Leave it to a Swedish documentarian to unearth a nearly forgotten chapter in the history of American jazz: the brilliant life and ugly death of trumpeter Lee Morgan—shot by his common-law wife, Helen, between sets at Slug’s Saloon on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1972. (Apparently, she was enraged by his attentions to another woman.) Morgan was only 33 when shots rang out on that snowy February night (inclement weather was blamed for the ambulance’s hourlong delay—he might have otherwise survived).
Kasper Collin, whose darkly evocative I Called Him Morgan opens in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles on March 24, also helmed the acclaimed documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler (2006), about the avant-garde saxophonist whose leap into New York City’s East River in 1970 put an end to another promising career.
Morgan was one of the most prodigious talents in the midcentury jazz movement known as hard bop, a funkier, less frenetic style than the heady bebop of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He got his first trumpet on his 13th birthday and was invited to join Gillespie’s cutting-edge big band when he was 18.
Recording stints with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley came soon thereafter, followed by a coveted berth in drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. But like many jazzmen, Morgan succumbed to a drug habit, beginning a downward spiral that would lead him to the woman who would act as both his savior and executioner. Her recollections form the backbone of I Called Him Morgan, recorded on a squeaky cassette tape a month before her death in 1996. Testimony from fellow musicians fill out the story, as well as archival footage and photographs of Morgan’s recording sessions for Blue Note Records. One of those albums, The Sidewinder (1963), was a crossover success on the R&B charts, and the title track was even used by Chrysler for a World Series commercial the following year.
But with such unexpected success came the pocket money that would, briefly, support an expensive cocaine and heroin habit. Helen More was a troubled North Carolina transplant whose midtown apartment was a food- filled and-booze-soaked salon for jazz musicians. That’s where the trumpeter found a mother-figure after pawning his overcoat and instrument to pay for drugs. More helped him clean up, got his horn out of hock and was his mate and manager for the next decade.
Interviews with Morgan’s fellow musicians help elucidate his musical gifts, as do selections from his recordings. A personal footnote: As a teenager growing up in Detroit, I discovered Morgan’s music via a great local jazz station. His lyrical bent as both composer and soloist was like cane sugar compared with Miles Davis’s darker and more intimate musings, and I cherished them both as the twin towers of the jazz trumpet.
And although half of my heart belonged to the Beatles and Bob Dylan—as was required of ’60s-vintage youth—I reserved my deeper sympathy and esteem for the hard-living survivalists of the jazz community. Musicians like Morgan battled personal demons, racism and crooked record companies on a daily basis and still created a sound so full of light and life it remains as fresh today as it sounded some 50-plus years ago. Stream his Blue Note album, Cornbread, if you need proof. Funk and grace, forever fused.
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