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Unsolicited Film Review: "I Called Him Morgan" Unpacks Two Jazz Lives

New film explores life of trumpet player Lee Morgan, murdered by his wife.


April 26, 2017 | by Denise Sullivan

I Called Him Morgan

A Film by Kasper Collin

1h 32min

Non-Americans are empirically better at appreciating our country's cultural output than we are: Look what England, Canada, and Australia did with rock 'n' roll. Then there are the French, the Dutch, the Danish, and the Swiss, who have archived and appreciated jazz far better than we have. Just ask the musicians who thrived in Europe in the 20th Century, some of them making their homes away from home there.

Currently, it's the Swedes in the lead, who are deconstructing our culture in state-of-the-art documentaries on Black lives. Göran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape (2011) took up connections between 50 years of Black liberation movement and hip-hop and reinvented the socio-political-music documentary. Now we have Kasper Collin's I Called Him Morgan, concerning the life and death of composer and trumpet player Lee Morgan, shot in 1972 by his wife and manager Helen, that takes the music doc into uncharted territory.

Collin delivers a self-described “understated narrative” that sidesteps the fine points of biography and allows the musician's compositions to speak for themselves, resulting in a whole new filmic form of redemption song.

Collin, a relative newcomer to filmmaking with one film, 2007’s My Name Is Albert Ayler, to his credit (about iconoclastic musician Albert Ayler), came to his second subject through his music that still plays in regular rotation, at least on YouTube. “It was never my intention to make another jazz film,” he told an audience at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April. Indeed, he knew of Morgan's background sketch — super-talent, magnificent in fact, his hit “The Sidewinder,” and the crime of passion that ended it all. But when he came upon a clip of Morgan as a young man playing with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, he became spellbound by sound.

Combing the internet for information about his newfound obsession, Collin unearthed some documentation just too tempting to let pass: There existed a 27-minute recorded interview transcript with Helen, recounting the couple's story. Told in 1996 (just a month before her death) to her teacher and jazz enthusiast in Wilmington, North Carolina, Collin made it his business to find its recordist, Larry Reni Thomas, and the cassette itself, which was degenerating by the minute in a drawer.

With this crackling piece of audio tape (restored, of course), Collin found his basic track for the film, and it became his invitation to tell two stories: One of the hardscrabble country girl who made her way to New York City; the other of a teenage musical prodigy turned dope fiend who made an incredible comeback and a lasting impression on jazz itself. Layering the audio with an unprecedented number of high-quality stills (taken by Blue Note's Francis Wolff), moving footage of Morgan, newly rendered experimental B-roll, and important interviews with friends and bandmates like Wayne Shorter, Paul West, and Bernie Maupin, Collin's film sails on Morgan's melodies toward its dizzying denouement that coincides with an epic Noreaster. But it is Morgan's horn and his own original sound over a vast Blue Note catalog that lives strong: The title piece from his 1964 recording, Search For The New Land, serves as a theme throughout the film, encapsulating in sound Morgan's story: low down, but with hints of shimmer and brilliance shining through.

Morgan hailed from Philadelphia and joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band at age 18. He and saxophonist Wayne Shorter soon joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and began their careers in earnest, traveling the world, blowing their horns, indulging in the best of everything from cars to shoes and clothes. “Best car, best lady, best shoes,” said friend and bassist Paul West. But it wasn't long before Morgan fell for drugs and quit playing altogether. At one point he not only sold his horn but his shoes, claiming he preferred dope to all else life had to offer. “He came to the studio in his slippers,” recalled bassist Jymie Merritt, still visibly pained by the memory of his once sharp-dressed pal sinking so low.

Enter Helen, a self-made woman from the South and fixture on the jazz scene; she lived not far from Birdland and was known to the jazz crowd for her home cooking and hospitality. Helen met Morgan (as she preferred to call him) at a house party when he was at his worst: no coat, no shoes, no teeth, and certainly no horn. Fourteen years his senior, she made it her job to get him clean. By all accounts, their life together was good — which made its end when Lee was just 33 and on the comeback trail all the more shocking to their inner circle and the jazz public. Helen's taped explanation of what happened that night is brief and to the point, as if it could've happened to anyone, but its chilling vocalization is best saved for the viewer.

Like the deaths of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, which were not entirely unexpected, and that of Clifford Brown which was, Morgan's loss continues to be grieved by the jazz survivors who knew him well. I Called Him Morgan ensures listeners of Lee Morgan and newcomers to the sound will feel the loss too, not only for the life of an American giant and sessions never recorded, but for the gone world, when jazz defined excellence, style, and ultimately rebellion.

I Called Him Morgan is currently playing in select theaters throughout the world.

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