Lee Morgan

Jazz, Loss, and Understanding in ‘I Called Him Morgan’

While exposing the fragments and fault lines of memories, I Called Him Morgan tells the stories of Helen and Lee Morgan. It's also a story of storytelling.

“There was never no doubt in anybody’s mind Lee was gonna be a star.”

— Charlie Persip

“The country, I never liked at all.” Helen Morgan is remembering her childhood in North Carolina, while you see generic footage of trees and sunlight and birds in flight. “My biggest aim was,” she continues, “when I was growing up in the country, and I had to work on the farm and I had to do all of this, that when I got big enough, I was leaving this place.” By now, you’re seeing archival footage of cows in a pen, a weathered red barn behind them. The cows gaze vaguely in the direction of the camera. They don’t move. She did.

Helen Morgan speaks slowly, her rhythms fragmented by age and receding memory. Her voice was recorded in 1996, over 20 years after she killed her common-law husband, renowned jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. Helen’s interview and her husband’s story form a dual foundation for I Called Him Morgan. Layering experiences and impressions, music and image, Kasper Collin’s remarkable film is less concerned with history than with effects, influences that stretch across time, ideas that shape art.

Some viewers may be familiar with Lee Morgan’s career and celebrated talent, and others may not know how profoundly he shaped American jazz. For the former, the film’s opening with Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” will recall his 1964 album with Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock, and for the latter, the sound may be a revelation, cool, smart, occasionally abstract.

The track plays over a scene that appears abstract as well, snow falling against a gray sky, a seeming negative image that makes the snow look like ash. The snow looks forward and back, to the day when Helen shot Lee in a New York club calls Slug’s, open that night in February 1972 despite a blizzard. “Search for the New Land” gives way to saxophonist Billy Harper’s recollection: “I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to think, because they were always together.”

Harper’s response to Morgan’s death echoes many you’ll hear in the film, from other associates like bass player Jymie Merritt or saxophonist Wayne Shorter, artists whose lives were touched by Morgan, and Helen too. “I heard police had arrested her and taken her to jail,” says Bennie Maupin. “And, you know, I never saw her again.”

That sense of loss lingers throughout the film. Morgan and Helen first appear on screen as a photo, held in Harper’s hand. Morgan’s back is to the camera, and he’s looking into a brick-walled kitchen, where Helen sits at a table, lighting a cigarette. This photo and others create a sort of visual backbone for the film, frozen moments of their life together. Other photos show Morgan in the studio or on stage, a collection of gorgeous, haunting stills to show a career built on constant motion, from his early discovery by Dizzy Gillespie at age 16, through a harrowing heroin addiction, to his return to health and music, due in large part, and by all accounts, to his relationship with an exceptionally generous and loving Helen.

Such stills — alongside some black and footage of performances, with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Morgan’s own bands — offer glimpses of Morgan and Helen’s stories, but only that. Collin’s film fills in the gaps for which it has no visual records with carefully selected abstractions, the snow and the cows, city streets, blurred traffic lights, New York City bridges and building exteriors. Brief looks at fire escapes and windows suggest times long past but lingering, desires to look inside, to understand. As much as the interview subjects who knew Helen and Morgan tell their versions of what happened, none has details about how the relationship began or shifted. When bassist Paul West observes, “His life was restored by Helen and it was a joy to watch: he was playing, he was producing, and he was living,” a few shots of Morgan illustrate: he’s older, he’s sober, he’s working his PR.

As these images help you to imagine what people describe, they also remind you of what you don’t see. Interviews provide much of the film’s narrative structure, as you hear pieces of memories from various artists, Helen’s son Al Harrison, Morgan’s girlfriend Judith Johnson, and the man who interviewed Helen in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas. A high school teacher and jazz radio announcer, Thomas frames her story with his, how he met her (she was an adult student in his Western Civ class, many years after she had served time in prison; when he learned she was Lee Morgan’s wife, he says, “She looked at me kind of funny like, ‘You know the story too.'”).

The film follows behind Thomas as he walks to his desk drawer, where he keeps an old cassette tape under papers. When he pops that tape into an ancient cassette player, the camera is tight on the dust on the player’s surface, then even tighter on the tape squeaking as it plays. And then, the sound is cleaned up so you can hear her voice as the image transitions to illustrations of what she remembers, however fractured: a girl in a sleeveless top, a road passing by a car window, a circa-’60s New York City skyline, her eventual destination. At once lovely and weird, this transition from now to then underlines the film’s process, it’s reaching back into analog machinery to conjure new art, impressionistic, by turns disconnected and dreamy, then lucid and insistent.

In exposing and making sense of the fragments and fault lines of memories, I Called Him Morgan tells the stories of Helen and Morgan — how they met, how they worked together, how they appeared to others. It also tells a story of storytelling, how different strands come together and fall apart, how listeners participate in that process. In this, the film conjures visual rhythms resembling jazz, montages of image and sound providing new ways of conceiving the movements of time, of cause and effect, of interpretation. As it articulates loss, the movie also contemplates understanding.

RATING 9 / 10