“I’m making the biggest mistake of my life”
The life of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was one of extreme highs and lows. He was a musician plucked towards superstardom at the age of eighteen by Dizzy Gillespie, eventually touring with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers while helping create the Blue Note label’s sound. But he’s also a guy who took to heroin hard enough to risk and almost destroy his career and life. Guys who would later play with him after rehab recall catching a glimpse of what looked to be a homeless man in the subway years before, a momentary turn of his head providing recognition as Morgan. A king of jazz and shoeless has-been in the gutter all before the age of thirty, turning everything around still couldn’t prevent his death at thirty-three.
Therein lies an intriguing trajectory with turns for better and worse, one ripe for the documentary treatment in and of itself. Talking solely about Lee and his music doesn’t supply the full story, though. As filmmaker Kasper Collin explains in I Called Him Morgan, this legend ultimately shared the lead role in his life with the woman who both saved and ruined him. Her name was Helen Morgan and she may have done more for him than Gillespie and Blakey combined despite only being by his side for a brief period of time, proving longevity as no match against importance. While they hitched his wagon at the start, she’s the one who fixed his broken axel when nobody believed it possible. Helen’s compassion reminded him about the art.
Just as fame opened his world to drugs in his twenties, this rejuvenation reclaimed his confidence and charisma with the ladies. Suddenly the woman who put him back on his feet was being replaced and in a fit of regrettable jealous rage she put an end to his Renaissance. Morgan’s infinite light defied odds as often as it landed him in trouble, this lifestyle’s volatility chipped away at his resolve just as the music began to soar. But what really happened that night at Slug’s? How was New York City left with half of a once inseparable pair in a body bag and the other in handcuffs? Many of their closest friends were there, others recall the events of the days before, and Collin talks to them all.
The film therefore focuses upon the parallel journeys of Lee and Helen eventually converging together in a fateful way. For the former we’re given brief snippets of an early 70s interview and many first-hand accounts from those who knew and loved him set against a slew of archival photographs and video performances. The latter’s tale comes mostly from her own words thanks to an impromptu interview with Larry Reni Thomas (her teacher much later in life) that took place a month before her death in 1996. Friends from her stay in New York also bring context to her life until the line separating interview subjects between the two disappears, their union transforming their lives into one. Unfortunately it’s a while before the film arrives at this hook.
Even though Morgan was a talent who earned having his story told, I’m not sure anyone outside jazz aficionados are buying tickets solely based on his music. The marketing machine knows the real draw is discovering how the woman he loved cut his life short. We crave that drama, waiting to see the psychological unrest and volatility that drove them to this unspeakable tragedy. But we don’t ever truly get it. This isn’t a slight to Collin, though. The circumstances surrounding Lee’s death simply don’t possess that type of unforgettable origin. We hear from the woman Morgan was seeing on the side (who pretty much dismisses their relationship as “friends”) and Helen with a different account. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who is correct.
The reason is that Lee’s death is one moment in an otherwise expansive (yet young) life. How he died doesn’t discount his music nor is it necessarily something remembered above that art. He did himself no favors as far as driving the situation to its brink, a snowstorm played a huge role in whether he survived, and the act’s impact on Helen (who devoted her life to her church afterwards) is provided as mere epilogue tidbit rather than some revelatory evolution. Collin makes sure to whet our appetites by letting sound-bytes describing that night play before the opening credits and then proceeds to force us to wait with anticipation in the assumption there’s more than meets the eye. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt shortchanged.
To peddle I Called Him Morgan as some exposé of murder is to sell a specific bill of goods that isn’t fulfilled. Lee’s death isn’t the central focal point of the story—it’s simply the climax. So here I was reading beneath the surface of everything else, wondering how these seemingly minute details were going to play a larger role in the motives to come. But I should have been watching and listening to understand the history of a jazz legend and the woman who assisted in his delivering great music to the masses. How the story of Lee and Helen ends is a tragic example of love, loss, and ego. It shouldn’t overshadow the glory of what came before yet Collin knows he must pretend it should.
And I get that impulse. It is the most intriguing part of the story. Sadly there wasn’t enough there to make a whole film about this one night or enough dramatic appeal outside it. So Collin attempts to do both, delving into the expository background of the two main players with the hope it sheds light on a single solitary instant all parties involved wish they could have back. This isn’t a film building up to victim and murderer. The unfortunate act was emotionally motivated, an isolated second filled with rage that meant more for what followed than the preceding lifetimes meant to it. To treat it like more is a disservice to the legendary jazz that’s regrettably relegated to set dressing for a nonexistent murder mystery.
 Lee Morgan performing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Amsterdam, 1960; featured in the documentary I CALLED HIM MORGAN, directed by Kasper Collin. Photo credit: © Ben van Meerendonk / International Institute for Social History. Courtesy of FilmRise/Submarine Deluxe/Kasper Collin Produktion AB.
 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.
 Lee Morgan, subject of I CALLED HIM MORGAN, in the late ‘60s. Photo credit: Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images LLC. Courtesy of FilmRise/Submarine Deluxe/Kasper Collin Produktion AB.