Film

A New Documentary Explores the Wild Life and Tragic Death of Lee Morgan

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East Third Street, between avenues B and C, was placid on a weekday afternoon, as it has been for some time now. On the corner, glowing red, white, and blue Capital One ATMs stand, copping their $3 on withdrawals—the present-day squeegee men.

But 45 years ago, almost to the day, this block was the scene of a crime. In the snowy, early morning hours of February 19, 1972, trumpeter extraordinaire Lee Morgan, then 33, was shot to death by his common-law wife, Helen, between sets at Slug’s Saloon. The esteemed dive hosted some of the most renowned figures in jazz- from Charles Mingus to Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Keith Jarrett had been scheduled to play there the following week.

The events of that night are now the subject of Kasper Collin’s finely-crafted documentary I Called Him Morgan, which has already done a tour of some of the grandest stops on the festival circuit: Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York.

The story is emphatically cinematic; it’s a wonder why it hasn’t hit screens sooner. Morgan was a teenage prodigy under the glowing influence of Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. In 1956, he was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie. By 1958, he was in one of the most important groups in music—Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Soon after, he had his own contract with Blue Note Records and appeared as a sideman on some of that label’s signature works—John Coltrane’s Blue Train, and lesser-known wonders like Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution.

“Like his playing, Lee was brisk, witty, and strutting with confidence,” Nat Hentoff wrote in the liner notes of Morgan’s 1964 album Search For the New Land, which director Collin says is his personal favorite, using it to great effect throughout the documentary.

Morgan managed that rarest of achievements, a hit jazz record, the year before with “The Sidewinder,” a prancing 10-minute boogaloo-inflected romp. Chrysler used it, without permission, for one of its commercials shown during the 1965 World Series, Dodgers–Twins, when the Fall Classic was what the Super Bowl is today. Not that Morgan actually had a ho-hum, middle class Chrysler; my man drove a Triumph!

Collin, who also directed the 2006 documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler—another portrait of a jazz iconoclast who had a tragic, premature end in New York City—first became obsessed with Morgan while poking around YouTube. There he came across a live performance of the Messengers playing “Dat Dere.” He couldn’t get enough of Morgan’s solo. “I was so moved,” he says. “That just knocked me out that solo. It made me so curious about his music.”

Morgan’s playing has that effect. “Lee Morgan was the first trumpeter that I transcribed in my youth,” says musician and composer Jeremy Pelt. “For whatever reason, whatever Lee played always sounded fresh and new, and that’s what appealed to me.”

After the YouTube revelation, Collin began asking around about Morgan and soon embarked on the “long journey” that became this documentary. “Part of doing a film like this,” he says, “is kind of doing archaeology in a way.”

Collin began pursuing interviews with musicians who were close with Morgan, like Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Billy Harper among them. He weaves these in with concert footage, photographs, a plethora of contact sheets, part of an interview that Morgan did with British writer and photographer Valerie Wilmer, and, to create the mood of the night in question, his own obsession with snow, which he filmed while he lived in New York during the winter of 2010–11. “As a Swede, it’s normal with snow here,” Collin says, “but that winter was crazy. Those storms, it was 60–70 centimeters!” He searched the archives of the Down Beat magazine, and the black American press as well: Jet, The Amsterdam News, The Baltimore Afro-American, and The Philadelphia Tribune. He also works in a TV clip from the PBS show Soul!, where Morgan performed “Angela” (dedicated to Angela Davis).

The real coup, though, came when he found Larry Reni Thomas, a continuing ed teacher in North Carolina, who taped an interview he did with Helen in 1996—a month before she died—and published a book on the subject in 2014, The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan. Helen returned to Wilmington, her hometown, after she served her time for second-degree manslaughter. She got involved in the church, where, according to her son Al Harrison, “She found her salvation.”

The interview—“an amazing document,” Collin says—enriches the documentary and transforms it into a story within the story, one that humanizes Helen. Morgan lived fast, and rose fast. And then he got addicted to heroin. Tootie Heath tells Collin in the film about how Morgan came to Birdland in slippers after he sold his shoes; Maupin says that “he looked like a homeless person….No one would hire him.” Morgan even pawned his own coat.

It was Helen, the documentary makes clear, who saved him in 1967. She was nurturer—and was some cook—but she was tough, too. “I will not sit here and tell you I was so nice,” she says at one point on the taped interview she did with Thomas, “because I was not. I was sharp. I had to be. And I looked out for me.”

She didn’t take shit from Miles, who once said to her, “I see you got a quick mouth…I don’t mess around with bitches with quick mouths.” So when Morgan met another woman, look out. She did warn him: “I can’t live like this; it’s not in me.”

Helen giveth, and Helen taketh—or, in the words of Collin, “it was a Greek tragedy.” Yet the documentary doesn’t end on a flourish of blue notes, but one of forgiveness. And what Morgan left behind, still resonates. “Lee’s tone was always, and still is, something I had in the back of my head when I improvise,” says Pelt, who was born four years after Morgan died. “If I remind some people of him, that’s always to be taken as a compliment.”

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