Words by Hank Williams | MAIN PHOTO: Lee and Helen Morgan
Director Kasper Collin’s documentary film I Called Him Morgan on the late trumpeter Lee Morgan opens and closes with the beginning notes of the subject’s “Search for the New Land”. Morgan’s plaintive, sensuous notes on the trumpet stand in counterpoint with Grant Green’s shimmering guitar. It forms an appropriate frame for a musical life that ended too soon.
Early on, Lee Morgan’s wife–and killer–Helen Morgan informs the viewer via an appropriately fuzzy interview that she’s not to be taken lightly. It’s an ominous yet appropriate premonition that helps frame the narrative around a story that attempts to add richness of detail to a tale where the outcome is a foregone conclusion but the reasons remain murky.
Helen shot Lee on February 15, 1972 in between sets at the famed Slug’s Saloon in front of a club full of astonished guests and his own bandmates then waited–sobbing and clutching his prone body–for the police to arrive.
Indeed, as the story unfolds, one is constantly reminded that Helen is as much of the story as Lee.
Lee Morgan lit up the jazz scene in the 1950s with his bold, evocative voice on trumpet. His big break was entry into the band of legendary drummer Art Blakey, who took it upon himself to mentor and develop generations of young musicians through his Jazz Messengers bands.
These were the the days when jazz was king. Fast cars, women, and lots of money were all on offer for the jazz musicians of the era, who were some of the biggest pop stars of the time.
Lee, supremely confident–almost cocky–with his skill as a trumpeter and youthful energy, was at the center of all of it and and relished the attention, fast life, and everything that came with it.
Although one of Lee’s childhood friends is interviewed, one doesn’t learn much about the trumpeter’s background or what leads him into the jazz scene at such a young age: he was barely out of his teens when he became a rising star. Instead, in somewhat of a jump in the narrative, viewers get a snapshot of Lee’s rapid ascendancy in the jazz world, though how he gets there is left for viewers to ponder.
In contrast, Helen’s childhood is examined in slightly more detail via an interview with a childhood friend and an interview with herself, conducted by radio host Larry Reni Thomas only a month before her death.
Thomas’s interview with Helen is one of the film’s key pieces of documentary evidence and is one of the few pieces of the film that attempts to answer the question of why Helen shot Lee. Like much of the film, even this is frustratingly vague: a promise for a follow-up interview comes to naught when Helen dies before the second part, where she might have gotten comfortable enough to give deeper answers.
To Collin’s credit, the film avoids the current trend toward handing over valuable screen time to celebrities who contribute little to the storyline and are seemingly present just for name recognition. Those who appear on screen have a direct connection to the Morgans or are musicians who played with Lee. This is a direction more documentarians should take: trusting the strength of the story and characters enough to let them tell the tale.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, for instance, remembers that Lee “was always digging back into his roots, his history” for musical inspiration, following the advice of drummer Art Blakey to tell his story while soloing. It’s one of the film’s small details, but indeed reveals a lot about the legendary bandleader and Lee’s approach. Blakey’s prodding seems to illuminate Lee’s trumpet style that juxtaposed boldly stacatto notes with brash, impeccably phrased bursts on the open horn, yet made space for plaintive melodies.
Indeed, Lee’s time with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is presented as somewhat of a high point. The youthful exuberance and carefree confidence of Lee and the rest of the band is infectious and provides a beautiful portrait of the artists.
Much of the above is done via still photos, music, and interviews of surviving band members. Lee’s voice only appears via an early 1970s interview with writer Val Wilmer and snippets of video. As with the recent Chasing Trane documentary on John Coltrane, there simply isn’t much audio or video of either Lee or Helen: a stark reminder that capturing and broadcasting even minute details of daily life is a very recent phenomenon.
Aside from the technical limitations, the strategy also helps to freeze the dual subjects into the time period. Life ends early for Lee; Helen lives on, but returns to a relatively nondescript life in North Carolina far removed from the speed of New York City’s jazz scene after a short stint in jail followed by time in a mental institution.
The film does reinforce the invariably intertwined nature of Lee and Helen’s relationship.
