Listen to this track by hard bop trumpeter and pop-chart flirting jazzer Lee Morgan. It’s “The Sidewinder” his runaway 1963 hit from the album cleverly entitled The Sidewinder, a now-essential jazz record that on the time of release wasn’t expected to be a smash crossover success. What do record labels know, anyway?
This track stands as the vanguard of jazz opening up its doors a bit starting in the 1960s, and letting the R&B and soul breezes in. For instance, on this track, there are some creative solos. But, the horns also are arranged in harmony, playing themes and riffs as a unit just as they do in soul music. This demonstrates a clear link to the blues, and to the call and response dynamic that would characterize R&B, and later be an important ingredient to funk.
In this,”The Sidewinder” revels in simplicity, and almost childlike verve, rather than in complexity and academic artistry. This approach was something of a risky move, seeing as jazz was increasingly being looked at as ‘serious music’, very much in contrast to pop records, or to what was perceived as the crudeness of R&B.
Although still very much in the classic ’60s hard bop style, this tune adds real accessibility and stylistic variation, which is what helped to place it into the pop charts. This was certainly not a bad situation for Morgan, who was 25 at the time, and who then found himself with a hit record on his hands. But, does this have any bearing on where jazz as a form would go?
A lot of the direction of this track in my mind had a lot to do with who played on it, besides Morgan of course who’s trumpet playing is totally gleeful and infectious here. For instance, the record features the playing of one of my favourite saxophonists of all time, Joe Henderson, who adds some real funky grit in contrast to Morgan’s playful trumpet lines.Where a lot of saxophonists at the time were moving in the direction of a left-of-center approach, like Ornette Coleman, or seeking a deep spirituality like John Coltrane (with whom Morgan also played), Henderson’s work here is earthy, sassy, and downright friendly. He’d make a name for himself as creating accessible jazz, without it becoming an artistic compromise in a career that endured up until his death in 2001.
The same goes for bassist Bob Crenshaw, who’s part in this song is more than just a rhythmic pulse, becoming a melodic voice underneath, and in response to, what the horns are doing. Billy Higgins’ drums are also beyond the functional pulse and technical polyrhythmic prowess, serving to punctuate the melody through out. All of these guys would help make this record a crossover hit that would eventually be played in commercials during the World Series at the time. That success would help them to build momentum to help expand the possibilities of jazz as accessible music in the next decade, where they would all make their names.
In the meantime, Morgan recorded his head off, both as a leader and for other artists (Stanley Turrentine, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, et al) for the rest of the decade in much the same sort of direction, having become the proponent of what was called “Boogaloo” thanks to this track and the album off of which it comes.
By the ’60s, the famous Blue Note label itself would define itself forever, expanding its offer to include a wider range of what jazz could mean, including latin textures, R&B, and soul references across its catalogue, many of which would become classics themselves. This included a classic Blue Note release in Horace Silver’s Song For My Father (which Joe Henderson also played on), which then had a knock-on effect on the rock charts by the 1970s.
“The Sidewinder” wasn’t really intended as a hit single for its author, but it certainly provided the gas for a promising career anyway once it became that. Tragically, that promising career was cut short in 1972, when Morgan was shot in the chest, murdered by his common-law wife while he was onstage at a club date. But, his work from the mid-60s onward on the Blue Note label would distinguish him as a figure who made jazz into a more varied and down-to-earth creature, one ready to appeal to a wider range of listeners long after he was gone. His influence on other players making that same kind of music today is his legacy.
Check out the Blue Note website for more information about Lee Morgan, a selection of new releases from contemporary artists of all stripes jazz and otherwise, as well as the impressive history of jazz that the label fostered since it’s creation in 1939.