On a snowy evening in 1972, trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot dead between sets in the New York club, Slug’s, where he was playing. Morgan was 33.
Kasper Collin’s recent documentary looks at the life, and especially death, of one the stars of the Blue Note stable. It’s established from the opening scenes that Lee’s wife, Helen Morgan, fired the shots which killed him, the film then retraces the route to that point using interviews with friends, fellow musicians and, crucially, Helen herself, who finally gave an interview in 1996 to Larry Reni Thomas - a jazz fan, radio announcer and fellow high school teacher – years after he first requested it and only a month before she died. This revealing taped conversation is central to the film.
Those wanting a blow by blow account of Lee Morgan’s music career will perhaps be disappointed. This isn’t one of those type of films. Yes, we hear how he was a confident star in Dizzy Gillespie’s band at a young age and how he played with Art Blakey but there’s precious little else. There are snatches of music of course (all untitled on screen) but viewers wishing a full insight into his musicianship, recording sessions, legacy and landmark recordings will need to look elsewhere. His classic, The Sidewinder, one of the most recognisable jazz numbers of the 60s, which unexpectedly dented the pop charts, and a “gateway” track for many (one of the first proper jazz records I liked: bluesy, soulful, with an understated finger-snapping funk; and by “proper” I mean without a Hammond organ, that always felt like cheating) isn’t even get mentioned. In fact, almost no individual tracks are mentioned and only a few covers of the dozens of albums he made briefly appear on screen.
I Called Him Morgan is instead a portrait of two people: Lee and Helen, who both lived fascinating lives and conscious of its focus, it’s simply told. There’s no voice over narration or, like so many music documentaries these days, gimmicky animation to flesh out the lack of artist footage (not that there’s much of that here either) nor mercifully, unlike recent movies based on fellow trumpeters Miles Davis and Chet Baker, will you cringe at hammy acting or clunky dialogue. This sensitive study examines what led to the tragedy in Slug’s and gently tries to make sense of it through the reminiscing of uniformly engaging interviewees. It’s almost like a murder mystery except there’s no mystery over whodunnit and, without spoiling it, the New York cops hardly needed to give Columbo a call to discover the motive.
I Called Him Morgan draws attention to Lee Morgan once again. We know what happened in the end, the fun part now for new listeners is discovering all the music he left behind (there's a lot). Oh Lee, just one more thing, where did you get that amazing coat?
I Called Him Morgan is now available on Netflix.