By Adina J. Pernell
Swedish director Kasper Collin’s “I Called Him Morgan” recounts the series of events that led the great jazz trumpeter Edward Lee Morgan’s common law wife, Helen Morgan, to walk into the popular Manhattan’s Lower East Side jazz hangout Slugs on Feb. 19, 1972 with a loaded gun and shoot him in cold blood.
The film is largely centralized around the only recording of the first-person accounts of Mrs. Morgan herself about her relationship with Lee and the jazz world, that is equal parts romantic, devastatingly sad and chilling.
Jazz writer, radio announcer and historian Larry Reni Thomas convinced her to let him conduct an interview just one month before her death in February 1996, which ironically was the same month that she killed Lee Morgan.
Collin manages to capture the spirit and mood of an era as well as the undercurrents of racial, social and gender inequality that existed in the 50s and 60s even within the social status of African American celebrity.
He portrayed with taste and subtlety the genius of Morgan who as a teenager was already showcasing his skills with the likes of jazz royalty such as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.
Courtesy of his involvement in Art Blakely’s “The Messengers,” Lee Morgan was an elemental part of the creation of the “Blue Note sound” and became a leader in the bebop jazz sub-genre of hard bop.
Also responsible for the signature sound of Blue Note was band member and close friend, ten time grammy-award winning saxophonists Wayne Shorter.
Later in Lee Morgan’s career he formed his final band whose members included Bennie Maupin. Maupin worked with many jazz legends, including Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.
It was the personal accounts of Helen and Lee Morgan’s storybook love as told by their jazz contemporaries such as Shorter and Maupin that give the film such a powerful impact.
These touching vignettes served as a window into the world of the Morgans especially when masterfully combined with archival footage, candid photographs and framed by quintessential song recordings such as “Helen’s Ritual,” a composition dedicated to his wife Helen and “Angela” (composed for civil rights activist Angela Davis).
In many ways Lee and Helen Morgan became the first couple of bebop jazz.
What makes this film eerily ironic is that Helen Morgan who was originally Lee’s savior and was responsible for his comeback to jazz after a struggle with heroin addiction, ultimately became his destruction.
“I called Him Morgan” is the real deal. It attracted true jazz affectionados and consummate Lee Morgan fans.
Persons such as Dina Dewes who played Morgan’s popular masterpiece “Ceora” on her cell phone while waiting for a friend in the lobby and jazz pianist Joe Marshall who said that “Ceora” was a song that he played admitting “everyone here is a Lee Morgan Fan!”
The film at its core is an exploration of guilt and the power of forgiveness.
It’s not just a question of what drove Helen Morgan to commit such a heinous act but also of her quest for redemption.
“I Called Him Morgan” doesn’t just tell the story of crime and betrayal. It invites the viewer to step into an era long-gone when jazz musicians played with swagger and style — cigarettes cocked jauntily from their mouths, as much an accessory as their hats and living fast lives with fashionable women and fancy cars in New York City.
To file this film under just a documentary would be too limiting an expression.
In many ways it plays like a film noir-esque portrait, complete with a femme fatale, the tortured, sensitive artist she loved and her crime of passion.
It’s a tribute to the genius of a jazz icon and an ode to a tragic story of love corrupted.
“I Called Him Morgan” enjoyed a limited run from May 3 to May 11, at the historic Roxie Theater on 16th Street — most evenings to a full house of jazz lovers.