Jeff Morgan’s long and winding road from jazz to enology and back again stretched to a new horizon last month at Covenant Wines when he played his first gig in 20 years.
Holding forth on tenor saxophone with an all-star quartet featuring the renowned French pianist Franck Amsallem, a dear friend with whom he led a band at Monte Carlo’s Grand Casino in the 1980s, Morgan seemed elated that his primary passions had finally converged.
Sheltered in place during the pandemic he’d unpacked his neglected sax and started practicing again. The 68-year-old Morgan eventually connected with a cadre of stellar younger East Bay musicians, and his quintet Free Run returns to Covenant July 17 and 24 as part of the winery’s new Sunday afternoon outdoor music series.
Wine and jazz might seem like the most natural of pairings, but the twain had remained distinct chapters for Morgan. He’d left playing music behind when he hit a creative cul de sac, “and the rediscovery of this musical aptitude has been a new lease on life, enriching my existence in ways I hadn’t imagined,” he said. “In the same way, I didn’t anticipate how kosher wine could bring me closer to Judaism on a spiritual level and within the community.”
With no previous public events, Covenant Wines has mostly flown under the radar of West Berkeley’s Drinks District since he and his wife, Jodie, moved the winery to the 7,000-square facility at the north end of Sixth Street in 2014. Windchaser Wine Co., Fieldwork, Vinca Minor Winery, Trumer Brauerei, Gilman Brewing Company, Broc Cellars, and Donkey & Goat are all within a few blocks. More than an outlet for his saxophone renaissance, the Sunday music series and wine tastings provide an ideal way to introduce people to Covenant’s wares.
It’s the latest utterly unanticipated twist on Morgan’s convoluted path, which has been propelled by a series of epiphanies and left-field opportunities. Growing up in a secular Jewish New York family he didn’t attend synagogue or observe any holidays (“I would confuse Passover with Hanukah,” he said). But there was no confusion when he caught Jethro Tull on the band’s U.S. debut at the Fillmore East in January of 1969. Entranced by Ian Anderson’s flute work, he decided to take up the instrument.
Fronting a rock band wasn’t really in the cards however, and he ended up studying classical flute at Wesleyan for about a year, until another charismatic flautist, Jean-Pierre Rampal, changed his course. A Carnegie Hall concert by the French master performing Bach’s exquisitely crafted Sonatas for Flute and Keyboard set him on a course for Europe. “If the French can play flute like that, I’m going to France,” he said.
At 19 he ended up at the French National Conservatory in Nice. His plan to stay for two semesters turned into a five-year sojourn. It’s where he met Franck Amsallem, a startlingly accomplished pianist at 14, and where he took up the tenor sax when the conservatory launched a jazz big band. In his early 20s he was on the older side to adopt the horn, but he had plenty of inspiration catching shows at the Nice Jazz Festival, which presented many of the era’s greatest jazz improvisers.
As a local, he was able to connect with some of the featured American artists, “who mostly didn’t speak French, and I’d offer to serve as tour guide, taking them around the city and translating for them,” Morgan said. That’s how he ended up hanging out with reed master Eddie Daniels, who was playing tenor sax in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Looking for feedback on his saxophone progress Morgan arranged to stop by Daniels’ hotel room to play a tune or two. “He said, ‘I played better than you when I was 12. If you want to be a jazz saxophone player get back to the U.S.,’” Morgan recalled. “I was hooked on the South of France, the wine, the food, my friends. But I came back to America.”
Playing on the streets of New York City, he started attending classes led by the legendary Detroit pianist Barry Harris, who mentored generations of budding jazz musicians. He sang in Harris’s jazz chorus and attended study sessions at a succession of lofts and spaces every Monday night for eight years, from about 1978-85. “Sometimes we’d hang out at Barry’s house, which was Nica’s house, the jazz baroness,” Morgan said. “We always knew Thelonious Monk was in his bedroom, but he never came out.”
It was a rocky time for acoustic jazz in New York. Three generations of masters were active and in their prime, but work could be scarce. Morgan rubbed shoulders with giants like tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who was in the midst of his American resurgence after years in Europe, but other players were scuffling. Working with Amsallem he often played with New Orleans drum great Vernel Fournier, whose “Poinciana” groove with the Ahmad Jamal Trio is still an essential part of jazz’s rhythmic palette. “He was driving a taxi,” Morgan said. “Franck would hire him for all these gigs.”
