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I Called Him Morgan – Film Review – 2017

8.7

Lee Morgan was nothing short of a trumpet virtuoso. As a teenager, he was holding his own on stage with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. Morgan burst onto the scene fully formed with command of a musical vocabulary well beyond his years. Unfortunately, as with so many jazz titans who emerged in the 1950’s (Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Art Pepper), he fell into drug addiction, and a promising new talent was nearly silenced by substance abuse.

I Called Him Morgan, the new documentary from writer/director Kasper Collin, explores not just the decline of Lee Morgan, but also his resurrection at the hands of his girlfriend, Helen. Ironically, it would be Helen who would bring his life to a premature end in February 1972 when she shot him to death in a nightclub in New York City. How did Lee Morgan meet his savior and subsequent murderer? What events conspired to create the perfect storm that resulted in his death at the age off 33? These are the questions Kasper Collin explores in this excellent film about talent, self-destruction, redemption and jealousy.

This jazz documentary uses “talking head” interviews with Morgan’s friends, relatives and musical collaborators, live footage of his performances and gorgeous black and white photographs from his recording sessions for the Blue Note label. (A book of jazz producer Francis Wolff’s photography can be found here.) However, the real “find” is the live recordings with Helen Morgan that were made in 1996 by a retired jazz DJ who met her through a local community college. Thanks to this fluke of history, the audience can hear Helen’s first-hand account of her relationship with Lee as well as the events that led up to that fateful night.

At times documentaries can feel like a checklist of events. Recording sessions? Check. Drug addiction? Check.  Comeback? Check. But, I Called Him Morgan goes beyond the mere recitation of history and gives the audience a real understanding of Lee Morgan, the person. Perhaps jazz musicians simply make articulate and eloquent interview subjects, but the overlapping discussions of Morgan’s career and off-stage personality leave the audience feeling as if they’ve met the trumpeter. (The only interview with Morgan himself consists of a few very brief audio snippets from a recording made in his apartment about a year before his death.)

I’ve been listening to Lee Morgan for nearly thirty years, so this in-depth look at his rise and untimely fall was nothing short of fascinating for me. Even if you’re not a big jazz fan, I Called Him Morgan has a universal appeal.  It’s look at the way love can both heal and destroy is worth your time.

I Called Him Morgan is currently available on most digital streaming platforms.




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