I Called Him Morgan

Review 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. “He’d sold his shoes to buy drugs!”

The tough, street-wise Helen–a mother at thirteen–persuaded 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.

Then the love story which illuminates the documentary turned dark: Lee met a woman named Judith Johnson (a participant in the film) and, for inexplicable reasons, abandoned Helen for her. This act of betrayal was what drove the jealous Helen to wreak her
revenge. For that crime of passion she spent time in prison followed by a return to North Carolina where she found salvation in the church.

Collin, working in black and white, uses different strands of filmed material in I CALLED HIM MORGAN: talking-head interviews with such jazz greats as Wayne Shorter, Charli Persip and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath; “memory” visuals and 16mm footage; and carefully
created moving images that look like snippets of home movies. “This was done to convey a more poetic feeling than the standard archive footage,” Collin said. “I’m not a big fan of re-enactments or re-creations.”

With the help of American cinematographer Bradford Young and three Swedish editors, Collin has put together an extraordinary film whose sound track features Lee Morgan playing hard-bop trumpet in a variety of settings, always sounding fresh, fiery and thrilling.