“He knew how to tell a story, musically,” says jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter about his friend, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and so too does I Called Him Morgan, a documentary whose potent and fluid style evokes the electric tunes of its subject, whose brief life was cut short at the hands of his wife Helen. Director Kasper Collin shows a masterful grasp of non-fiction form with his first feature since 2006’s My Name is Albert Ayler, using syncopated edits and a dual-track narrative structure to reflect the adventurous, rising-to-a-crescendo spirit of Lee’s music—as well as its melancholy soul. Having already premiered to raves at last year’s New York Film Festival, it now arrives in theaters as one of the year’s best, a haunting requiem for a life and body of work finished too soon, as well as a portrait of the way in which tragedy sometimes emerges from the most predictable—and pedestrian—of places.
Collin employs a standard array of former-acquaintance talking heads and archival film footage and photographs to tell the tale of Lee and Helen. But his approach is deceptively deft. Beginning at the end (i.e. February 1972), briefly seguing to 2013, and then flashing back to the 1950s, I Called Him Morgan initially proceeds on twin routes. The first involves Helen, who, via a tape-recorded interview that she conducted in February 1996 (one month before her death) with teacher and jazz enthusiast Larry Reni Thomas, narrates her own rocky road. Helen had her first child at age 13, her second at 14, and got married at 17 to a Wilmington, North Carolina, man who was more than twenty years her senior. When that spouse suddenly died, she departed the countryside (which she loathed) and went to stay with her in-laws in New York, where she soon settled.
As many recount, Helen was a fiercely independent, sexually alluring woman who acted like the den mother for all those who came into her sphere, be it by cooking meals, hosting parties, or going down to the street corner on Friday afternoons to play craps with men who’d just gotten off work. She was, in short, someone who stood on her own, proudly and without apology. “I will not sit here and tell you that I was so nice…Because I was not…I was sharp. I had to be…And I looked out for me,” she recalls in her 1996 interview. And yet despite that sharpness, she cared, instinctively, for those in need. That included her own first-born Al Harrison, who eventually rejoined her in New York. And it was also the case with Lee.
Discovered by Dizzy Gillespie as a 16-year-old, the Philadelphia-born Lee was an obvious phenom whom Gillespie’s bass player Paul West described as a “bubbly young artist who knew he was talented.” A lover of fine clothes, stylish cars, and beautiful women, Lee was by all accounts (and accompanying photos) a boisterous friend and collaborator. He was also, as his soundtrack compositions attest, a man destined to achieve great things with his trumpet. And by the mid-1950s in New York, he was well on his way, helping define the sound of the Blue Note record label, and appearing with his group Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers on TV’s The Steve Allen Show.
Lee’s ascension would be interrupted by heroin addiction, which led to an overdose that caused his head to lay against a radiator until his scalp was burned to a scarred crisp. In this period of druggy squalor, devoid of even shoes or a coat (both pawned so he could buy more smack), Lee stumbled into the apartment of Helen, and discovered in her a wife, manager, partner, and maternal figure eager to nurse a broken, far younger man back to health. She looking to make amends for her own neglect of her children, and he in need of a strong shoulder on which to lean, they were an instant, natural pair. Before long, Lee’s career was back on track, replete with his own band making regular stops at NYC’s Slug’s Saloon.
Such salvation was to be short-lived, but the slyly constructed I Called Him Morgan refuses to reduce their tale to just a rote doomed ditty. Rather, it casts their saga as one about individuals riffing their way through life until their unlikely paths crossed, perfectly harmonized, and then exploded. In other words, it locates the jazz of both Lee and Helen’s fates, capturing the push-pull of need and desire, selflessness and egotism, that cemented their bond and, in the end, destroyed it as well. More than its range of illuminating soundbites from friends and bandmates, it’s that sense of life’s free-flowing messiness that enlivens Collin’s film, giving it an air of unpredictability even as its outcome feels, at every turn, so sadly inevitable.
Inevitable it was, after Lee, healthy and confident once more, met New Jersey single mother Judith Johnson, and they began a relationship while he was still married to Helen. No matter that such a scenario was unwise, and caused Helen obvious pain. Lee persisted. Like the bookending shots of debris swirling around a white wintry sky, which speak to so much of this material’s swirling emotions, Collin evokes Helen’s betrayed misery via a haunting sequence in which her comments about Judith are heard over the image of city trees spied between towering high-rises—an impressionistic vision of detachment and loneliness that’s quietly heartbreaking.
Things would detonate when the trio came face-to-face on the snow-drenched night of February 18, 1972, at Slug’s, hours after Lee and Judith had survived a terrible car crash. The gunshot that would ring out from Helen’s pistol would end Lee’s life and get her convicted of second-degree manslaughter. In the aftermath, she’d serve a short prison term and a few years’ worth of parole before moving back—in what seems to be a willful act of regression to her pre-tragedy days—to Wilmington. Still, there was no escaping the profound loss experienced on that evening, turning I Called Him Morgan into a musical story of sorrow and regret that plays as if its abrupt, agonizing outcome blindsided everyone, even if it was never really in doubt.