A piece of jazz trivia that I’ve always found interesting: jazz icon Miles Davis made his first television appearance on April 2, 1959 (coincidentally, 58 years ago to the day I am writing this). I find this fact interesting because April 2, 1959 was nearly 14 years after Miles Davis appeared on Charlie Parker’s first recording sessions in 1945, the sessions that introduced the world to bebop and became the seed of modern jazz. And April 2, 1959 was a full decade after Miles Davis recorded Birth of the Cool, introducing a sound so startling that it seemed to split jazz itself in two, launching an eternal quest to reconcile the genre’s great intellect and curiosity with its unquenchable visceral drive. April 2, 1959 was four years after Miles had fallen deep into heroin addiction, lost everything, gotten clean, and come back stronger than ever with a new group featuring John Coltrane that would once again revolutionize the form. And then, on April 2, 1959, shortly after Davis recorded Kind of Blue, now considered by many to be the greatest jazz record in history, someone finally thought: “Hey, we should probably film this guy.”
I bring this up to point out the extraordinary effort America has put into disregarding (and in doing so, erasing) black artists—artists who created American classical music. For example, the documentary I Called Him Morgan, which is not about Miles Davis, is about another great jazz trumpet player, Lee Morgan, and his common-law wife, Helen. And it is not about April 2, 1959, but the events leading up to the early morning hours of February 19, 1972, when Helen shot her husband in the gut (with a gun he had given her) between sets at the aptly named Slug’s Saloon in NYC’s East Village.
I love Lee Morgan a lot. He is one of my favorite musicians of all time. But outside of devoted jazz circles, almost no one knows who he is—and I say that with pure lamentation and zero hipster glee. As a trumpeter myself, the influence of Lee Morgan is the one that shines through the most in my own playing, and it is the influence that I struggle with most in my fight for originality. But when I listen to Lee solo on Art Blakey’s 1960 recording of “A Night in Tunisia,” and I hear him play with the blistering fire and momentum that an electric guitar could only dream of, I remember why I love this instrument. When I was first learning the horn, around age 12 or 13, I would listen to John Coltrane’s Blue Train and hear a 19-year-old Lee rip through some of the most difficult chord sequences ever conceived by the human mind (up to that point), and do so with such confidence and joy that he not only holds his own with the 31-year-old bandleader, he brings a levity to the great master’s music that Coltrane himself was not capable of. And I would tell myself: “There is nothing in the world that I want more than to be as good as Lee Morgan by the time I’m 19.” I did not become as good as Lee Morgan by the time I was 19, or 25, or 33, the age Lee Morgan was when he died. Accepting that I will never be as good as him has been part of my journey to adulthood. I love Lee Morgan a lot.
I was excited and surprised when I found out someone had made a documentary about my guy. Lee Morgan is so underappreciated that I Called Him Morgan could have been a bad film and I still might have thought it worthwhile. It could have been a bad film and I still might have even recommended it. But, blessedly, I Called Him Morgan is far from a bad film. It is thoroughly nuanced and it asks deep questions without steering the answers. It is not the film I expected, and for that I am glad.
I Called Him Morgan is not a documentary about jazz history. There are no interviews with historians, no Stanley Crouch, no Wynton Marsalis ruminating on what it must have been like to play in those good old days. I Called Him Morgan is a documentary about the relationship between Lee and Helen, told exclusively through the people who knew them intimately (Wayne Shorter being the biggest jazz name in the doc). In fact, there is no mention of Lee Morgan’s childhood. No mention of his parents or his early musical education, and only a brief flyover of his career before he met Helen. The title of the film comes from Helen herself, recorded onto a cassette in February of 1996 by her former teacher in a continuing education course. The teacher, a jazz fanatic, had heard the legend of Lee Morgan’s death—shot in a jazz club by his jealous spouse—and was shocked when he learned that the infamous jealous spouse was one of his students. So he asked her if he could record her story, and she said she would think about it. Eight years later, she called and said she was ready to talk.
She died a month later.
The tapes of that conversation constitute the bulk of the film. Lee and Helen get equal time. It may seem callous to devote as much attention to a man’s killer as to the man himself, but that is where the beautiful complexity of this story lies. Helen was both Lee’s savior and his doom. By the time they met in 1967, his heroin addiction had taken the air from his once mighty lungs, and Helen took it upon herself to breathe life back into him. No one who really knew Lee has any doubt that Helen saved his life, and you can feel in the film that she abandoned her identity in her quest to revitalize him. This spiraling codependency escalated to a catastrophic pitch, intertwining the pair for eternity: in a sad irony, just as Lee would never have experienced the resurgence in his career if Helen had not saved him in 1967, it is very doubtful that, had Helen not shot and killed Lee in 1972, we would be talking about him right now. This film is about their relationship.
That said, there is enough time devoted to Lee Morgan the musician that you don’t feel cheated. We don’t hear Lee speak much, and admittedly, more of his perspective would have added a greater balance to this film. But, unfortunately, those recordings do not exist. The voice of Lee Morgan was only briefly documented on a couple of occasions, and we cannot expect Swedish director Kasper Collin to take any of the blame for America’s desire to ignore its own black greatness.
A more comprehensive biography of Lee Morgan’s life and career would make a great documentary, but that is not this documentary. I Called Him Morgan is smaller than that and much bigger at the same time. It is about Lee and Helen and a love gone wrong; it is about how men use women; it is about genius and those who want a piece of it; and it is about what can and cannot be forgiven. Shot simply, delivered clearly, and accompanied by one hell of a soundtrack.