Recently I came across an article in Flipboard that announced the upcoming documentary, I Called Him Morgan, about the life and times of legendary jazz musician, Lee Morgan. The article documented the history of Lee Morgan’s career and his untimely death, at the hands of his common-law wife, Helen Moore, in the renowned Slug’s Saloon jazz bar in the Lower East Side.
I was stunned. I had discovered Lee Morgan and his music only a few years ago and had gone out and purchased a collection of his albums. I knew that he was deceased but I don’t think that I knew anything about his death and the tragic way that he died.
I remember the first time that I saw Lee Morgan play his trumpet. I was watching a DVD of a concert with Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers when Morgan stepped out front to play a solo on his trumpet and blew me away. I turned to my mother and asked, “Who is this guy?”
Little did I know, we had already heard Morgan play with Coltrane on Coltrane’s album, Blue Train (1957). I looked him up and found his discography and a short article about him Wiki; but I don’t believe any details were given about his death.
Finding the article about the documentary shed more light on Lee Morgan’s life, his music and his personal relationships and some details about his death. I knew that when the documentary was released in theaters, I had to see it.
And so I did just that. Mom and I went to the Film Society at Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side to see I Called Him Morgan. The documentary was as amazing as its topic.
I believe that the filmmaker, Kasper Collin, did an amazing job with the delicate matter of the film portraying Lee Morgan and his wife Helen sympathetically and providing the complexities of their personalities, gifts and life together.
The film was bolstered by the audio clips of an interview with the late Helen (nee Moore) Morgan, provided by Larry Reni Thomas, where she talked about her life and relationship with Lee and the fateful day of his murder. Thomas, a writer, historian and radio announcer from North Carolina, met Helen as one of his students in an adult education course in Wilmington, North Carolina; where Moore had returned to live.
In fact, it is Helen who narrates the film alongside the music of Lee Morgan, mostly from his albums, the Sidewinder and Search for New Land. Because she met him at him at such a crucial time in his life—when a heroin addiction had sidetracked Morgan from a promising musical career and just before he would embark on the solo career that would define him as a musician---she provides ample background into Morgan’s life and music.
Any gaps in her narration are easily filled in by Lee’s friends and fellow musicians---notably, Wayne Shorter, Jymie Merritt, Bennie Maupin, Albert Tootie Heath, and Larry Ridley among others--and Helen’s adult son, Al Harrison.
In spite of their age difference, Helen and Lee, began a second life together. Lee began his musical career as a prodigy from Philadelphia who landed major gigs alongside giants in the jazz world and with successful albums (including his most famous, The Sidewinder); had showed his potential for greatness from a young age. He developed an addiction to heroin at a young age which sidetracked him for several years before he returned to music.
Despite beating the addiction to heroin in 1963, Morgan had succumbed again. By 1967, he was so addicted that he had stopped playing music altogether, was homeless and had even pawned his winter coat and trumpet. It was during this time that he met Helen, a lover of jazz music and a friend to many musicians in her day. In fact, Helen’s apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, was a safe haven for musicians after their shows. It was particularly special for those who were in the throes of addiction.
Helen Morgan, a fast-talking country girl from North Carolina, became a young mother at the age of 14 and a young widow at age 19. After her husband’s death due to drowning, she had come to New York with his family to make the funeral arrangements with the intent of returning to North Carolina in two weeks. Instead, she stayed on, finding work and creating a life of her own here in the big city. She had left her children with her grandparents who reared them; and reconnected with them later on in life when they were adults.
When Lee and Helen got together, they began a new life together. Helen became his manager and assisted him to gigs and studio sessions. She made the travel arrangements, held the money and became his go-between and buffer between music executives and jazz club owners as well as the more nefarious hangers-on and drug pushers.
With Helen’s help, Lee was able to return to form, put together a new band and begin recording and performing again. Eventually, they moved to a new and larger apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (during a time when the Concourse was still a noted address). He recorded some of his best work during this time and took on a black and political consciousness that was popular in the jazz of this era.
Unfortunately, trouble began to brew and by the early 1970’s, the Morgan’s were on a decline romantically. Another young woman had entered the picture and the Morgan’s as they were known began to separate. Lee began staying out late and spending time with his new girlfriend, much to the dismay of Helen.
Not included in the discussion in the film, was that Lee began to experiment with drugs again particularly cocaine. Helen says in her interview with Larry Reni Thomas, that Lee began shooting cocaine with his girlfriend and that this activity and new relationship began to interfere with their marriage. Helen says that she began seeing the girlfriend around at gigs and that she confronted her and then confronted Lee about it. She says that she told him that she could not be the main woman with the understanding that he would have other women on the side. She also confronted him about his drug use and warned him that it would take him down. (All of this was noted by Larry Reni Thomas in his book, The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan. An excerpt of the book can be found in an article written by Thomas, here.)
Both Lee and Helen wrestle with their convictions and the changes of their relationship. Helen vows to leave and go live with friends in Chicago. Lee begs her to stay. Both tell each other and friends that they know a storm is brewing and that they are both in danger. Lee tells his girlfriend in the New Year that he won’t make it through the year. Both are right.
On a fateful night in the middle of a blizzard, Helen and Lee have a confrontation at Slug’s Saloon that ends with Lee being shot and his wife, Helen, arrested. Due to the storm, the ambulance doesn’t make it in time to save him and Lee bleeds to death. Helen goes to jail, serves time and is released on parole.
She returns to North Carolina where she embarks on a third life: the life of a grandmother and religious woman. After she completed a short stint in jail, Helen was released on parole and went back to Wilmington to live with family. She returned to school and completed her degree. Just months before she passed from heart failure, Helen shared her story with Larry Reni Thomas, finally answering some of the questions about that fateful night that had been left unanswered.
For Lee Morgan, his music is his legacy. Still, those who were closest to him, lament the loss of his life and “what might have been.” It is obvious from the reactions of his friends in the documentary that they are still mourning his loss. One band mate and friend, left New York right after Lee Morgan died and did not look back. He says that he didn’t return for years. Just the same, Slug’s Saloon closed for good only months later.
I Called Him Morgan is an amazing documentary that reeks with a soulful haunting I haven’t seen too often in film. I talked about the film with many people for weeks after, telling everyone I could to go see this film.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to view it for yourself.
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Director: Kasper Collin
Writer: Kasper Collin, Jesper Osmund
Consultant: Larry Reni Thomas
Pictures of me and Mom at the Film Center at Lincoln Center are below…