By Tanner Tafelski
Lee Morgan had talent. He was a hard bop jazz trumpeter who told stories in songs like “The Sidewinder,” “Ceora,” and “Search for the New Land.” At 18, he was a young master and a snappy dresser. All eyes were on him. He knew he had talent, and he made it known. It was at that age Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. A year and a half later, in 1958, he signed up with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Soon after, he would be the sideman for different bands, but he would also lead them on Blue Note studio albums. Along the way, Morgan got hooked on heroin. No one would touch him; no one would perform with him. His drug habit forced him to leave the Jazz Messengers in 1961. Morgan’s common-law wife, Helen, saved him from addiction though, enabling him to recover and make more music. She also shot and killed him in a confused, sad, and entirely preventable event. Morgan was 33 when he bled to death outside the legendary jazz venue, Slugs Saloon, during a blizzard.
Morgan did a lot of living in those 15 years, and Kasper Collin traces them in his second documentary about a jazz musician, I Called Him Morgan. The tools at his disposal are standard and have the potential to make for a standard documentary: a stew of archival audio and visual footage as well as talking head interviews recorded for the film. Collin uses them so impeccably though that his documentary transcends its materials.
I Called Him Morgan was a project that took seven years to make. Collin devoted three of those years to editing the film. The time and effort shows; it’s a tightly made film with no extraneous detail. A key piece, the center piece really, one in which all the other material seems built around, is an audio interview Larry Reni Thomas, a teacher for adult students, conducted with Helen in 1996, a month before she died. Collin returns to the audio time and again. In it, we hear Helen’s mellifluous voice—itself a kind of musical accompaniment—describing her life and her life with Lee, including that fateful night she shot him. Providing their perspectives about Lee includes: Wayne Shorter, the trumpeter and composer who worked with Morgan in the Jazz Messengers; Paul West, bass player in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra; Ron St. Clair, Helen’s neighbor and friend; Lena Sherrod, Lee’s girlfriend; and more. When not presenting interview subjects, Collin and cinematographer Bradford Young fill interstitial moments with new and archival 16mm and 8mm shots that evoke home movies. Moreover, shots of a sleepy, wintry New York at night give the film a poetic and nocturnal quality.
Less of a sensational true-crime tale and more of a moody immersive work, I Called Him Morgan is a compassionate documentary. You don’t have to be a jazz lover to get this film, for it’s about a man’s life and demise, told by friends and loved ones who revive him once more with their stories. Lee Morgan lives on in The Cooker (1958), The Sidewinder (1963), Search for the New Land (1964), but also in the memories of those who knew him best.
Director: Kasper Collin
Executive Producer: Ron Mann, Nicole Stott, Dan Braun
Producer: Kasper Collin
Cinematographer: Bradford Young, Erik Vallsten
Cast: Lee Morgan, Helen Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Paul West, Jymie Merritt, Bennie Maupin, Billy Harper, Art Blakey
Sweden / USA