Two voices dominate I Called Him Morgan, Kasper Collin’s new documentary about the trumpeter Lee Morgan, which was screened at the weekend as part of the London Film Festival. The first is that of Morgan’s horn, of course. The second is that of Helen Moore, who rescued him from heroin addiction in the late ’60s and then, seemingly driven to distraction by his infidelity, shot him dead in front of his own audience at Slugs’ Saloon on New York’s Lower East Side one midwinter night in 1972.
Morgan’s trumpet voice is familiar to anyone who heard him, live or on record, with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers when he was barely out of his teens, or who is familiar with “The Sidewinder”, the title track from one of the two dozen albums he recorded for the Blue Note label as a leader before his death at the age of 33, a boogaloo composition which provided him with an unexpected hit in 1963 — or with some of the many other Blue Note albums on which he appeared as a sideman, including Blue Train, the classic John Coltrane album from 1957. Inspired by Dizzy Gillespie (his first employer) and Clifford Brown, from the very beginning he was an improviser whose precocious technical fluency enabled him to articulate the seemingly endless string of ideas thrown up by an uncommonly fertile melodic imagination. Very subtly, but to a greater extent than the somewhat deadpan delivery of his contemporaries among hard-bop trumpeters, his sound also provided a reminder of the way early jazz musicians consciously vocalised their instrumental tones.
The voice of Helen Moore — or Helen Morgan as she became known — comes to us only through a cassette tape on which she gave an interview in the month before her own death in 1996. This was long after she had served a short sentence for second-degree manslaughter, left New York, and devoted herself to the affairs of a church in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Moore had originally left North Carolina to go to the city, and the South stayed in her voice, a parched drawl which comes out of the tape machine again and again throughout the film, sometimes leaving phrases and sentences unfinished and hanging in the air but absolutely compelling in its testimony. Without the interview — recorded by a friend of her later years, Larry Reni Thomas, a local radio announcer — Collin’s film would have been very difficult to make as anything other than a standard biographical documentary.
Back in 2006 Collin made My Name is Albert Ayler, a very fine film about another doomed jazz musician. The Swedish director likes to bathe his subjects in atmosphere, and much of the mood of the Morgan film is set by the snow which lay thick on East 3rd Street on the night of the murder. As well as filming interviews in New York, Collin also stuck around to shoot a snowstorm which provides a useful visual accompaniment, both at ground level and from high up (presumably the top of a skyscraper), adding a perspective recalling that of Wim Wenders’ angels in Wings of Desire.
Other interviews are with Morgan’s fellow musicians, including the saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Billy Harper and the drummers Albert “Tootie” Heath and Charli Persip. A few of them took some persuading. At least one, the trombonist Curtis Fuller (who was close to Morgan and played alongside him on Blue Train and on the trumpeter’s own City Lights), retains such strong negative feelings about Helen Morgan that he declined to contribute.
It’s a much less complete portrait of the musician than the one provided in Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture, a mostly excellent biography by the British writer and educator Tom Perchard. The film doesn’t have very much to say about the music itself and other significant dimensions are given scant attention, including the origins of the trumpeter’s heroin addiction during his early days with the Messengers and his later social and political involvement with the Collective Black Artists, the Jazz and People’s Movement, and the Harlem Jazzmobile (his later compositions included “Mr Kenyatta”, a dedication to the first leader of post-colonial Kenya, and “Zambia”, named for the former Northern Rhodesia).
The director knows the story he wants to tell, and it’s basically the Ballad of Lee and Helen. He tells it with sensitivity and a fitting awareness of the poetry of the voices for whom he provides a sympathetic setting.
* The photograph of Lee and Helen Morgan, taken by an unknown photographer, is from the poster for I Called Him Morgan. The film will be released in UK cinemas in 2017. Tom Perchard’s Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture was published by Equinox in 2006. Larry Reni Thomas’s The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan was published in 2014 by Pomegranate Books.