Lee Morgan – I Called Him Morgan (2017, DVD)

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Feature photo Courtesy of the Afro-American Newspaper Archives and Research Center

The story of Lee Morgan as a promising, extraordinarily gifted trumpeter who was also a junkie appears to be your typical jazz tragedy play, but his untimely death at thirty-three years old didn’t come as a result of an overdose. I Called Him Morgan is a compelling, up-close documentary chronicling of the self-destructive lifestyle of a jazz prodigy and examines the irony that the very thing in his life that sustained him ended up being the same thing that cut that life short.

That ‘thing’ was Lee Morgan’s common-law wife Helen Morgan (née Moore), who shocked the jazz world when she walked into a New York nightclub on the early blizzard morning February 19, 1972 and fatally shot her lover. Thanks to the only interview she ever gave — taped about a month before her own death in 1996 — we have a first-hand account of not only this calamity but a window into the complex relationship between Lee and a woman some twelve years his senior. Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin (My Name is Albert Ayler) used that interview and interviews of Morgan’s musician cohorts to dissect this complex union that enabled Morgan to avoid the fate that befell Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday while he was in Moore’s care for about six or seven years, a period of time when he flourished as an artist and recorded a lot of great music for Blue Note Records.

For the first thirty-four minutes, Collin traces Morgan’s career and Moore’s life in parallel: Lee Morgan’s story is recounted by the personal reminisces of jazz luminaries such as Billy Harper, Jymie Merritt, Bennie Maupin, Wayne Shorter, Paul West, Charlie Persip and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath. In the beginning, we see Morgan as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band while still in his teens, remembered as a brash, stylishly dressed young man who already stood as a trumpet player. He had a fully developed language of his own on the horn by the time he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Shorter at his side on tenor saxophone. But Morgan also developed a heroin habit during his stint in Blakey’s band and went on a downward spiral in the early 60’s.

Meanwhile, Larry Reni Thomas’ cassette tape of his interview with Helen rolls, beginning with her recounting her childhood in rural North Carolina, where she had two kids by the time she was fifteen. Married at seventeen and widowed shortly afterwards, she resettled in NYC in the 50s. Over time, she came to frequent the jazz clubs nearby and got to know many of the musicians, often having them over at her apartment for big meals she prepared for them.

The lives of these ‘star-crossed lovers’ finally intersect more than half an hour into this ninety-five minute film. But by then, Collin had fully set up this seemingly inevitable match of a person who was unselfishly generous to Downtown jazz musicians (Helen) with a jazz musician who desperately needed help (Lee). First, Helen got Morgan to rehab and, with the help of methadone, kicked his heroin habit. From the mid-60s until Lee Morgan’s death, the two lived together and Helen handled all of the jazz great’s business affairs, lining up gigs and tours, and making sure he would meet these commitments. By everyone’s account, they were virtually inseparable.

The film uncovers the unfortunate sequence of events in the hours that led up to Morgan’s shocking murder, and the aftermath. Everyone who knew the couple — including Helen herself — struggled many years later to make sense of what happened that fateful night.

There are some gaps in Lee Morgan’s life left untouched by I Called Him Morgan: his formative childhood, his unexpected hit “The Sidewinder” that kicked off the boogaloo craze in 60’s soul-jazz and his cocaine use late in his life. But for the most part, those things were already widely known. Instead, Collin set out to peel away the remaining layers of mystery surrounding Lee’s relationship with the woman who renewed his life and then took it away, adding more to the story of one of jazz’s trumpet giants.

I Called Him Morgan premiered in September, 2016 at the 73rd Venice Film Festival and played in American theaters starting March 24, 2017. On October 31, 2017, it will be available on DVD, Blu-Ray and pay per view.

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