A Hit Tune Scribbled on Toilet Paper: The Genius and Tragedy of Trumpeter Lee Morgan

Note Lee Morgan's Harmon mute mic placement.
Get right up on the mic for the best sound!

One of the tastiest trumpet players to put the ‘piece to his chops was Lee Morgan. There’s a wonderfully written article on Lee Morgan over at Narratively. Go read it! It’s tragic how Lee Morgan died, and it’s also tragic that the sensationalism of his passing is any part of why he still gets attention. With the recent tragedy of Ferguson in the spotlight, it should be noted that Lee Morgan’s life could’ve been saved, but the EMTs were afraid (or unwilling, at any rate) to go into the part of town where Lee Morgan was playing. What in the world is wrong with this country that this kind of prejudice persists? That’s the deeper tragedy here. Sigh. But Music continues, and great music like Lee Morgan’s will be eternal, as long as people are listening. The tragedy fades into the background over time and the gorgeous sound remains.

Lee Morgan
A pensive Lee Morgan

The Sidewinder was written and recorded in a few hours, a testament not only to Lee Morgan’s prowess, but a testament to all those he worked with on the album, too (see below). In The Practice of Practice, one of the chapters deals with the development of practice over time. Lee Morgan exemplifies the final stage, unconscious competence, in the story of how one of his biggest hits, The Sidewinderwas written.

During a recording session, they were one tune short, so during a break, Lee went to the bathroom. He was gone so long, his bandmates became worried about him (he was using heroin at the time). But he emerged from the bathroom stall with The Sidewinder scribbled on toilet paper, a 12 bar blues tune. It’s been claimed the success of this tune saved Blue Note Records. It’s a great bluesy album, too. Get it if you don’t have it. Here’s the tune in its entirety.

The Sidewinder, by Lee Morgan


Outtake: Alternate fingering technique is covered in Sound the Trumpet: How to Blow Your Own Horn, including all the coolest alternate fingerings up to high C. Free hint: fourth-space E has more combinations than any other note below High C.

The half-valve technique can be handy if you need some time to gather your creative juices, or take stock of where you are in the changes. Guys with the artistry of Lee Morgan don’t need a crutch like that. In the hands of the Master, alternate fingerings can add some serious rhythmic drive as Lee Morgan shows around 3:00 in the same clip below. I like to think that Lee heard Billy Higgins’s machine-gun fill back into the A section and responded with his alternate fingering lick. It’s the best use of the technique I’ve ever heard and I never get tired of hearing it. Check it out (it should start automagically at 2:54. If not ffwd to that spot):


Back-To-School Specials On All Formats:

The Practice of PracticeBasic Music Theory: How to Read, Write, and Understand Written Music, by Jonathan HarnumSound the Trumpet: How to Blow Your Own Horn



2 thoughts on “A Hit Tune Scribbled on Toilet Paper: The Genius and Tragedy of Trumpeter Lee Morgan

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