Lee became addicted to heroin, which wrecked his career and almost took his life. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin recalls seeing Lee on a subway platform while on a passing train and not recognizing him at first: “he looked like a homeless person,“ Maupin remembers ruefully.
I Called Him Morgan doesn’t flinch in describing the depths of despair Lee fell into while gripped by addiction: he got his teeth knocked out, spent a lot of time on the streets, and was once roused by the smell of his own skin and hair burning: he’d passed out next to a radiator.
Collin does an admirable job of balance, however. Wayne Shorter and other friends of Lee who didn’t succumb to drugs are interviewed and show the genuine concern they had for their friend and fellow musician. Shorter’s overall reaction seems to be a mix of frustration and bewilderment at the inability to save Lee. It’s a thoughtful touch that helps highlight the fact that while a lot of musicians (and some very prominent ones) from the era did fall into drug addiction, not all did.
This is the point where Helen re-enters the story. She’d moved to New York City from North Carolina at a young age and gotten herself a job and her own apartment on 52nd St during the time period when it was still the epicenter of the jazz world. She began hanging out in the clubs and became known for her parties, which drew an eclectic crowd from the jazz scene. This is where Lee and Helen meet.
The couple became inseparable. Helen, who was several years older than Lee, took a motherly interest in him; intently supporting him and encouraging him to resume his career. Lee was perhaps at his lowest point, having sold his horn and even overcoat for drugs.
Bassist Jymie Merritt recalls that “Lee’s life’s was restored by Helen and it was a joy to watch”.
Collin’s noir style and indirect storytelling fit the subject well, though force close attention to details. While less impressionistic than his earlier My Name is Albert Ayler, Collin prefers to draw his characters in broad strokes.
Along the way, viewers find out that Lee has a girlfriend and is spending less and less time at home with Helen: details which become central to the tragedy at the heart of the story.
Lee’s fatal final night at Slug’s seemed to be dogged by bad omens. New York was gripped by a blizzard and his girlfriend Lena Sherrod wrecked her car in the snow while driving him to fetch his trumpet for the club date. Ironically, his renewed commitment to being a responsible bandleader drove him to appear at the club, as he was aware of his previous reputation for unreliability while addicted to heroin.
Helen followed downtown as well, though only meant to stop by Slug’s briefly before catching a different show in Greenwich Village.
I Called Him Morgan is a deeply unsettling film because it calls to mind the fragility of life and ironic elements in Lee and Helen’s interconnected lives. Without Helen’s help, it seems unlikely Lee would’ve made a successful musical comeback or even quit heroin. If Lee hadn’t been driven by the musician’s credo to make the gig no matter what, things might have ended differently. Lee, like novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s doomed protagonist in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, hurtles toward a seemingly inescapable fate while evading several possible turns that might change it.
Saxophonist Billy Harper remembers that the police came immediately after the shooting to arrest Helen, who surrendered quietly. Slug’s—and the Lower East Side neighborhood—was well known to police at the time because of crime and drugs. The atmosphere of the club itself merely mirrored the surroundings. Because of the blizzard, the ambulance took an hour to arrive. One can’t help but be haunted by the mental image of Lee lying on the floor of a dive bar for an hour, his life slowly dripping into the sawdust-covered floor for an agonizingly long time as musicians and patrons alike look on in horror.
The film doesn’t fully answer what drove Helen to shoot Lee and hints that she possibly isn’t exactly clear on the motivations either. The suggestion is that a combination of disrespect and humiliation at the hands of Lee’s womanizing drives her over the edge, but the only one who could answer that question for sure doesn’t give a straight explanation.
James Gavin’s account in a 2015 Jazz Times profile of Slug’s Saloon notes that Lee had fallen back into heavy drug use and as his addiction got worse, so did his abusive behavior toward Helen, who still served as his manager.
Lee Morgan’s end came in a dive bar that was home to some of the most brilliant musicians of the generation–including himself–and he died a junkie’s death.
Harper’s lament of the tardy ambulance seems a metaphor for Lee Morgan’s life. Had Lee been gotten medical attention sooner, Harper opines, “I think he could’ve been saved.”
(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity.)
92 Minutes. Playing at Metrograph and Lincoln Center Theaters in Manhattan and select theaters nationwide. See the film website for screenings.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot