Thursday, July 27, 2017
I CALLED HIM MORGAN...
Lee Morgan was a trumpet player of such skill that by age 16 he was not only part of Dizzie Gillespie's band, but was brash enough to step out to the lip of the stage and try to out blow his boss and mentor. A stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, plus his own sparkling solo career, made him one of the rising stars of '60s jazz. Morgan's reign came to a shocking end in February 1972, when his wife Helen walked into a New York club called Slugs and shot him in the chest. Morgan died later that night - a raging snowstorm made it difficult for an ambulance to get to Slugs and bring him to the nearest hospital. What made the incident especially horrible was that Lee Morgan had finally kicked a longtime heroin habit and had resurrected his career, thanks largely to Helen's love and patience. The problems started when she saw him in the company of a younger woman. Helen, her mind churning with jealousy and paranoia, happened to enter Slugs while Lee and his new friend were there. In her purse was a pistol, one that Lee had given her. The customers heard a single "pop," and the headliner was down, his life leaking out of him. Kasper Collin's remarkable documentary, I Called Him Morgan (now on Netflix), shows how this sordid tale unfolded. It is the stuff of the blues, and Chester Himes novels.
We meet Helen first. She was a mysterious woman from the south who headed north with dreams of getting away from the gut bucket country life that had left her pregnant at 13. She found her way to New York where she reinvented herself. Like a character conjured out of a Robert Johnson song, she wore tight dresses and threw dice on street corners. In her tiny apartment on 53rd Street, she entertained many of the local jazz players with home cooked meals and all night parties. She was street smart, a good sport, a friend to the friendless. No one ever had anything bad to say about her. In her mug shots she looked as bugged out and flippy as any pill-head busted in New York during the '70s, but in her prime she was a tough, bighearted earth mama with an ear for jazz. If anyone could've rescued Lee Morgan from personal oblivion, it would be her.
By the time they met, Lee was hocking his shoes to buy heroin and walking to gigs in his house slippers. He'd been a player who mixed melody with aggression; at the height of Beatlemania he even scored a commercial hit, "The Sidewinder." Playful, cocky, and bold, Lee Morgan had been on the brink of greatness - an old clip of the Jazz Messengers on the Steve Allen program shows Lee waiting to be introduced, prowling the stage like a '50s welterweight before the opening bell - but he became a junkie. He once nodded out with his head next to a radiator. The mishap burned his scalp and left him with a permanent bald spot. Helen, more than a dozen years older than Lee, embraced this damaged soul and somehow nursed him to health. She also became his manager and started booking his comeback. It should've been a happy story, but tragedy has a way of finding the target.
I Called Him Morgan is exceptional for a number of reasons. For one, we don't suffer through dreary jazz experts giving their opinions. Instead, Collin only interviews musicians that knew the Morgans. We hear from Wayne Shorter and Albert "Tootie" Heath and a dozen or so other players, all with vivid and insightful memories of Lee and Helen. Also, the movie is supercharged with incredible music, most of it the dark, powerful sounds of Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, music that sounds like it was born in an alley at midnight. Collin's instincts are sharp, too, such as in an early scene when he focuses on falling snow. As the flakes whirl around the camera, we notice they've became black and sooty, a harbinger of impending doom. Finally, thanks to Larry Reni Thomas, who interviewed her a month before she died, we hear Helen's voice on tape recounting the story from her perspective. She sounds tired, weak, filled with regret, but perking up when she recalls the liveliness of the '50s and '60s. There's happiness in her voice when she describes the joy of carving out a life for herself in the city, and poignancy when she tells of the first moment she saw Lee. He was like a little boy, she said, with no coat and no place to go. "My heart just went out to him," she said. This, of course, was long before she killed the guy.