A Stunning Portrait of a Tragic Death

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Trumpeter Lee Morgan (left) is the subject of Kasper Collin's compelling documentary I Called Him Morgan. (Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival)

Following a recent screening in Manhattan of Kasper Collin’s compelling documentary about the life and tragic death of trumpet star Lee Morgan, I Called Him Morgan, eminent critic Gary Giddins moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker and two Morgan colleagues, bassists Paul West and Larry Ridley.

Giddins, who had made a stop at Slug’s the evening Morgan’s common-law wife, Helen More, entered the notorious East Village nightclub and shot the trumpeter dead in a jealous rage, described the film as “not only one of the most extraordinary documentaries in the history of jazz but also a brilliant piece of journalism.”

Indeed, Collin’s film meticulously fills in the details of precisely what happened on that fateful night. And more importantly, why.

Giddins was a 23-year-old budding music writer at the time this modern day Greek tragedy went down at Slug’s. A harsh winter storm blanketed the city that fateful night —a visual motif that Collin works with throughout his artfully crafted film—making driving conditions extremely dangerous. In fact, Morgan was late to the gig because his girlfriend’s car got totaled in an accident on the way to Morgan’s home in the Grand Concourse section of the Bronx, and they ended up taking a cab to Slug’s. Giddins, who had been waiting at the club to see the trumpeter lead his quintet (tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Jymie Merritt and drummer Freddie Waits) eventually bailed and trudged to the Village Vanguard to catch Morgan’s trumpet rival, Freddie Hubbard.

The next morning Giddins, like hordes of jazz fans all over the city, read the sad news in the tabloids: Jazz Trumpeter Killed By Wife in Nightclub.

Fast-forward 40 years. Collin, a lifelong jazz fan living in Gothenburg, Sweden, who had previously directed the 2006 documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler, received two key pieces of Morgan memorabilia that would serve as the impetus for his Morgan documentary. One was a black-and-white YouTube video of the trumpeter playing with the Jazz Messengers in Tokyo in 1961. Collin was especially inspired by Morgan’s highly expressive solo on Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” (he bookends I Called Him Morgan with grainy footage of that solo). “That clip first made me wonder if there was a film here,” Collin said after the New York screening. “I knew he was killed by a woman but I didn’t know much more about it.”

Collin next came across a revealing interview that Wilmington, North Carolina, educator Larry Reni Thomas had done with Helen Morgan in 1996, long after she had gotten out of jail for her crime and relocated to her birthplace in Wilmington. She had come to New York City in the mid-1960s and quickly fell into the jazz scene there, hosting a colorful cast of characters, including several jazz musicians, at her apartment on 53rd Street, just a block from the original Birdland nightclub.

Eventually, Morgan, who was 12 years her junior, came by to Helen’s place for one of her famous home-cooked dinners. He was struggling with a terrible heroin addiction at the time that caused him to pawn numerous possessions—his shoes, his coat, his horn—in order to buy junk. Some colleagues described him as looking like a homeless person during that sad period. As saxophonist Bennie Maupin says in the film, “He had gone down as far as you can go … then he met Helen.”

Helen took a motherly attitude toward Morgan, cleaning him up, buying him hip clothes, getting his horn out of hock and eventually booking him gigs on the comeback trail. As one colleague says, “It was almost like she had adopted a child. She helped him get back on his feet. His life was restored by Helen.” And by hanging with the rising star trumpeter and gaining entrance to the jazz scene of New York City during the ’60s, the free-spirited Helen was basking in a life that must’ve seemed light years from her roots in rural North Carolina.

Helen became Morgan’s confidante, lover and manager. That she literally pulled him out of the gutter and devoted her life to the trumpeter makes it easier to understand the betrayal Helen felt when Morgan later replaced her with a younger girlfriend, Judith Johnson, who was at Slug’s on that fateful winter night in 1972.

Thomas’ original cassette tape interview with Helen provides the structure for the film, as she talks in detail about how she met Morgan, how they lived together and what finally went down at Slug’s that night. (In classic Greek tragedy tradition, she ended up shooting Morgan with the very gun he had given her to protect herself).

Collin’s keen understanding of jazz, along with his obvious love for the music and its iconic players, comes across in his telling of Morgan’s tragic tale. He is aided in his efforts by some eloquent testimony from bassists West, Merritt and Ridley, a well as drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, saxophonists Harper, Maupin and Wayne Shorter, who says of the confident, cocky young trumpeter, “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that he was gonna be a star.” Or as Ridley explained on the Giddins-moderated panel discussion: “He wasn’t arrogant but he carried himself like the special guy that he was. He had a way of letting you know that he was very much in command of being Lee Morgan.”

Francis Wolf’s striking black and white photos help capture the quintessential ’60s Blue Note vibe throughout the film. And Collin’s cinematographer Bradford Young (the first African-American cinematographer to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the feature film Arrival) brings a beautiful sense of melancholy and foreboding to this tragic tale.

Collin’s brilliant I Called Him Morgan, an indispensable document for jazz fans and neophytes alike, does more to illuminate what the music is really about than either of director Damien Chazelle’s recent clueless feature films, Whiplash and La La Land. DB


On Sale Now
January 2018
Esperanza Spalding
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