TIFF – ‘I Called Him Morgan’

Jazz Archaeology

I Called Him Morgan

Dir. Kasper Collin, Sweden, 2016, 91 minutes

At the Toronto International Film Festival 

Lee Morgan, a protégé of Dizzy Gillespie, was a jazz trumpet prodigy with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. His promising career was put on hold by drug addiction in the 1960’s, when Blakey fired him. With the help of a much older girlfriend, Helen Morgan — who called him by his last name, hence the title — Morgan got his music and his life back. For a while.

Don’t know him? Take a listen to Morgan’s 1963 album, Sidewinder.

Lee Morgan and Helen, Before Things Got Bad

Lee Morgan and Helen, Before Things Got Bad For the Last Side

On a snowy night in New York in 1972, Helen, then Morgan’s common law wife, saw her man with another woman at Slugs, the East Village jazz club where the trumpeter’s group was playing. She shot him dead, and apologized for it for the rest of her life, which wasn’t much longer. Helen recorded an interview about the shooting with her teacher at a college in North Carolina in 1976. She died soon after that.

Kasper Collin’s previous documentary, My Name Is Albert Ayler (2006), was about another jazz innovator, the saxophonist Albert Ayler, who committed suicide in New York in 1970 in his thirties.

This doc takes us back to the insular world of jazz musicians then, reconstituting the atmosphere of that time in black and white textures that blend the grit of that everyday existence with a period look that feels elegant now, even nostalgic. He weaves together the biographies of Morgan and Helen, both of whom went to New York in search of opportunity. With vivid testimony (filmed by DP Bradford Young), and with a musical score by a parade of jazz virtuosi, we retrace the rise, and fall, and the comeback and the tragic end of a great talent whose name has since been filed away into the annals of jazz, another step toward oblivion. I Called Him Morgan is a triumph of jazz archaeology.

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