“I Called Him Morgan” is a documentary about the life and last days of jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan. The story is told by Morgan’s musical contemporaries, and through the words of Helen Morgan, his common-law wife, who was also the woman who killed him. The film is important not just because of the salacious details it provides, but also because it paints a picture of a certain era in the United States for jazz musicians, and for black Americans.
Lee Morgan and the 1960s jazz scene
Few eras in United States history are glamorized more than jazz eras—the 1920s, the 1960s. Each had its own style of dress, language, and jazz developments. For those of us removed from those times by decades, we might have access to the music, but we don’t always have details about the people who made the music.
In that sense, “I Called Him Morgan” is remarkable. This could have been a different kind of documentary. However, there is a sense of the filmmaker’s need for the truth. Nothing sounds sugar-coated. The film begins with pictures of Morgan’s albums, and newspaper clippings about him, framed in a way that doesn’t tell the end of the story completely, but audiences get a sense that things didn’t go well with Lee Morgan and his wife.
Lee Morgan was a jazz wunderkind. At 16, he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie, and making a name for himself. It was noted that the band had a “uniform.” The only people exempt from wearing it were Gillespie and Morgan.
Great music from the period fills many of the documentary’s frames. That is another selling point of the work. The music helps to contextualize the life Morgan and his peers were leading. Some interviews are done partly as voiceovers while viewers are shown scenes of New York City at the time.
Often, jazz greats tell the story of Morgan through their interactions with him. They discuss the music part of his life, and what they observed of his personal life. People like Wayne Shorter, Paul West, Charli Presip, Larry Ridley and others, tell stories of Morgan’s interactions with legends like Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal.
The life of Mrs. Lee Morgan (Helen)
Helen Morgan’s story is told predominately by her adult education teacher and former deejay, Larry Thomas. Once Thomas found out who Helen had been married to, he wanted to interview her, and that is how much of her story survives.
Helen Morgan’s story is its own kind of tragedy. An unwilling mother at 13 and 14 years of age, and a widow at 17, Helen embodied a lack of agency not uncommon for black American women during early- and middle decades of the 20th century. Eventually, she uses her street smarts and natural toughness to make her way to New York City to live the life that she wants. She meets Lee because she had a reputation among neighborhood musicians as a good cook and amiable hostess. By the time she meets Lee, he is falling down on his luck and developing a heroin addiction.
One of the children that Helen gave to her grandparents to raise also speaks to Helen’s life experiences. The filmmakers do an admirable job of painting a complete picture of the woman who caused the jazz scene to grieve.
Lee and Helen Morgan: Love and tragedy
Helen was 14 years older than Lee, and when he was too poor to pay for his pawned coat and shoes, it was she who paid his debt. It was also under her care that Lee recovered his career and did an inpatient methadone treatment program.
The details are provided so that audiences get a clear sense of “why” Helen killed Lee–as much as humans are capable of understanding that act. She was a woman scorned. Maybe she felt unappreciated. Eye-witness testimony (including the other woman herself) reveals that Lee was unfaithful, and Helen found out that fateful night in 1972. A near-historic snowstorm was brewing as Helen and Lee had it out in a club. In that crowded space, Helen shot Lee after he insulted her in front of other people.
“I Called Him Morgan” is fascinating and richly detailed. However, the sad facts of Lee’s life reveal that he peaked early, beat drug addiction, made a comeback, and still died at the age of 33. The truth is, tragedies remain so regardless of the victim’s social standing.
This is a great documentary for anyone interested in jazz, the black American experience, or New York City history.
Background Photo: This is an image from the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, and Spaarnestad Photo, via Wikimedia Commons.