Note: Some of what follows could be considered spoiler material. If you haven't seen I Called Him Morgan and plan to, it might be a good idea to steer clear of this post until afterward.
Everyone interviewed in I Called Him Morgan exhibits an almost eerie recall of the events they're looking back on. Though the two main characters in the story, trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife, Helen, who shot and killed him after an argument at East Village jazz mecca Slug's Saloon in February 1972, have been dead for decades, it's as if they're both suspended in some weird gray area in the minds of these survivors. Late in the film, as the lengthy 1996 audio interview with Helen by teacher Larry Reni Thomas that forms the backbone of the story winds to a close, Helen describes the disbelief she felt in immediate aftermath of the shooting, saying something to the effect of, "I couldn't have done this." She recalls wondering if the event was all a dream that she'd soon wake from. A similar sensation hangs over the whole documentary, a feeling that a sort of daze settled over the survivors of this tragedy, Morgan's friends and fellow musicians, upon his death, and that for them, he's still close enough to touch.
There is some footage in this documentary that felt so intimate and affecting I almost couldn't believe I was watching it. You see a snippet of one of these moments in the trailer, when Wayne Shorter, holding a photo of him and Morgan, the trumpeter's head bandaged in the wake of an injury he suffered when he was high on heroin, begins to actually address Morgan. "What are you doing, man?" he says, in an approximation of what he might have been thinking at the time, watching his friend slip into addiction. Morgan died more than 45 years ago, but Shorter says later that he still thinks of him frequently.
Everyone here seems to, or at least when they do, their recollections are extremely vivid. We hear the most evocative and transportive accounts I've ever heard of what it was actually like to make records for Blue Note, musicians recalling the party-like atmosphere that accompanied those classic sessions, with Alfred Lion providing food and drinks and Francis Wolff snapping those later-to-become-legendary images The photo of Morgan and some others standing outside what I'm guessing is the Van Gelder Studio, Morgan making a goofy face at the camera — something he apparently did often; one friend says he used to call himself Howdy Doody as a nod to his large ears — and drinking a Pepsi, is the lighthearted flip side to those mythic, smoke-filled Wolff portraits.
Drummers Charli Persip, who played with Morgan in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and Albert "Tootie" Heath recall living the high life with Morgan, seeking out the best clothes, the coolest cars, driving fast through Central Park at night. Friend Judith Johnson also remembers drives with Morgan: They'd cruise the West Side Highway on the way to or from New Jersey, checking out jazz on Johnson's car 8-track player.
The specter of heroin does of course eventually creep in and overtake the narrative, setting the stage for the greater tragedy to come. And there is a certain hush or gloom that hangs over the entire film. This is a documentary bathed in shadow and snow, with scene-setting footage evoking dark NYC streets at night and the blizzard that struck the city the night Morgan died. Even the interviews — Shorter's, filmed in a sunny living room, is an exception — seem to be cast in a kind of ominously fading light, though in a way that feels natural and unaffected.
And yet, as with the discussions of the Blue Note sessions or the after-hours high life, director Kasper Collin (who made an Albert Ayler doc I remember loving but haven't seen in ages) takes care to show us both sides of this saga. One of the most poignant sections of the film comes when Bennie Maupin, Morgan's close friend and collaborator in his later years, recalls the glorious, sun-and-sand-filled Hermosa Beach visit that yielded Morgan's classic Live at the Lighthouse LP, a shining document of him kicking heroin — thanks, the film suggests, almost entirely to Helen's assistance — and reclaiming his position as a thriving jazz star. Billy Harper's recollection of playing alongside Morgan on the jazz TV show Soul — seen here in black-and-white, though it's color in the film — conjures another moment that feels almost exalted, the footage and his description capturing that special style and power and command found in the best '70s mainstream jazz (the kind that Harper and Co. now carry on in the Cookers). I also loved hearing the account from bassist Paul West — another fellow Gillespie alum — of Morgan's happy post-addiction years mentoring young musicians through the Jazzmobile program.
The thing to remember about Morgan's shooting is that it happened in a crowded club. As with every other scene he sets, Kollin really takes us inside Slug's that night. Harper recalls hearing the shots but not immediately thinking anything was wrong. And then Morgan was down, and the ambulance didn't arrive for an hour due to the snowstorm. Bassist Jymie Merritt talks about not only never being able to walk down that street again after Morgan's death but of leaving NYC for good.
Helen, in some ways the movie's star, is also its greatest enigma. Her first-person narration is invaluable because it allows us to weigh her account as we will. We hear about her rough upbringing in the South — she was a mother by 13 — her determination to make it to NYC, her establishing of a kind of jazz-lovers' salon in her West Side apartment, her meeting of Morgan during his peak junkie years. Kollin isn't letting Helen off the hook, but he does make a point of
showing us all sides of this saga, how in some ways the tragic end of
her and Lee's love story seemed fated. (There's a lot of talk in the
movie of portent, of how both Helen and Lee foresaw something dark on
the horizon as their relationship started to unravel.) We don't get to hear much of her own account of her life after the shooting, though her son does paint a picture of a woman who found refuge and a kind of salvation in the church. And the bassist Larry Ridley recalls a cathartic encounter with her after she got out of prison.
Overall, again, I Called Him Morgan captures the strange kind of daze that settled over everyone who knew this couple after that horrible winter night in 1972. The musicians — Shorter, Merritt, Harper, Ridley, Maupin, Heath, Persip, West and others — form a survivors' brotherhood, a group of men scarred by Morgan's absence but also blessed by the time they had with him. Not just for the audience but for the participants themselves — think of Shorter, slipping into the past and speaking directly to the Lee Morgan in the photo, from probably half a century or more earlier, when the two were young and hungry, living out their dreams as members of the Jazz Messengers — I Called Him Morgan is a time machine, allowing us all inside what really has to be one of the ultimate jazz legends. It's a haunting journey, with a kind of moody magnetism that sometimes feels downright intoxicating. But it's one well worth taking.
*Here's Nate Chinen's excellent, detailed take on the film. I didn't read till after I was done with the post above, but he fixates on the same Shorter moment I called out — it really is a chilling scene.