The opening minutes of I Called Him Morgan begin on a snowy night, February 19, 1972. Lee Morgan, the great jazz trumpeter, is playing at the long-defunct Slug’s Saloon. There is a protracted and quite lovely image of snow falling, but the narration from jazz musicians who knew Morgan well turns funereal, and we learn that Morgan was shot and killed that night by his common law wife, Helen Morgan. The falling snow, which seems too dark and irregularly shaped, begins to look like a rain of ash. Swedish director Kasper Collin’s elegiac documentary sensitively explores the troubled lives of both Lee and Helen Morgan.
Lee Morgan was one of the preeminent figures in mid-twentieth century jazz. He played in the hard bop style, a distillation of the core elements of the more frenetic bebop, mixed with bits of blues and gospel music. Morgan was a fixture on albums by jazz greats such as John Coltrane, Art Blakey, and Wayne Shorter throughout the late-1950s and early-‘60s, and recorded a number of albums under his own name. The Sidewinder (1963) was a rare jazz-crossover hit, reaching number 25 on the Billboard charts. The soundtrack of I Called Him Morgan is filled with performances from Morgan, which make the best case for his genius.
Like many jazz musicians, Morgan fell under the spell of the needle, which was particularly devastating for him. In the film, Shorter, who recorded often with him in the early years, recounts the time Morgan showed up to a session with his head bandaged. He had fallen against a radiator in a drug-induced stupor and seriously burned his scalp. Morgan would sport a comb over the rest of his life to hide the scar. As his addiction worsened, he resorted to selling his shoes for heroin and walking around New York in slippers. Eventually music, the thing that had sustained him, could not compete with the drugs, and he temporarily stopped playing.
Though I Called Him Morgan is very much about the life and career of Lee Morgan, the film spends equal time telling Helen Morgan’s less-known story. Collin introduces the theme of the voiceless woman early in the movie—a youthful newspaper photo of the now-deceased Lee is paired with Helen’s flustered mugshot. He is listed as “Lee Morgan,” she as “Mrs. Morgan.” Helen has her name erased, and much of the film gives the impression that she was never able to live a life for herself, but instead served others whose stories were then told. The only time we hear Helen’s own words are from an interview in 1996, a month before her death.
Helen was born in rural North Carolina, and lived a hard life, birthing two children by the age of fourteen. She later escaped up north to New York, where she met Lee. He was in the midst of addiction and unable to play, but Helen took him in and nurtured him back to health, even serving as his manager and booker once he was able to play again. She emerges as the unheralded force behind Lee’s creative and commercial resurgence.
Collin uses a healthy dose of Helen’s interview, as well as a short recording Lee made toward the end of his life, but most of the film is told through the words of Lee’s friends and collaborators. Few of them are able to shed much light on Helen and Lee’s relationship—the word “seemed” is heard again and again, as in “it seemed like she was good for him.” These men were Lee’s friends, and their knowledge of his wife is unfortunately limited. Her son and some acquaintances who knew her before she met Lee give important context, but even they barely knew her. Despite Collin’s best efforts, she is destined to remain an enigma.
Still, Helen, who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, is allowed her fair share of humanity. The documentary never tries to forgive or excuse her crime, but allows us to understand the conditions that may have shaped her. She was a woman ignored and shoved aside her whole life.
Lee’s death is particularly cruel, coming after he had restored order to his life and reinvigorated his art. Collin effectively uses images of a dreary, snow-covered New York to set the tone. The other cruel irony comes from Helen’s own interview; she was supposed to record a second part, but died before it could be completed, forever curtailing her story. Though Helen is no longer around to tell it, I Called Him Morgan admirably restores her voice as best it can.