On a wintry night in 1972, Lee Morgan was shot dead at age 33 in the middle of an East Village jazz club. But Kasper Collin’s latest documentary I Called Him Morgan is no sensational murder mystery—it’s an elegiac unearthing of two complicated people at the center of the Sixties jazz scene. Collins shakes the dustbins of history and lets the motes rise, tracing the making of a legendary jazz trumpeter and the woman who saved and destroyed him.
Lee Morgan was a prodigy—in his tragically short life, he made a name for himself as a giant of the jazz scene. At the ripe age of 18, he was already playing the trumpet with Dizzy Gillespie and recording his own records for the Blue Note catalogue, contributing to John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” album, and touring worldwide with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Morgan’s records are a near-constant gust of life throughout the film, rattling the present with their heady, spellbinding rhythms. Through music, stunning black and white photography (primarily documented by Blue Note Records co-founder Francis Wolff), and interviews with famous jazz musicians and close friends of Lee’s like Wayne Shorter, Paul West, and Jymie Merritt, Collins recreates the wild rhythms of Lee Morgan’s early chapters as a famous jazz trumpeter, from the recording sessions to the boozing and finally, to the drugs.
The “I” of I Called Him Morgan is Helen, Lee’s common-law wife, famed for the home she ran like a salon, a stomping ground for famous jazz artists to dust the snow off their coats and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Raised in the boondocks of North Carolina, Helen had given birth to two children by the time she was 14. Intent on escaping, she made it all the way to New York and embedded herself in the jazz scene. By the time she met Lee, he was strung-out and shoeless, neck-deep in his heroin addiction. In the words of Lee’s friends and band members, Helen was his “savior.” She restored him back to health, fulfilling the role of wife, mother, lover, and manager all at once.
When Collins first began developing the documentary, he had no idea how complex the relationship between Lee and Helen was. Collins knew Helen only as the woman who shot Lee that snowy night in New York. But the more he talked to Lee and Helen’s friends, the more Collins realized that a film about Lee also had to be a film about Helen.
Collins struck gold with Larry Reni Thomas, an adult education instructor in Wilmington, North Carolina who recorded an interview with Helen—who was one of his students after she moved back to NC—on a dusty cassette tape a month before she died in 1996.
Thomas’s interview with Helen provides the documentary’s spine. Her voice has a spectral quality—it clatters with ghosts, speaking from beyond the veil. “I was sharp,” she recalls. “I looked out for me.”
It is clear from Shorter and West’s recollections how fond they were of Helen, especially when Lee was at his worst. One of the film’s most touching moments has its participants re-entering history as if through a wormhole, like when Shorter speaks to Lee through a photograph: “What were you doing, Lee? What are you doing?”
The landscape of a face is just as important to Collins as the snowy skyline of New York City. The documentary doesn’t need to stage recreations to animate its history: all it has to do is dwell in close-up on Lee’s jug-eared boyish visage to summon the sensory fog of one of his smoky jazz clubs. In re-imagining the blizzard, Collins used grainy footage shot in 16mm by Bradford Young (whose work on Arrival was just Oscar nominated). Gales of wind surge and recede; snowflakes and frost flurry on the wind. Sirens flash through the haze. The details of the murder—a new girlfriend’s unwelcome presence at the jazz club in question, and Helen playing the jilted wife—are window-dressing, and of little interest to the ghosts it left behind. When Helen shot Lee, she said it felt like a dream. It took the ambulance over an hour to reach the club because of the blizzard. Lee died of his injuries.
I Called Him Morgan is both a lovesong and a ghost story—the dust has settled, but the spirits still talk.