If you're searching Netflix for a decent documentary to watch, you could do worse than "I Called Him Morgan." Directed by Kasper Collin, it tells the story of an ill-fated jazz musician. But as I try to explain in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, it rises above what might otherwise have been a mere headline-grabbing storyline:
It isn’t easy to reach a wide audience when making a movie about an artist who works in a limited arena. And let’s be honest here: Jazz is a limited arena.
Especially the kind of jazz that became popular in New York clubs from the 1950s on, the kind that was being defined by performers such as Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and the lesser known trumpet player Lee Morgan.
Lesser known, of course, only to the mainstream. Jazz aficionados are well aware of Morgan, the wunderkind trumpet player who by his mid-teens was already impressing the likes of Gillespie and Blakey with his musical abilities. If Morgan is remembered at all by the general public it’s likely because of the sordid nature of his 1972 death, shot by his common-law wife Helen between sets at a jazz club called, appropriately enough, Slug’s Saloon. He was just 33.
Credit filmmaker Kasper Collin, then, for seeing beyond the sad circumstances of Morgan’s demise and attempting to capture the larger world that Morgan, his fellow musicians – and, yes, his wife – populated with such vigor.
Collin, who is Swedish, got interested in Morgan some 10 years after completing a documentary about another musician, the sax player Albert Ayler. And while searching for a way to tell Morgan’s story, he got lucky. He found a trove of photographs, taken by at least three people during both recording sessions and less formal gatherings. The pristine quality of many of these black-and-white photos could comprise a museum collection in and of themselves.
Even more important, Collin found a recording – maybe the only one ever made – of an interview that Morgan’s wife gave just before her death in 1996. The very basis of Collin’s film – including its title, “I Called Him Morgan” – is built on that tape, which reveals not only the back story but the pain and regret that Helen Morgan carried with her for the remainder of her life.
Add the photos and the tape to the interviews that Collin conducted – most notably members of Morgan’s group – and underscore all that with a taste of the music that was produced, and you have a film that is more than just another story about a flawed artist who dies young. You have something that is far closer to a work of art.
Not the least of which is the irony that colors everything. Like many of his peers, Charlie Parker included, Morgan fell prey to heroin. And it was Helen, an independent older woman, who came to his rescue. Not only did Helen save Morgan’s life, she helped him resurrect his career. And the two became so close, so interconnected, that it was hard for their friends to think of one without the other.
Which was why what developed – another woman, a jealous rage, a loaded handgun and sudden death – came as such as shock. And loss.
You can hear the loss in the voices that Collin captures on camera. And that Helen Morgan left on a single audiotape.