Mystery has always swirled around jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who rocketed to renown as a teenager. How could one so young be so good? And there’s the puzzle of his death, at age 33, at the hands of a woman who loved him.
Stories of Morgan’s spectacular gifts and shocking end have long circulated among jazz aficionados, but the tale gets a fuller telling in I Called Him Morgan, directed by Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin, one of the best-reviewed documentaries of the year.
The film rewinds to 1950s New York, when Morgan first attracted attention.
“He was a wunderkind,” Collin tells Deadline. “He was signed to Blue Note Records when he was just 18 years old…He is in a long line of great storytellers within jazz. Talking about trumpet players, even Miles Davis held him as greater than himself.”
The young Morgan worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter and other great names of jazz into the 1960s. But a ferocious heroin habit cost him opportunities and nearly his life.
“The bottom, really the bottom. He was down there,” Collin says of the musician’s descent. “People thought he would die.”
It was at that point that Helen Moore entered his life, a woman older than Morgan who had become something of a fixture in the jazz world of Manhattan, playing a nurturing role to many artists.
“She fell in love with him and then started to help him back from this terrible heroin addiction,” Collin explains.
They became for all intents and purposes a married couple. To weave their story, Collin could draw from a rich amount of material on the trumpeter, but on Moore—who didn’t like to be photographed—there was hardly anything.
“Lee Morgan is probably one of the most photographed jazz musicians from this era because of the incredible collection of stills from the Blue Note archive, but Helen, maybe we had 10 to 12 stills of her,” Collin reveals.
What he did have access to was an interview Moore did with a jazz DJ recorded in 1996, a month before her death. The sound quality might not have been ideal, but Moore’s powerful personality came through.
On the tape Moore admits she could be a tough customer, saying, “I would cut you. I was sharp.”
For the film Collin interviewed Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, Larry Ridley and other musicians who were friends of both Lee and Helen. He also interviewed Judith Johnson, a woman who had become romantically involved with Morgan in the early 1970s.
Between the recollections of Morgan’s friends, Johnson, and the taped interview with Helen, a picture emerges of what happened on February 18, 1972 when Lee and his group performed at Slug’s Saloon in the East Village. By the end of the night Morgan lay dying on the barroom floor, shot by Helen in a fit of jealousy.
Decades later, the director found those he interviewed still struggling to come to terms with what had happened.
“That terrible night at Slug’s they just didn’t lose one good friend—they lost two friends, because Lee died within an hour, and then the police came and they took Helen away, and most of them never saw her again,” he says. “Of course that’s a big tragedy to deal with.”
For devotees of Morgan’s jazz recordings, it was a tragedy as well.
“A lot of fans of Lee Morgan, they tended to hate this woman that shot him. And there is some logic to it because she took Lee Morgan away from them and they loved his music,” Collin notes. “But she also helped him back so he could make those last records that are just amazing. He maybe wouldn’t have been able to make them without her.”
I Called Him Morgan earned a place at many of the world’s top film festivals, including Venice, Telluride, Toronto and the New York Film Festival. It is now streaming on Netflix and available on other VOD platforms. A theatrical run earlier in the year has qualified the documentary for Oscar consideration.
The director, a musician and jazz lover himself, hopes the film will bring Morgan a share of the wide recognition he once enjoyed for his phenomenal talent.
“He had a fantastic reputation but because of his early death, because of this terrible, terrible addiction he had, he could have been much more well-known,” says Collin. “I hope this film can help to get more and more people to discover him and even re-discover him.”