‘I Called Him Morgan’: A Moving Portrait of Jazz Trumpeter Lee Morgan

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Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, along with fellow trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, were two young lions who entered the jazz arena in the 1950s and blew everyone away with their precocious and hard-earned talent. Morgan stunned audiences as a young 16-year-old playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, while Hubbard was championed by another famous trumpet player, Quincy Jones.

Both Morgan and Hubbard played on the classic Blue Note albums by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. They also recorded terrific solo releases for Blue Note Records. The label—a great bastion of jazz music—was founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany who arrived in New York in the 1930s. Blue Note championed its artists and treated them well with paid rehearsals, honest royalties, and even good food during sessions. Musicians felt at home there.

Kasper Collin, director of I CALLED HIM MORGAN. (Photo credit: Henrik Andersson. Courtesy of FilmRise/Submarine Deluxe/Kasper Collin Produktion AB.)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I’ve loved Morgan’s work ever since I first heard him in high school. My friends and surfing club buddies were all jazz fans. I still own Blue Note treasures like the hit The Sidewinder, the transcendentally beautiful Search for the New Land, the funky Cornbread, The Gigolo and the Latin-tinged Caramba, as well as later albums like The Procrastinator.

Morgan died tragically at age 33 at the hands of his wife Helen. A moving new documentary from Swedish director Kasper Collin retells their story through archival footage and photographs, key interviews, and of course, amazing music. I Called Him Morgan is both a tribute to a great jazz musician who left us way too early, and a beautiful tale of love, talent and tragedy.

Lee Morgan was young and self-assured, even to the point of cocky, as you can see in Val Wilmer’s photo of him below (and in the banner image above). But he had every reason to be. Morgan had advanced to the upper echelon of jazz trumpeters while still in his mid-teens. He was already a fully-formed artist by the time Dizzy Gillespie cherry-picked him to solo in his big band. But like many jazz musicians of the day—titans like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane—Morgan succumbed to heroin addiction early on. The film depicts one occasion where Lee walked into Birdland with house slippers on after having pawned his own shoes for dope money.

Morgan had a guardian angel by the name of Helen Morgan, a woman 13 years his senior who eventually became his common-law wife. A mother of two by age 14, she entrusted her grandparents with her children and ventured to New York City to run with the hip jazz set. There she met and saved Lee Morgan, got him off dope and straightened him out. She became his devoted confidant, manager, steward of his funds, everything.

Lee and Helen Morgan in 1970; subjects of the documentary I CALLED HIM MORGAN, directed by Kasper Collin. © Kasper Collin Produktion AB / Courtesy of the Afro-American Newspaper Archives and Research Center. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But that all changed one snowy night in 1972. I’ll never forget that day in early 1972. I was heading out to a jazz club in the San Fernando Valley when I heard the announcement on KBCA 105.1 FM that Lee Morgan had been shot while performing onstage at Slug’s Saloon, a jazz dive in the East Village. His new female friend had been one too many women for Helen. When she learned of his infidelity, she went to the club and shot him. A blizzard that night prevented the ambulance from arriving quickly enough. Morgan bled to death by the time it arrived an hour later. He was only 33.

It’s obvious that director Kasper Collin feels strongly about the subjects in his documentary. There are several moving moments throughout the film, including when Helen finally reunites with her older son, Al Harrison, who was born around the same time as Lee. For me, the moment that really hit home is when Larry Reni Thomas plays a crackly old cassette of the interview he recorded with Helen in February, 1996. When the first interview is over, we hear Thomas promise to return for another interview. But this was not to be; Helen Morgan died just a month later.

Lee Morgan with saxophonist Wayne Shorter in 1964, subjects of the documentary I CALLED HIM MORGAN, directed by Kasper Collin. Photo credit: Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images LLC. Courtesy of FilmRise/Submarine Deluxe/Kasper Collin Produktion AB)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The film opens with a vintage clip from a New York City radio program featuring Morgan’s just-release 1966 Blue Note album, Search for the New Land. It also features interviews with members of Lee Morgan’s group like Bennie MaupinWayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Billy Harper, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Larry Ridley. We hear from members of the famous Jazz Messengers like bassist Jymie Merritt. Collin—who also directed My Name is Albert Ayler—captures the energy and camaraderie of Blue Note recording sessions with his deft use of Francis Wolff’s studio photos. (Tip: Earlier photos with Venetian blinds in them were taken at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s parents’ home in Hackensack, New Jersey, not the newer studio and jazz shrine in Englewood Cliffs.)

I Called Him Morgan tells a richly nuanced story that any jazz fan will appreciate, but in the end it doesn’t matter whether you know Lee Morgan or not, or even like jazz. It’s a very human story. In the spirit of Downbeat magazine’s reviews, I wholeheartedly give Kasper Collins’ documentary five stars.

Check out this interview with director Kasper Collin.

Watch the trailer.