It’s fitting that one of the great films about jazz centers on the re-creation of a moment. Kasper Collin’s exquisitely haunted meditation I Called Him Morgan, about the life and untimely death of hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, employs all the techniques you would expect from a documentary study of a musician’s tragedy. Here are performance clips, talking heads, black-and-white stills from the Blue Note archives, and judicious excerpts from Morgan’s recordings. But Collin, in collaboration with cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival), has filled out the usual with a vital evocation of the bandleader’s milieu, often with new 16mm footage that audiences might take for an archival find. Morgan was gunned down in the Alphabet City jazz club Slug’s Saloon in February 1972, during a blizzard so thick that — we’re told — the ambulance took an hour to arrive. Collin shrouds his film in shots of New York whited out with snow, the lit-up lightning of the Chrysler Building one point of orientation. Pulsing and alive beneath it: Morgan’s crisp, insistent trumpet, somehow both preening and coolly nonchalant, out front in cuts from his Sixties quintets and the ’58-to-’61 iteration of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
Yes, those visions of a snow-choked Manhattan verge on the sentimental, evoking the fallacy that an indifferent city got as bummed out about Morgan’s struggles as those who loved him did. But this isn’t The Buddy Holly Story, where your liver couldn’t handle it if you took a shot every time a character in the last act mentioned that storm brewing. Collin and company are after climate, not weather. They steep us in our awareness that Morgan and his New York have been lost, that our glimpses of it must either be through memory or hazed-up photography — or the music itself. Collin, unlike too many other creators of jazz documentaries, has no qualms about asking audiences to listen to actual jazz soloing.
In counterpoint to his blizzards, Collin offers a warmer re-creation. Musicians reminisce in the film about the parties they would attend at the West 53rd Street apartment of Helen More, the woman who took the trumpeter in and helped clean him up after he succumbed to heroin addiction in the 1960s. As his interviewees testify to the marvels of More’s cooking, Collin shows us fleeting glimpses, in color, of a lively soirée. This disappoints, at first, as it’s too clearly a simulation, all silhouettes and ashtrays, but then, in a recent interview, a family friend whips out a photo of the real Helen More in her real kitchen. Her back is to the camera, and we see half her face in profile — she didn’t want the shot snapped at all. Suddenly, the very artifice of the re-creations gains resonance: The filmmakers, like any sympathetic viewer, strain to imagine what nobody back then managed to capture.
Only a windfall allowed Collin to come as close as he did. In the late 1980s, long after she had left New York and the jazz world, More — then Morgan — took an adult education class in Wilmington, North Carolina, taught by Larry Reni Thomas, a jazz historian and radio announcer. In the film Thomas describes his shock at discovering that she had once been Lee Morgan’s wife — especially since Thomas, probably unlike some viewers, knew that More had fired the gun that ended Lee Morgan’s life. He invited her to participate in an interview; eight years later, she finally agreed, just one month before she died. Throughout I Called Him Morgan, Collin plays the tape of More that Thomas recorded; her voice — “I met Miles. Nasty, nasty.” — proves the film’s second most urgent, after Morgan’s trumpet. She took Morgan in at his lowest. Too unreliable to gig, he turned up at her apartment in the dead of winter after hocking his coat. She describes urging him into rehab and then back into composing and playing. She speaks with love, but neither she nor the film (nor Jeffrey S. McMillan’s book Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan) makes clear just what he felt for More, almost fifteen years his senior. Was she his lover? A mother figure? She tells Thomas that she booked his comeback gigs, handled the cash drawer, and never missed a set, a role something like what Laurie Pepper played for Art during his comeback a decade later. Judith Johnson, a woman Morgan started to spend time with away from More, attests in the film that addiction had left Morgan with little sex drive. For More, though, it’s clearly been love all along — until it became betrayal.
Collin gives us time to wonder about all this. That snow falls, and that dumb tragic ending barrels toward us. Of course Collin tries to seize long-gone moments, to let us wrap ourselves in them before the inevitable. He doesn’t attend as closely to the development of Morgan’s music as he did to Albert Ayler’s in My Name Is Albert Ayler (2006). Billy Harper and Wayne Shorter, the great saxophone players and composers, both look heartsick speaking of Morgan’s troubles and his end — I wish Collin had found the space to let them speak about his technique, too, or the way that, by his last sessions, in 1971, Morgan had loosened and expanded his sound. (His late group, featuring Harper, pays tribute to Angela Davis in a stellar live performance from PBS’s Soul! TV series.)
The film stirs another wish: that documentarians and journalists focus not just on the most tragically romantic narratives but on the work of artists like Harper and Shorter, too, the musicians who have persevered, whose art is more interesting than their lives, who on records and bandstands and concert stages still create the kind of moments that people long from now will wish they could have lived in.
I Called Him Morgan
Written and directed by Kasper Collin
FilmRise and Submarine Deluxe
Opens March 24, Film Society of Lincoln Center