How a jazz legend's resting place was lost and found, 50 years after his tragic death Though the trumpeter Lee Morgan was killed in 1972, his legacy was well maintained. At least it seemed so, until one fan discovered last year that Morgan's gravesite seemed to have vanished.

How a jazz legend's resting place was lost and found, 50 years after his tragic death

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Fifty years ago this Saturday, the brilliant jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot and killed during a break between sets at Slugs' Saloon on the Lower East side of Manhattan. He was only 33. The shooter was Helen Morgan, his common-law wife, who had come down to the club to confront him about an affair. Lee Morgan's death has long haunted jazz history, even as his music continues to attract more fans. One of them recently made a discovery that's likely to help keep Morgan's memory alive. From Jazz Night in America and member station WBGO, here's Nate Chinen.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: Lee Morgan's final resting place is a hillside plot in a modest cemetery in Bucks County, Pa., alongside the turnpike. On a recent afternoon, a winter sun casts dark shadows across his grave marker, which has a trumpet engraved beneath his name and the years 1938 to 1972, the measure of a life cut short.


CHINEN: Lee Morgan was a musician of spectacular abilities, and his death stands as one of the most shocking in jazz history. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that he was in the process of rebuilding his career after beating a serious heroin addiction. You can feel his emphatic drive to return on a set of recordings from Hermosa Beach, Calif., in 1970. Released in full on Blue Note just last year, it amounts to more than seven hours of music.


CHINEN: The boxed set is called "The Complete Live At The Lighthouse." And if it rekindled a conversation about Lee Morgan and what might have been, some of the credit also belongs to a recent documentary. "I Called Him Morgan" tells the story of Morgan's last days from an unlikely perspective - that of Helen Morgan, the person most responsible for getting him back on his feet.


HELEN MORGAN: Lee got an apartment, and we moved from downtown. Morgan went to the hospital in the Bronx. They were giving him methadone - 'cause you had to go in there and stay in there. He turned himself in. He went in.

CHINEN: The nourishing stability of their relationship is a counterweight in the film, granting Helen a humanity beyond her most notorious act. I recently spoke with the film's director, Kasper Collin, and he said that was always his aim.

KASPER COLLIN: I think I wanted to, you know, make a sincere film and, you know, give people the chance to love both Lee and Helen and the music. And I think, you know, the creation of great music can be a complex thing. And the sacrifices from the artists and also people around them can be rather huge sometimes.

CHINEN: For the jazz public, there has never been a moment when Lee Morgan's music slipped into obscurity. But his gravesite? That's another story. He was buried in a family plot alongside his father, Otto. The location has never been a secret, but it's off the beaten path, and when one admirer went to pay his respects last year, he was puzzled when he couldn't find the grave marker after scouring the area.

TOMMY MAGUIRE: So I'm Tommy Maguire (ph). I'm from the suburbs of Philadelphia, 57, been into jazz my whole life. I'm a manager at a company that produces metal credit cards.

CHINEN: I'm standing with Tommy at Morgan's gravesite on a recent Sunday, trying to picture the scene. He tells me what happened when he was able to get some help from a maintenance man named Tracy (ph).

MAGUIRE: So this was just a big plot of this dead grass. When I first came here, it was still green. But there was nothing here. It looked like this was a section of the cemetery that hadn't been, you know - they hadn't interred anybody in yet. And then I thought, OK, well, maybe somebody stole it and - you know, because it's Lee Morgan, after all. But I didn't know. So when Tracy, who was frustrated and embarrassed, realized that stones were buried, he went back, and he got this big bar, and it was this massive crowbar thing. It took a while, maybe half an hour. So he clanged a couple times and unearthed Otto's name first, I think it was. And I said, that's it. We found it. This is it.

CHINEN: The excavation took the better part of two hours. Maguire took some pictures, which he posted on social media. Among those who took notice was Faye Anderson, who runs a public history project called All That Philly Jazz. She's been working on securing a Pennsylvania historical marker for Morgan in his hometown of Philadelphia. She plans to submit the nomination packet on Friday. Anderson has also been in touch with members of Morgan's family, including his nephew, Raymond Darryl Cox. They plan to make a pilgrimage to the cemetery this weekend.

FAYE ANDERSON: And so we're going out on Saturday. And I did tell him to bring a broom and a shovel and gloves just in case.

CHINEN: That precaution won't be necessary thanks to the curiosity of Tommy Maguire. We may never know how Lee Morgan's grave marker came to be buried beneath almost a foot of earth, but we do know how it was uncovered - for good this time.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.


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