I Called Him Morgan, a film by Kasper Collin, tells the story of jazz trumpet player Lee Morgan, from his debut as a cocky teen-aged protege of Dizzy Gillespie to his tragic death, shot dead at age 33 by his common law wife Helen Morgan. It is a film rich in jazz and the experiences of African-Americans who wrote their personal and collective histories through music. The film debuted on the festival circuit in 2016, garnering many rave reviews and awards, now available to a wider audience through streaming on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. I purchased it from Amazon in 1080p resolution with 5.1 surround sound, pleased that the sound design of the film preserves the most defining sonic quality of many of Lee’s albums, the wide separation between the trumpet and saxophone, each isolated in its own channel.
Unflinchingly, I Called Him Morgan explores the gray area between guilt and forgiveness. Any jazz fan discovering Lee Morgan’s trumpet playing, his prodigal talent for improvisation and story-telling on his horn, is sure to feel a sense of mourning for the fact that his time on Earth was so short. Yet, Helen Morgan is a figure who will inspire some sympathy for her own determination as well as her crucial role in revitalizing Lee’s life and career in second half of the 1960s. Her story is symbolic as she becomes an iconic example of the urges of bravest to escape to a better place, in her case New York City, where she defined herself rather than let the provincialism of her native North Carolina define her.
As we learn, Helen Morgan became something of a den mother to jazz musicians attracted by her home cooking and kind persona. Yet, despite the revelations in such symbolism, she is humanized by the cassette tape recording made by Larry Reni Thomas, an educator, journalist, and torch carrier of jazz history. Larry interviewed Helen Morgan after she was in his adult education class where he discovered her intimate connection to Lee. The conformation of Helen Morgan’s humanity is her voice, as played on the cassette. The audience hears her story, in her own words. Hence, a three-dimensional figure emerges, and she can no longer be perceived merely as the woman who shot Lee Morgan.
We also hear first hand accounts from many of Lee’s collaborators and friends. In a most touching moment, Wayne Shorter, a legend of the saxophone and oft collaborator with Morgan, is gazing at a photo of Lee with a bandaged head, admonishing his friend in the present tense as if he is still alive. Shorter was Lee’s bandmate in the The Jazz Messengers, and a collaborator on his later solo albums. The Jazz Messengers were a combo seen by some as the epitome of hard bop, a summation of everything that was hip about jazz in its most fruitful era. A contemporary critic lends his view:
“…his fine Gillespie-inspired trumpet was shown off to great advantage above Blakey’s furious drumming. He was equally at home on more restrained pieces when his excellent control and even vibrato became more evident.” (1)
Between one audio interview of Lee Morgan from 1971, the cassette tape (a character in itself), and original interviews with friends and bandmates, Lee Morgan’s life story is aptly portrayed in overview. I would have liked more details about his upbringing and his influences, which by other accounts extended beyond jazz. Lee’s personality bursts from the screen most strikingly from the archival photographs taken by Francis Wolff of Blue Note Records. (The story of the “Animal Brothers,” Wolff and Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion, would make for a wonderful documentary in itself.) Of particular interest are the photographs taken inside the famous studio of Rudy Van Gelder (1924-2016). Gelder revealed little about his recording techniques, so such insights are invaluable.
Most of all, it is the music that moves, and listening to the soundtrack I felt transported to the smoky clubs, breathing in the wails from the brass and feeling the sense of liberation the music provided in an atmosphere of necessary revolt outside. Photographs from places such as Slugs, the ones “where you can hear the real cats,” strike me as evidence that the jazz scene in the early 1970s was racially integrated, white intellectuals and African-Americans inspired by the same music mingling together.
Collin’s compelling film should be welcomed by jazz aficionados as well as newer fans discovering Lee’s music through reissues and You Tube. For all the lesson is the same. Jazz is a genre fused with the history of America in black and white. It connects us to frontiers beyond our national one and can be a stark reminder of the best and worst impulses in everyone.
Search For The New Land (1964):
(1). McRae, Barry. The Jazz Cataclysm. Cranbury, NJ: AS Barnes and Co. (1967), p. 55.