Gone Too Soon: Seven Jazz Musicians Who Died Young


News | Apr, 21st 2015

Jazz is often uplifting and life-affirming—but the sad fact is that many of its greatest figures left us too soon. To honor the greats who were forced to abandon the music early, we’ve compiled a list of some of jazz’s most tragic losses.

Fats Navarro – Age 26

Fats Navarro

Cause of Death: Tuberculosis

Fats Navarro was a trumpet player and bebop pioneer in the 1940s. In his career, Navarro played with Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. As his career advanced in New York City, Navarro developed a heroin addiction, tuberculosis, and struggled with his weight. Navarro was hospitalized on July 1, 1950 after a gig with Charlie Parker at Birdland and died in the hospital six days later.

[Photo: William P. Gottlieb]

Billie Holiday – Age 44

Cause of Death: Heart and Liver Disease

Billie Holiday—nicknamed Lady Day by Lester Young—owned one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century. As a teenager, Holiday began playing in small clubs where she eventually connected with John Hammond and Benny Goodman, among others. Her career flourished in New York and as a Decca recording artist throughout the 1940s. In 1947, Holiday's New York City Cabaret Card was revoked because of a narcotics conviction, preventing her from working anywhere that sold alcohol for the remaining 12 years of her life. Despite this, Holiday played to a sold-out crowd Carnegie Hall in 1948, selling a record-setting 2,700 tickets. By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. In May of 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York with liver and heart disease. Her drug problems followed her, and she was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed for drug possession as she lay dying. Her hospital room was guarded until the day that she died—July 17, 1959.

[Photo: William P. Gottlieb]

Lee Morgan – Age 33

Cause of Death: Murder

Edward Lee Morgan was a hard bop trumpet player born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Morgan joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at 18 and remained a member for a year and a half. In 1956, he began recording with Blue Note Records, releasing 25 albums as a leader and working with more than 250 musicians. In the early hours of February 19, Morgan was shot by his wife following an altercation between sets at Slug’s Jazz Club in NYC’s East Village. His gunshot wound was not immediately fatal, but the ambulance was slow to arrive to the club due to heavy snowfall, causing him to bleed to death. 

[Photo: Herbert Behrens]

Charlie Parker – Age 34

Cause of Death: Lobar Pneumonia

Charlie Parker, also known as “Bird,” was a highly influential saxophonist and a leading figure in the development of bebop. A Kansas City native, Parker moved to New York City, to pursue a career in music where he ultimately collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and others. In June of 1946, while performing in Los Angeles, Parker had to cut his tour short when he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital. Similar to Holiday, Parker was arrested for heroin possession in 1951 and had his cabaret card revoked. By the time he got the card back a year later, his reputation was damaged to the extent that club owners no longer wished to book him. On March 12, 1955, Parker died of complications onset by pneumonia.

[Photo: William P. Gottlieb]

John Coltrane – Age 40

Cause of Death: Liver Cancer

Trane’s work on the tenor and soprano saxophones revolutionized the way the instrument was played. He led over 50 recording sessions and appeared as a sideman on albums, notably with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. Coltrane died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967. His longtime collaborator, Miles Davis, said that "Coltrane's death shocked everyone, took everyone by surprise. I knew he hadn't looked too good... But I didn't know he was that sick—or even sick at all."

[Photo: Hugo van Gelderen]

Fats Waller – Age 39

Cause of Death: Bronchial Pneumonia

Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller was an influential jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer. Although he didn’t receive approval from his family, Waller became a professional pianist at 15, working in cabarets and theaters while becoming an influential stride pianist and composer. In 1926, Waller began his recording association with Victor Records, ultimately writing over 400 songs. On December 15, 1943, Waller died in his sleep of pneumonia on a cross-country train trip returning to New York City.

[Photo: Alan Fisher]

Nat King Cole – Age 45

[Photo: William P. Gottlieb]

Cause of Death: Lung Cancer

Nat King Cole was a pianist, vocalist, and civil rights advocate—one of the first African Americans to host a national television variety show, “The Nat King Cole Show.” Inspired by the performances of Earl Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid-1930s while still a teenager. Cole's first mainstream hit was his 1943 recording of his own composition, "Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which sold over 500,000 copies on Capitol Records. Cole was a heavy smoker throughout his life, believing cigarettes provided his voice with a rich sound. He died on February 15, 1965 of lung cancer shortly after a surgical operation to remove his left lung.

[Photo: William P. Gottlieb]


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