Lee Morgan – a name many people apart from jazz aficionado’s, may not necessarily be so familiar with. Especially next to iconic jazz heavyweights such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davies.
Though not as famous, he was equally as important to the progression of jazz music, particularly hard bop, a style he helped pioneer.
The reason for him having smaller notoriety, was mainly because his life ended prematurely, in a crime of passion, with his then wife – Helen one cold night in an infamous club called ‘Slugs’ in New York, 1972.
First discovered by Dizzy Gillespie when he was only 18, Morgan was allowed to cameo with Dizzy’s big band, and was the highlight during many performances. People soon started identifying with his blue note sound, and he quickly became a name synonymous with the legends that circulated the jazz world. He would then go on to join Art Blakey and the Messengers on Blue Note records, where he released gem after gem, before having to leave because of heavy drug use. At his lowest point, he would meet the love of his life – fondly remembered as Helen to the locals in the neighbourhood. She was known for always being around the jazz circuit and having a good relationship with the artists, always happy to cook for them after performances.
Filmmaker Kasper Collin has managed to put together a really engrossing and poignant documentary biopic, detailing the intimate relationship between Helen and Morgan up until his murder. Central to this, is a tape recording of Helen who talks about her life and their relationship together, which manages to really make her personable, as she recites memoirs, speaking fond memories about their romance. In a confession like style, she mentions virtually dragging Morgan from the gutter after he becomes addicted to heroin, and how she helped guide him through recovery. In another clip she jovially reminisces, Morgan writes her a song called ‘Helen’s Ritual’, and you can visualise the joy in her voice, as she narrates the inspiration behind the concept.
In addition to this, there are a number of interviews with Morgan’s former band members, and close friends. They all share very insightful info about the pair, which helps paint a vivid picture, adding character and authenticity to the piece. The legendary Wayne Shorter, who, along with Morgan, was part of the same group, speaks very wittily about his times with Morgan, which balances out the mood, adding a much needed dose of humour on occasion. It also breaks up the intensity, and expected melancholic feel to the subject matter.
For instance, in one scene Shorter recalls a time when Morgan started to look worse for wear, and had a bandage around his head during a rehearsal. Apparently Morgan had overdosed the night before, and burned his head on the radiator in his house. But the way Wayne Shorter stares at him in disbelief, captured on photo, looks very comical and is a lighthearted moment, during an obviously tragic time.
Lee Morgan’s Music is thoughtfully played throughout this film, layered perfectly on a bluesy noir themed canvas. The smoky New York streets and cold snowy weather are exaggerated, while Morgan’s masterpiece ‘Search For the New Land’ is played to great abstract effect. You always get a clear sense of the film’s realist nature. For instance, thick dust is visibly evident on the Sony tape recorder that plays during Helen’s confession, and you intentionally see screen grain throughout. The classic photos used, also look superb, with many taken during the blue note studio jazz sessions. All of these elements effectively manage to transport you back in time, through a cinematic portal, encouraging you to invest in a precious piece of jazz history, during one of its golden age periods.
I Called Him Morgan is a highly engrossing biopic, and as a jazz fan, it was refreshing to see a more intimate portrait of Morgan’s life. He may not have been as recognised as some of his more household named Peers, but to many he is still regarded as one of jazz’s most influential musicians.
I Called Him Morgan was shown at this year BFI London Film Festival, Friday 07 October 2016