By Jonathan Lawrence
CALGARY — A cold and dismal snowfall opens this heartfelt documentary that details a talented Jazz trumpeter’s fall from grace, his return to form, and his eventual demise at the hands of his own wife. A downbeat jazz tune accompanying the nostalgic winter imagery sets the mood. I Called Him Morgan is a true story that manages to capture a variety of literary and cinematic themes; it has the grit of Taxi Driver with the tragedy of Shakespeare, yet ultimately remains a positive and unforgettable story.
Lee Morgan was an incredibly gifted trumpet player, known as one of the all-time greats to many. “There was never any doubt Lee was going to be a star,” Charlie Persip of Dizzy Gillespie’s band said. “He knew how to tell a story musically,” said Wayne Shorter, Grammy-winning saxophonist. His success grew rapidly throughout the late-1950s and 1960s, even when jazz’s popularity was in decline.
On top of being a musical prodigy, Lee was young, handsome and had a keen sense of fashion. Unfortunately, like many young people who experience the heights of success, Morgan found himself at the mercy of drug addiction, and by 1967 he was broke and sleeping on the streets. He was unrecognizable to even his own bandmates, who mistook him for a homeless man.
It was then that Lee Morgan’s life took an ultimate turn for the best – as well as the worst. He met his partner-to-be, Helen Morgan, a woman 13 years his senior while strung-out and freezing out on the cold winter streets. In an interview in the film, she sadly remembers asking him why he didn’t have a coat. Immediately, she became his caretaker, and their subsequent relationship was arguably more mother-son than romantic. In the same interview, she states that she “took over total control of Morgan’s life.”
Although Helen Morgan managed to clean Lee up and get his life and career back on track, the relationship was doomed from the onset. Helen’s own son was the same age as Lee, and Lee was becoming involved with another woman. The conditions were ripe for a destructive relationship.
In 1972, on a cold, snowy night reminiscent of the film’s opening images, Helen Morgan stepped into Slug’s Saloon, where Lee was performing, holding a pistol. The scene was right out of a Western film, one witness said. Over 20 years later, Helen Morgan still cannot believe, nor understand, why she shot and killed Lee who was only 33 at the time. “I couldn’t have did this, this must be a dream,” she reflects.
Although the murder of Lee Morgan by his own partner is not a surprise, it is the journey to that curious plot twist that is both compelling and perplexing. The documentary is perhaps more so a character study of Helen Morgan than it is of Lee. Though their relationship was so nourishing at the beginning, it’s hard to believe how destructive it ultimately became. The worst part is, no one saw it coming.
“They was so tight, it was like, you think of Lee, you think of Helen,” says bandmate and saxophonist Billy Harper. “Helen, Lee.”
This is director Kaspar Collin’s second documentary to feature a brilliant jazz musician’s too-soon departure from Earth, the first being 2006’s My Name is Albert Ayler. Additionally, the documentary was shot on 16mm by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young, giving the film its vintage, grainy look, which couldn’t be more fitting to the story.
I Called Him Morgan screens Feb. 1 at Eau Claire Market as part of CIFF’s Doc Soup.AB, Alberta, CIFF, Cineplex Eau Claire, Doc Soup, Eau Claire Market, I Called Him Morgan, Lee Morgan