I Called Him Morgan
by Willard Manus
Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collins latest jazz documentary, I CALLED HIM MORGAN, tells the tragic story of the life and death of the legendary trumpeter, Lee Morgan. Morgan was only 33 years old when his common-law wife Helen shot him dead in an East Village
jazz club on a snowy night in 1972.
Collins, who directed MY NAME IS ALBERT AYLER eleven years ago, was inspired by a YouTube clip of Lee Morgan playing in 1961 with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It was an amazing performance that moved me deeply, he said, and it became the
pivotal point for me in deciding to make a film about the trumpeter.
The serendipitous discovery of an audio-tape interview with Helen Morgan by the North Carolina d.j., Larry Reni Thomas, provided the foundation for the film. In the interview she reveals intimate details about her life with Lee: most importantly, how she had helped him kick the heroin addiction which had wrecked him personally and professionally. He was walking around in slippers when I first met him, she recalls. Hed sold his shoes to buy drugs!
The tough, street-wise Helena mother at thirteenpersuaded Lee (whom she always called Morgan) to enter a methadone program and start practicing the trumpet again. Soon Lee got his chops back and was able to resume his successful career, one which had begun at the age of eighteen when he joined the Dizzy Gillespie band.
He cut numerous
albums for Blue Note, both as leader and sideman, headlined at jazz clubs
and festivals around the country, began composing and teaching as well,
building his fan base the whole time.