Keeping some heady company while supporting himself as a New York musician (with a side hustle as a music contractor), Morgan had, by many measures, arrived. His muse however was fading. “Was I becoming a great saxophone player? Not particularly,” he said. “I was making pretty good money but not art. I had a lot of stupid work, corporate gigs and weddings. At some point every musician has to come to terms with his or her potential.”
By the late ‘80s Morgan’s jazz dream had turned into a dispiriting grind. Looking to get out of the city one weekend, he and Jodie headed upstate to East Jewett. When it came time to drive back to New York to play the next corporate gig, “I couldn’t get in the car,” he said. “I was so depressed about the state of my musical life. I said I’m going to go sit on this giant boulder in this stream and I’m not getting off until I figure out what I’m doing.”
After several hours on his perch an answer came to him via the murmuring current, “whispering something to me,” he said. “Wine. I jumped off the rock and told Jodie I’m going to be a winemaker.”
The transition didn’t happen quickly. He got a job working in a cellar at a little winery on Long Island and spent another five years playing gigs with Amsallem as he learned the ancient craft. With two young kids in the house, he didn’t have time to keep his chops up and ended up pursuing work as a journalist, which led to covering wine as a freelancer for the New York Times.
A call out of the blue in 1992 from Wine Spectator changed his course once again. Impressed by his work for the Times, an editor contacted Morgan about writing the annual roundup on kosher wines for Passover. Why me? Morgan asked. The year before the magazine assigned the story to a non-Jewish writer and his article panning the kosher offerings led to complaints about antisemitism. For the editor, Morgan’s heritage meant he could write what he wanted without entailing uncomfortable blowback for the magazine. There was one problem.
“I knew nothing about kosher wine,” said Morgan, who promptly immersed himself in the process. “I wrote a five-page spread that came out in March 1992. They liked it and kept me on as a freelancer. And every year I had to write this article. I learned that what keeps a wine kosher is who touches it. It has nothing to do with winemaking. You just have to have observant Jews in the cellar.”
In 1995, he played his last gig with Amsellem and moved the family to Napa to pursue the winemaking dream. Starting with a SoloRosa rosé that helped spark the wine’s rise to respectability (and led to his book Rosé: A Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Wine), he established himself as a Wine Country innovator.
He and Jodie started Covenant in 2003 when renowned Napa winemaker Leslie Rudd, a close friend, urged them to develop a quality kosher wine. Covenant wasn’t the first such endeavor, but the sickly sweet shadow of Manischewitz shrouds the perception of kosher wines to this day, at least until someone encounters Covenant’s Mensch zinfandel or Landsman pinot noir. With grapes gleaned from vineyards all over California, Covenant wines became critical darlings.
The process of making kosher wines also seemed to awaken something in Morgan. With observant Jews playing an essential role in the Covenant team, he began to grow into a stronger Jewish identity. Looking for a more active community he and Jodie’s eyes turned toward the East Bay.
“I realized my winemaking crew all lived in Oakland or Berkeley,” he said. “So we found a place in West Berkeley that’s easy for our winemaking.” They joined Berkeley’s Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, where Morgan celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the age of 63. “I’m not shomer Shabbat,” he said, referring to the detailed commandments regarding what activities are or aren’t allowed on the sabbath. “We have a somewhat kosher kitchen.”
The Sunday concert series still allows for a day of rest. While shows only run through July 24, the series has already become a significant addition to Berkeley’s still-recovering music scene. Morgan’s band Free Run, which takes its name from the first bottles pulled from the barrels, features an impressive cast of young players, including drummer Cy Grimsich, guitarist Max Brody, bassist Jonny Kamenik, keyboardist Veotis Latchison, and percussionist Dave Eagle.
Eagle, a Berkeley native who plays in an array of jazz and roots music combos, performs at Covenant Sunday, July 3, with the collective Trio de D, a Brazilian music project featuring Dave Copeland on eight-string guitar and vocalist Danielle Dubois Flax. After years of regular gigs at Cheese Board, he was delighted to find a new place to play and surprised that his employer was returned to the sax after two decades.
“That’s impressive,” Eagle said. “He got a good band together and the music has that backbeat, mostly soul jazz with a real groove. And the winery is really welcoming. People sit down and listen to the music. I’m curious to see how it goes Sunday. The Brazilian band is dance music. That’s what I’m used to playing.”
Like kosher wine making, for Morgan the saxophone has become another portal. Practicing every day he’s looking to see where the music takes him next. “I used to do wind surfing and a bunch of other stuff,” he said. “Now when I come back from the winery, I play for a least an hour. I’m really loving connecting with all these great young musicians.”