes until page 53 in the new Michael Connelly novel for his Los Angeles detective hero, Harry Bosch, to put Frank Morgan’s “Mood Indigo” on the CD player.

Fans of Connelly—I count myself near the top—have been gobbling up “Two Kinds of Truth,” the 20th Bosch novel, which was published last week.

Ever since learning, a few years ago, about Morgan's connection to Wisconsin and Madison, I’ve noted his appearances in the Bosch books. Morgan was a gifted saxophonist who died in 2007.

The detective particularly likes Morgan's song “Lullaby,” from the “Mood Indigo” CD. Connelly has said in interviews that he listened to “Lullaby” while writing his first Bosch novel.

“The song wasn’t even a minute and a half long,” Bosch notes in an earlier novel, “but to me it said all that ever needed to be said about being alone in the world.”

I had never seen Morgan’s name prior to it appearing in the Connelly books. So I did what I always do when I have a jazz question, and put it to my friend, Ben Sidran, the great musician and jazz historian. Fortunately, this was 2012. If I put the question to Sidran now, he might not have time to answer it.

If you haven’t heard, Ben and his wife, Judy, are busily preparing an extraordinary “Madison Reunion” event that will take place next June. The stellar list of participants celebrating Madison in the 1960s includes filmmakers Errol Morris and Jim Abrahams, musician Boz Scaggs and author David Maraniss.

Five years ago, when I asked Sidran about Frank Morgan, it turned out Ben not only knew of the saxophonist, he knew him personally. They’d played together in Madison.

Morgan grew up with a grandmother in Milwaukee, occasionally traveling with his guitarist father, Stanley Morgan, who played with the Ink Spots. It was on one of those trips when Frank first heard Charlie Parker play sax.

It changed the young man’s life. Unfortunately, Morgan followed Parker not just to the saxophone, but to a heroin addiction that landed him a long prison sentence.

Released in 1985, part of Morgan’s welcome back to the music world was an invitation to appear on the acclaimed interview series “Sidran on Record” that Ben was then hosting on National Public Radio.

“During the years I spent in prison,” Morgan said, early in the broadcast, “I used to listen to your radio program all the time. It was a dream of mine to meet you, and now here we are.”

When Morgan moved back to Milwaukee in the early 1990s, Sidran began inviting him to play gigs in Madison. They played at Café Montmartre and Mr. P’s, the bar off South Park Street run by the late Gene Parks. (It dawns on me how often I used to type that name in stories, and how I miss it, and him.)

Morgan played on “Mr. P’s Shuffle,” Sidran’s 1995 album that paid homage to the bar.

They played, too, outside the Memorial Union, and there is a YouTube video of Sidran, Morgan, the esteemed bassist Richard Davis, and Ben’s son, Leo, on drums, playing “Kansas City” at the Union Terrace.

“He was looking for some roots here,” Ben told me, and Sidran tried to interest the music department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in hiring Morgan for some sort of position, but it didn’t happen.

Anyone interested in learning more about the musician Ben called “a sweet and vulnerable man” should check out a new Morgan documentary, “Sound of Redemption." No surprise: Michael Connelly is the producer. Harry Bosch would approve.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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