Philadelphia can count Lee Morgan as one of the many jazz legends who hailed from our city, but the circumstances of the trumpet great’s death have long overshadowed those of his birth. The career and life of the creator of the iconic funk-jazz favorite "The Sidewinder" were cut short at age 33 when his common-law wife, Helen, shot and killed him in the notorious Manhattan club Slugs' in 1972.
The mythology surrounding Morgan’s death tends to demonize Helen, but Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin’s new documentary, I Called Him Morgan, which opens this weekend at the Ritz at the Bourse, complicates the story. The film traces Morgan’s path from his early recordings with John Coltrane and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, through his breakout hit and his struggles with heroin addiction, to the innovative music he was making near the end of his life.
At the same time, though, Collin gives equal weight to Helen’s story, told in her own words via a cassette-taped interview conducted in 1996 by adult-education teacher Larry Reni Thomas, one month before she died. Weaving together her enthralling reminiscences and Morgan’s still-electrifying music, Collin describes the film as “a duet between Helen’s voice and Lee’s trumpet.”
The film mixes talking-head testimony with poetic shots of a blizzard-shrouded New York City, shot in part by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). Taking his cue from Morgan’s music, Collin masterfully blends the artful and the hard-edged to tell the trumpeter’s story.
Collin was last in Philadelphia with his equally compelling and illuminating film My Name Is Albert Ayler, about the influential free-jazz saxophonist who also met a tragic fate, drowning mysteriously in New York’s East River. “I never thought I would make another film taking place in the same era and same place,” Collin said via Skype. “But discovering Helen’s story, I saw things about the jazz world that I hadn’t seen before, and it gave me a richer, more complex picture of what jazz is.”
Helen was instrumental in helping Morgan kick his drug habit and return to making music, as acknowledged by the collaborators who appear in the film: Wayne Shorter, Tootie Heath, and Bennie Maupin among others. Almost all express their contradictory emotions at Morgan’s killing, anger mixed with sympathy for a woman they also knew as a friend and supporter.
That fateful night at Slugs’ looms large over I Called Him Morgan, but ultimately, the film is about the complex and messy lives that converge in creativity, the obstacles surmounted and the losses left behind. The emotions and the music are inextricable, Collin said, and he wanted to make sure to capture both.
“You have to experience the power and beauty in this music," he said. "It would be hard to imagine my life without it. For me, this film is a love letter to the people that make this music possible. That includes Helen.”