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Life story: Eau Claire’s music man Bud Morgan

From his time as a youngster in Chicago clubs to the mark he made for decades in the Chippewa Valley,Bud Morgan was all about the music

posted Feb. 16, 2017 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Julian Emerson. bio | email

  • con_morgan_bud1_021617
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    - Bud Morgan plays saxophone two years ago at his son Rich Morgan’s home in Eau Claire while his wife, Mary Ann, looks on. Bud, who founded Morgan Music and influenced countless musicians over the decades, died earlier this month at age 98.
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    - Bud Morgan, left, is pictured with other members of the Bud Morgan Combo in 1945. Morgan learned to play saxophone while growing up in Chicago.
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    - Bud Morgan, right, was a friend of acclaimed professional musician Branford Marsalis, pictured, and of Marsalis’ brother Wynton, the renowned jazz trumpeter.
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    Contributed photo | Enlarge
    - Bud Morgan stands with Eau Claire native Justin Vernon, frontman for the band Bon Iver, after Vernon performed with the Eau Claire Memorial High School jazz band in 2009 at a fundraiser to send that band to the Essentially Ellington jazz competition in New York.
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    Staff file photo by Dan Reiland | Enlarge
    - Bud Morgan, founder of Morgan Music in Eau Claire, gives saxophone lesson to Kaitlyn Kampion of Chippewa Falls six years ago. Morgan, who died Feb. 2, gave lessons to hundreds of music students during his decades of living in the Chippewa Valley.

From playing his saxophone in Chicago nightclubs as a teen to performing and giving music lessons until shortly before his death earlier this month, David “Bud” Morgan spent a lifetime deeply involved in music. 

Bud, the founder of Morgan Music in Eau Claire, died Feb. 2 at Grace Lutheran Communities-River Pines in Altoona at age 98, more than six decades after moving to Eau Claire from his native Chicago. He opened the music store that bears his name on Eau Claire’s south side in 1957 and gave music lessons and imparted his knowledge of jazz and swing to hundreds. 

He also performed with countless bands and music groups during his life, playing with accomplished musicians and family. He rubbed shoulders with saxophone legend Charlie Parker and later became friends with Wynton Marsalis, but among his most-cherished memories were performing with his son Rich Morgan, his wife, Mary Ann Morgan, and many other local musicians.

Bud also treasured the music lessons he gave to not only children and teens but to adults who wanted to glean bits of his music wisdom. 

“He loved playing music, giving lessons, just talking about music with people,” said Rich, the youngest of Bud and Mary Ann’s nine children. “Even if someone wasn’t a student of his, he would pull them in to the store and offer them a lesson.” 

Others who knew Bud concurred with that sentiment. They said he exuded a love of music, especially jazz, and he enjoyed not only performing but helping others learn a greater appreciation for tunes. They said the man they described as a local music legend took time for everyone.   

“He was a very kindhearted man,” said Bruce Hering, the former Eau Claire Memorial and North high school jazz band teacher who taught Bud’s grandsons, Andrew and Thomas Morgan.  

Bud owed his nickname to his interest in music early in life. During his teenage years, he attended school during the day, went home to sleep for a few hours and then went out to play with various bands at clubs in Chicago. He was nearly always those groups’ youngest member, often performing with musicians at least twice his age.

“So they called him ‘Buddy’ because here was this young guy who was playing with all these older musicians,” said Rich, who operates Morgan Music along with his brother, Todd Morgan. “He was this young, energetic guy.”

Growing up during the Great Depression, Bud Morgan’s family struggled to afford a saxophone for him to play, so he worked at a music store to help earn it. In ensuing years he learned to play other instruments such as clarinet, flute and keyboard. But various styles of saxophone were always his favorites, Rich said. 

“He could play pretty much anything, but sax was always his favorite,” Rich said, noting his father preferred jazz and swing music from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. 

Many of the Chicago clubs Bud played in while growing up were home to the Mafia during mob boss Al Capone’s tenure in that city. According to Morgan family lore, at times Bud performed for Capone’s younger brother. 

“The mafia was all over Chicago back then,” Todd said. “Dad would tell about how he and his fellow band members would play for those guys, and the longer the night went and the more the mobsters drank, the faster the beat of the music and the shorter the songs. The mobsters would give tips at the end of each song, and they gave bigger tips the drunker they got.”

Move to Eau Claire

Bud entered the Army during World War II, and music was part of that experience too. He was not only a combat engineer but also his unit’s bugler. After the war, Bud returned to Chicago where he played in a variety of bands and formed the Bud Morgan combo that performed across the Midwest. 

One of that group’s musicians eventually married a woman from Colfax, and the band played at venues in this part of Wisconsin. Bud had an affinity for the area and in the 1950s settled in Eau Claire, where he opened a bar downtown. 

“He really opened that bar as a way to ensure that he and other musicians had a venue where they could play music,” Todd said.

Mary Ann was a young woman living in Eau Claire at the time. She wanted to learn to play the vibraphone and learned that Bud was the only guy in town who taught that instrument. They hit it off and subsequently married. 

Store opens

Bud continued to play music and travel, but as he and Mary Ann had more children together he decided that the life and a family weren’t compatible. He founded his music store as a means of staying involved with music while being able to spend more time in Eau Claire.

“He always told me that life is about compromise,” Rich said. “He was trying to be on the road less, to be a good dad, and this was his way of doing that.”

The work ethic and frugal nature Bud learned growing up during the Depression remained with him, Todd and Rich said. 

“He was a very diligent worker,” Todd said of his father. “He wasn’t afraid to put in long days. He used to always tell us, ‘If they pay you $1, you give them $2 worth of work.’ ”

Not surprisingly, all of Bud and Mary Ann’s children took music lessons as children, but only Rich, who plays trumpet, became a serious musician. Todd said this is due at least in part to the fact that Bud was home in Eau Claire and no longer on the road performing by the time Rich came along. 

“Us older kids were fans of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and (Bud) is trying to teach us stuff from the 1930s, and we were like ‘What the heck is this?’ ” Todd chuckled.

‘About the music’

Rich, who graduated from Regis High School in 1986, had an affinity for jazz and became an accomplished trumpet player. He formed a friendship with musician Geoffrey Keezer, a Memorial High School student and jazz pianist who went on to become a celebrated professional musician and a two-time Grammy nominee. The duo attended UW-Eau Claire, and in 1988, thanks to he and his family getting to know Marsalis, Rich received a one-hour private lesson from the renowned trumpet player. 

“It was the chance of a lifetime,” Rich said. “I was obviously in awe of him, but Wynton is so personable and kind.”   

Two decades later the Morgan family had another encounter with Marsalis. The Memorial High School jazz band had traveled to New York to participate in the 2009 Essentially Ellington jazz festival and performed onstage with Marsalis after placing third at the prestigious event. Afterward, Rich and his family were backstage when Marsalis recognized them and signed a card for them. He then learned that not only was it Mother’s Day but was Mary Ann’s birthday, and he called her back in Eau Claire, where he spoke with both Bud and Mary Ann. 

Rich smiled as he recalled that story and countless other colorful tales about his father and the jazz music he loved. As he reminisced, Rich pointed to a wall in Bud’s old office where a dozen or so saxophones of different styles and sizes hang. A photo of one of Bud’s music icons, Johnny Hodges, adorns the opposite wall. 

“These saxophones, this place and especially the people he taught here, that really is what my father was about,” Rich said. “He was about the music.”

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