Lee Morgan: I Called Him Morgan

Jazz is the only form of American music with a history that feels like a film noir. As a proudly nocturnal sub-culture, jazz has its own language, its own style and its own cynical way of looking at the world. Along the way, the 100-year-old jazz story has amassed dozens of secrets and unsolved mysteries. What happened the night Chu Berry died in a car crash in Ohio? What exactly happened to Lester Young while he was incarcerated for drug possession in an Army prison in 1945? Was he beaten or raped? How exactly did Bill Evans become hooked on heroin in the late 1950s and who bears that responsibility? Why was Bud Powell beaten by the police in Philadelphia at age 20? How exactly did Gerry Mulligan travel from New York to Los Angeles with girlfriend Gail Maden in 1951 and where did he stop along the way? How did Scott LaFaro wind up in a fatal auto accident in July 1961 while visiting his mother in Geneva, N.Y.? These are just a handful.

With the premier this Friday of I Called Him Morgan, a documentary directed by Kasper Collin, one of jazz’s shadowy mysteries has been solved. During a blizzard in February 1972, trumpeter Lee Morgan was gunned down by his common-law wife at Slugs, a long-gone jazz club in New York’s East Village. For the past 45 years, it was unclear why Helen More had shot Morgan in between sets. Most people assumed it was the work of a woman with longstanding mental problems. The answer is more complex, and I’m not going to spoil it for you here. Let’s just say that neither Morgan nor More were wrapped too tight but that she wasn’t as wiggy as jazz fans might imagine. [Photo of Lee Morgan and Helen More above, courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center]

I saw the film a couple of weeks ago, and while I would have liked the documentary to tell the Lee Morgan story with a bit more poetry, the film’s climax is powerful stuff. It turns out that before her death in 1996, More gave an on-tape interview about the events leading up to the shooting. In this regard, the film is invaluable and sheds enormous light on the tragic story as well as on Morgan’s personality quirks and drug problems.

Where does Lee Morgan fit into the evolution of the jazz trumpet? In the hard bop realm, I’d put him on the same level as Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard, with Brown at the start of the movement in the early 1950s and Hubbard peaking at the tail end in 1969 and the start of jazz-rock fusion. Of course, there were plenty of other trumpet greats during this expansive period, including Miles Davis, Blue Mitchell and Donald Byrd. But in the hard-bop universe, Morgan was an exceptionally soulful player who could blow blistering hot on uptempo tunes and mournfully on ballads. As a hard-bop leader and composer, he’s probably rivaled only by Horace Silver, Benny Golson and Elmo Hope for his sheer number of exceptional compositions. Virtually all of Morgan’s Blue Note albums, including The Cooker, Leeway, The Rajah and The Sixth Sense, remain brilliant classics.

I Called Him Morgan will be screened at New York’s Francesca Beale Theater at Lincoln Center (144 W. 65th St., south side) on March 24 and 25. For times and tickets, go here. For more on the film’s national screenings, go here.

JazzWax clips: Here’s a compilation of Lee Morgan solos assembled by Bret Primack during Morgan’s 1961 tour in Japan with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers…

And here’s Morgan with Benny Golson (ts), Bobby Timmons (p), Jymie Merritt (b) and Art Blakey (d) playing Benny’s I Remember Clifford in Belgium in 1958. It’s one of the finest recorded performances of the eulogistic ballad…