If you were me the first time you had heard Lee Morgan’s name would have been at the same time you discovered the revered Blue Note record label. Morgan’s turntable hit The Sidewinder & Art Blakey’s Moanin’, which featured Morgan on propulsive trumpet have become staples of Blue Note compilations for forever and a day.
Being a master of the dying art of minding my own business I have never pondered or mused on Morgan’s private life. Well more fool me because director Kasper Collin’s documentary about Lee Morgan’s life and untimely death aged 33 in 1972, is an absorbing human story and vivid evocation of jazz music during its halcyon days in the 1960s.
Lee Morgan was early starter, joining the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at eighteen. Thereafter he became a mainstay of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers plus playing as leader and sideman on over 25 Blue Note albums. Like many of his era he was lain low by drug problems. We learn he even sold his shoes for drugs and was left with just a pair of slippers to wear. He was nurtured off drugs and back to success by his future wife Helen Morgan. Their intense relationship, and its collapse resulting in the fatal shooting of Lee Morgan by Helen Morgan at Slug’s jazz club in 1972, is the spine of this absorbing documentary.
Collins evokes the hard bop milieu with a wealth of archive images and film clips. Francis Wolff’s sharp photo’s in particular recall the world of Ivy League clothes, chain smoking and studio cool There are a small number but vivid clips of Morgans TV appearances. Wayne Shorter and Bernie Maupin, amongst others, reminisce engagingly about Morgan’s talent and the emotional fallout of this tragic death. Helen Morgan is heard herself on a candid audio interview. The soundtrack sparkles with Morgan’s music and it sent me right back to my own Blue Note collection and to a certain famous internet retail website to buy up more of his back catalogue.
Putting it very simply I Called Him Morgan is an elegantly made film of great jazz and great human interest.