Opening in NYC on March 24th and in Los Angeles a week later, “I Called Him Morgan” is the greatest film about a jazz musician I have seen. Although it is a documentary, it puts to shame narrative films that have fallen flat such as Don Cheadle’s on Miles Davis. Even if you are not a jazz fan, this is a compelling and informative work that might even motivate you to buy Lee Morgan CD’s. The film benefits from an almost nonstop score made up of his performances that are a reminder of how much of a loss his death at 33 years was. Combined with some amazing still photos of Lee Morgan and his contemporaries, this is a feast for both the ears and the eyes.
Not only is this a chronicle of one of the great trumpet players of the 50s to the early 70s, it is also a love story about Morgan and Helen, the woman who loved him. On February 19, 1972, when Morgan was playing at Slug’s on the lower east side, a club I used to haunt in the mid-60s when I was living in NYC, Helen Morgan came there to confront her husband. He had been spending far too much time with a younger woman who was in the club that night. In an altercation involving the three, Helen was evicted from the premises into the snowy night. She stormed back into the club and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest. The blizzard, which had left more than a foot of snow at that point, kept an ambulance from arriving for more than a hour. He died in the hospital. I could not help but think of the pop tune written in 1912:
Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’, Out the back door he did scoot
But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot
He was her man but he done her wrong
In an introduction to his new class in an adult education program in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas began by referring to his past gig as a jazz DJ. Later on one of the students, an elderly woman who he considered very street-smart but without a formal education, mentioned to him that her husband had been a jazz musician. When Thomas found out that it was Lee Morgan, he invited her to sit down for an interview. The audio tape of that interview forms an important strand in the narrative of “I Called Him Morgan”, including the film’s title. Helen Morgan didn’t care for the name Lee, preferring to call him Morgan.
Lee Morgan was a leading member of what has been referred to as “hard bop” movement that emerged in the mid-50s. Trumpet players like Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard were strongly influenced by Clifford Brown who died tragically in an auto accident on his way to a gig on June 25, 1956 at the age of 25. Born in 1938, Morgan was Clifford Brown’s student in Philadelphia and an acknowledged prodigy who joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at the age of 18.
After Dizzy’s band folded, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958, a group that was considered the foremost exponent of the hard bop style. That year they recorded “Moanin’”, a tune that is considered one of the great jazz anthems of all time. It epitomized the synthesis of bebop chord changes and traditional “soul” music in the Black community found in the blues, gospel music and r&b. Listen to it here to get an idea of what jazz sounded like in its glory days:
You can see the band performing this number in “I Called Him Morgan” as well as many other classic performances on the Steve Allen Show and other vintage television shows before TV became corrupted with formulaic pop music.
Side by side, as we learn about Morgan’s musical evolution, we get Helen Morgan’s story, an all too familiar tale of racial and gender oppression in the Deep South. She had her first child at the age of 13 and another a year later. In her late teens, she married a man who would die a couple of years into their marriage. Soon afterwards she moved to NYC where she was welcomed by her late husband’s relatives and into a hip, urban environment. As she tells Larry Reni Thomas early on, she hated the country and doing chores on her father’s farm.
In no time at all, she became celebrated by jazz musicians for her quick wit, feistiness, sex appeal and opening her apartment up to the community as a kind of salon where they could always count on a fabulous meal and each other’s company. To pay the rent and other expenses, Helen Morgan worked for an answering service by day, a job more easily available to Black women.
One day, she ran into Lee Morgan at one of her get-togethers and figured out immediately that he was strung out on heroin. Since it was a cold winter’s day, she asked him where his coat was. His answer: the pawn shop. She took his arm in hers and went to the pawn shop to get his coat out of hock. This was the beginning of a May-November romance (she was 13 years older) that gave her great happiness and him a second chance on a career after she nursed him back to health and kept him on the straight and narrow. The tragic ending to this marriage was not inevitable but as is so often the case, murders are the result of domestic quarrels that get out of hand. With the easy availability of handguns (Lee had bought one for her Helen for her own protection), it is no wonder that such killings take place routinely—but usually it is the woman who dies.
Among the breakthroughs in this film made by Swedish director Kasper Collin, whose last documentary was on Albert Ayler, is the assembling of interviewees who had played alongside Lee Morgan, including Wayne Shorter, “Tootie” Heath, Larry Ridley, Charlie Persip and others. Now mostly in their 70s, they are knowledgeable about Lee Morgan as a person and a musician. Shorter comes across as true savant of this world and a musician whose biography (much more of an “as-told-to” memoir) is going on my must-read list for 2017.
I urge you to put this film on your must-see list for 2017. “I Called Him Morgan” opens on Friday, March 24 at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center andt will be followed on Friday, March 31 at NYC’s Metrograph Theater and the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles with a national expansion to follow.