by Randy Freedman
Swedish born director Kasper Colin's 2017 documentary motion picture I Called Him Morgan is about the life of hard bop jazz trumpet player Lee Morgan and his tragic death at the hands of his common law wife Helen Moore. In the early hours of February 19,1972, Lee Morgan was shot by Moore, while he and his band were performing at Slugs' Saloon jazz club in the East Village section of New York City, following an altercation between sets.
The wounds would later prove to be fatal.This film tells the story of their life together both before the shooting and what happened to Helen afterward.
Edward Lee Morgan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 10, 1938, the youngest of Otto Ricardo and Nettie Beatrice Morgan's four children. On his thirteenth birthday, his sister Ernestine gave him his first trumpet. His primary stylistic influence was Clifford Brown, with whom he took a few lessons as a teenager.
At age 18 Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band and remained as a member for a year and a half, until financial woes forced Gillespie to disband the unit in 1958. Although Morgan also recorded on the Vee-Jay and Jazzland labels, he is primarily known for the 25 albums he recorded as a leader for Blue Note, beginning in 1956. On John Coltrane's lone Blue Note album as leader, Blue Train (1957), Morgan played a trumpet with an angled bell given to him by Gillespie.
Joining Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1958 gave Morgan the opportunity to further developed his talents as both soloist and composer. He toured with Blakey for a few years, and was featured on numerous albums by the Messengers, including what would become one of the band's best-known recordings Moanin'. When Benny Golson left the Jazz Messengers, Morgan persuaded Blakey to hire Wayne Shorter, a young tenor saxophonist, to fill the chair. This version of the Jazz Messengers, including pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt, recorded many albums between 1959–1961, including for Blue Note Africaine, The Big Beat, A Night in Tunisia and The Freedom Rider. During his time with The Jazz Messengers, Morgan also wrote several tunes including The Midget, Haina, Celine, Yama, Kozo's Waltz, Pisces, and Blue Lace. The drug problems of Morgan and Timmons forced them to leave the band in 1961, and the trumpeter returned to Philadelphia, his hometown. According to one of Morgan's biographers Tom Perchard, it was during this period with Blakey that Morgan was introduced the to heroin, which forever would impact his life and impede progression in his career.
On returning to New York in 1963, he recorded The Sidewinder (1963), which became his greatest commercial success. The title track cracked the pop charts in 1964, and served as the background theme for Chrysler television commercials during the World Series. Due to the crossover success of The Sidewinder in a rapidly changing pop music market, Blue Note encouraged its other artists to emulate the tune's "boogaloo" beat. Morgan himself repeated the formula several times with compositions such as "Cornbread" (from the eponymous album Cornbread) and "Yes I Can, No You Can't" on The Gigolo. According to drummer Billy Hart, Morgan said he had only recorded "The Sidewinder" as filler for the album, and was bemused that it had turned into his biggest hit. He felt that his playing was much more advanced on trombonist Grachan Moncur III's essentially avant-garde album, Evolution, recorded a month earlier, on November 21, 1963.
After this commercial success, Morgan continued to record prolifically. As the '60s progressed, he recorded some twenty additional albums as a leader, and continued to record as a sideman on the albums of other artists.
Morgan became more politically involved in the last two years of his life, becoming one of the leaders of the Jazz and People's Movement. The group demonstrated during the taping of talk and variety shows during 1970-1971 to protest the lack of jazz artists as guest performers and members of the programs' bands.
Colin, to the filmmaker's credit, follows the lives of both Morgan and Moore throughout his film , instead of just focusing on the famous musician. Morgan's story, for the most part, is told through the various living members of the bands that he played with throughout his short life: drummer Charli Persip, multireedist Bennie Maupin, saxoponist Billy Harper, and double bassist Jymie Merritt, among others. Together, in one way or another, these men can account for most of the years of Morgan"s adult life, as he graduated from one band to the next, started his own group, and slowly made a name for himself.
To tell Moore’s story, Collin tracked down Larry Reni Thomas, a teacher and radio host from North Carolina, who happened upon Helen in her later life and convinced her to sit down for an interview the month before she died in 1996. The taped interview, in which Moore talks with surprising intimacy, follows her through her rough upbringing (she had two children by the time she was 14, both of whom she gave up to her grandparents) through to her escape to New York City. Once settled there, Helen flourished, something many in the film recount with awe. Not only did she succeed there despite her country upbringing, but she was able to make a life for herself in the biggest city in the world, on her own, as a black woman in the 1950s. Eventually, Moore's apartment became something of a gathering spot. A revolving door of neighbors and local jazz musicians, with everybody coming for both Moore's cooking and the sense of community she fostered in her home.
Despite the fact that Morgan's murder is introduced in the opening minutes of the movie, creating grim expectation and anticipatory excitement in it's viewing audience, Collin still manages to turn the first half of I Called Him Morgan into a boldly frank and boisterous film. In part, it comes from our joy and admiration for the jazz men telling of this era. But it also comes from the pictures and videos of Morgan himself, who throughout the early years of his life, constantly wore such an indomitable, unguarded smile, that his love for the music showed openly.
Moore and Morgan, don’t meet until Lee has already destroyed his life, falling into addiction, selling off his possessions for heroin, and becoming infamous for not showing up to gigs. It’s easy to picture I Called Him Morgan beginning here, at this low point, when the two principal characters finally met. But it would have lost much of the magic that first learning the back story behind these two individuals creates. The importance, for both of them, is to finally wind up together. Spending so much of the movie reveling in their lives apart, only works to magnify the power of their coupling. It magnifies the way it seemed to have brought salvation (at least in the short term) to them both. Moore almost literally pulled Morgan out of the gutter and got him clean and back into music. Morgan was more than a decade younger than Moore and she got something of a son in him. It is within this careful focus, this unwillingness to accept an easy answer to explain the eventual tragedy, that makes I Called Him Morgan so good. More than anything else, the film becomes a celebration of these two lives and the era of music that both created and destroyed them. To hear Moore, recount shooting Morgan, with such obvious pain in her voice. There is almost no room left in us for anger or outrage. This is Collin’s greatest triumph.
Photographed in part by Bradford Young, I Called Him Morgan is as beautiful to look at as it is to hear, and boy, is it beautiful to hear. Collin’s previous film, My Name Is Albert Ayler, another look into the short life of a vibrant jazz musician, proved just how deftly he could put together a music-filled movie. He’s done it again here, creating a lean, thumping excursion into the life and death of a legend. Many of our jazz legends came to have tragic, heart breaking endings but few have had the backstories of all that happened beforehand, documented in such an honest, graceful and articulate manner.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.