Laurie Morgan

Pioneering jazz drummer who influenced the birth of bebop in Britain


The war years were a time of great upheaval and destruction but for a jazz-mad Jewish kid from North London they opened up a wealth of opportunities.

Laurie Morgan, who has died aged 93, was just 10 when his dad bought him his first drum kit – it was a life-changing moment. By the time he was 14 Laurie was jamming in the lounge of the family’s Southgate home with his friends Denny Terner on the piano, and Don Rendell, whose sax was so beaten up it was held together with rubber bands. Laurie’s mum provided the refreshments.

In 1941 guitarist Stan Watson joined them and The Rhythm Racketeers were born. Had the times been different, the teenage jazz band would probably have attracted only a limited audience but it was wartime and established musicians were either in the army or entertaining it, so at 15 Laurie found himself playing at the well-known Orchid Club in the West End. At 18 he was touring US military bases in the UK with Hetty Booth and accompanying, among others, Hollywood star Jimmy Cagney in his vaudeville act.

But his clarion call, as he described it, came in 1947 when he first heard Charlie Parker on the gramophone of the Fullado Club in Old Compton Street where he used to jam with his friends Ronnie Scott, Tony Crombie and Don Rendell.

He and Scott were playing together at Churchill’s Club when they first discussed going to New York to hear their heroes live. As soon as he could, Morgan flew to the US to see Parker and catch other jazz greats, Bird and Dizzy Gillespie.

It was an intoxicating time: he took the coach across the country to California and LA where he stayed with movie juggler Val Setz whom he had befriended on his US bases tours. Setz had given him a trunk full of trendy men’s clothes, which Morgan shipped back to London. They were a huge hit with his fellow musicians and a big influence on London’s burgeoning youth fashion scene.

But Morgan had also brought back boxes of the latest bebop 78s from the House of Note, a record shop owned by noted jazz musician Ray Nance.

Fired up and eager to spread the bebop sound, Morgan and his friends began playing their own bebop tunes at Mack’s Rehearsal Room in Soho. At first it was just for fun, then for paying audiences and Club Eleven, the UK’s first club featuring just modern jazz, was born. It was at Club Eleven that Morgan met Betty Briddon in 1949. They married in 1954.

Lawrence (Laurie) Morgan was born in Stoke Newington, the son of Dudley Morgan, a Jewish gown-maker and his wife Rachel Aaronson. At 14 he started working as a tea boy at the De Havilland aircraft factory, but a year later he was released from war work to perform in variety with his band, the Rhythm Racketeers. After his American adventure Morgan played in a number of bands: the Johnny Dankworth Quartet, Leon Roy’s big band as well as his own Elevated Music, touring Europe with them. In 1949 he was even asked to play with Benny Goodman at the London Palladium and other European venues. Morgan joked that it was because he wore a beret and sunglasses, which made him look like a typical modernist. “In fact, I was disguising a head injury I got diving into the Serpentine!” he joked.

The Benny Goodman tour never happened for Morgan because he had allowed his membership of the Musicians Union to lapse. But he kept busy working with such dance bands as Harry Hayes and Ambrose, but soon returned to jazz with the Dizzy Reece Sextet.

Always keen to experiment, in 1960 he joined a collective based at the Café des Artistes in Chelsea that included jazzmen Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins, but also Beat poets Mike Horovitz and Pete Brown, and blues musicians Alexis Korner and Ginger Baker. Their sessions mixed poetry and improvised jazz and went around colleges and jazz festivals where Morgan could spread his gospel of a jazz that spoke of the British experience and history.

In 1964 he joined the new National Theatre as resident percussionist and then assistant musical director, a post he held until 1976. It offered the chance to work in both classic and avant-garde shows with Sir Laurence Olivier and Franco Zeffirelli. He often appeared on stage himself, sometimes as a drummer in a Shakespearean army.

From 1975 to 2000 Morgan played with Guyanese pianist Iggy Quayle and Jamaican bass player Coleridge Goode in the Iggy Quayle Trio (whose sessions at Dingwalls in Camden were often joined by a little-known violinist, Nigel Kennedy), the Stapleton Tavern in Finsbury Park and downstairs at the Kings Head in Crouch End.

In 2012 Morgan and Betty retired to Sussex where he loved spending time in his garden and listening to the sounds of birds singing.

Betty survives him together with their two sons, Simon and Paul, and daughter, Dinah.

Julie carbonara

Lawrence Morgan, born September 4, 1926. Died February 5, 2020.

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