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Jazz Film Review: 'I Called Him Morgan'

Herbert Behrens / Anefo
CC BY-SA 3.0 nl
Trumpeter Lee Morgan in Amsterdam, 1959

Legendary trumpeter Lee Morgan would have celebrated his 80th birthday today.

The story of Lee Morgan's death in 1972 pops up every few years to be hashed over and nit-picked by jazz enthusiasts, critics and journalists.  I've read the articles, the essays, and even the transcripts of the taped interview of Helen Morgan, the "lady who shot Lee Morgan."  

None of the above prepared me for the emotional depths of the story told in the 2016 film "I Called Him Morgan."

Filmmaker Kaspar Collin sets the stage for the late 1950s-to-early 1970s jazz scene in New York with vintage photos and film, and then wisely steps out of the way and lets the participants spin out their own threads of the narrative.

Saxophonists Bennie Maupin and Wayne Shorter, bassists Paul West and Jymie Merritt, drummers Charlie Persip and Albert "Tootie" Heath all contribute to the portrait of their friend; the talented, confident, brash and fun-loving young trumpeter who sailed high, and then fell low due to heroin addiction.

Jazz writer/radio announcer/historian Larry Reni Thomas shares from his interview of Helen Morgan her strength and independence, her love for the man and her determination to save him.  Helen's friends and her son also add to picture of Helen as a positive force, not only in Lee's life, but in her neighborhood and in the jazz community.

The various threads converge at the night of the shooting: the club Slugs, once called "the ultimate jazz dive," the blizzard (5-plus inches of snow and 40 mph winds), the confrontation.  

The film brings the stories to life, and leaves you with a real sense of  loss that such a compelling personality and musical talent could be silenced so quickly, and, according to Helen, accidentally.   It's devastating, still, after all this time and discussion.  

Kaspar Collin has very skillfully captured the complexity of a life and death in jazz.

"I Called Him Morgan" played at the NW Film Forum in Seattle last year.  It's now available on Netflixand on public library streaming services like hoopla.

Robin Lloyd hosts Mid Day Jazz and Jazz Caliente on KNKX-FM.  She is a member of the Jazz Education Network, and currently serves on the board of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.