Jazz musicians with extraordinary natural talent often rise rapidly to the top of their field. Then there are artists like trumpet player and composer Lee Morgan, who was so gifted he began near the pinnacle of modern jazz, joining Dizzy Gillespie's legendary big band in 1956 while still a teenager. A year later he became an integral part of the John Coltrane masterpiece Blue Train. Despite his successes, Morgan's life has been overshadowed by his sordid death at the hands of his common-law wife Helen More, who shot him in a jealous rage inside a Manhattan nightclub where he had just performed. Morgan was 33 years old when he died.
While the circumstances surrounding Morgan's death are well known, the pathway to that winter night has remained a mystery. How did More — Morgan's companion of a decade, a woman who saved him from drug addiction and helped restore his career — wind up responsible for his death? Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin was drawn to make his documentary, I Called Him Morgan, by the musician's artistry, but soon found that any film about Morgan would necessarily require a parallel focus on More.
At around the same time he was working on his film, an in-depth audio interview with the reclusive More surfaced. It was conducted by writer and educator Larry Reni Thomas and recorded weeks before More's death in 1996. That discovery facilitated Collin's approach, which strikes a balance between true-crime reporting and artful, impressionistic scenes designed to illuminate the soul of Morgan's music. There's a tragic story at the center of I Called Him Morgan, but also a long-overdue new appreciation for the artist's work.
After an introduction to the artist and his untimely death, the film switches back and forth between Morgan's and More's early-life stories until the strands intertwine and become one. Like Morgan, More had a brief childhood, bearing a child of her own at age 13 in North Carolina. She visited New York City a few years later with her then husband and stayed for more than 30 years. (More was 13 years older than Morgan.) The film features new interviews with friends and colleagues including musicians Wayne Shorter, Paul West and Charli Persip that shed light on both Morgan's professional life and his complicated relationship with More.
Relatively little footage exists of Morgan performing (awe-inspiring clips from 1961 of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers featuring Morgan are included in the film), but Collin makes the most of available visual materials. Some of the film's finest sequences combine Morgan's music with images by several noted photographers, including the best of more than 2,000 soul-bearing black-and-white photos of Morgan shot by Blue Note Records co-founder Francis Wolff between 1956 and 1967. Collin also collaborated with visual artist and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) to create atmospheric footage that enriches the film and helps generate its moody, melancholy vibe.
What emerges are portraits of both an under-appreciated artist and a tragically co-dependent relationship. There are no major revelations in I Called Him Morgan (a title that cleverly refers to both the film's subjects, as the "I" represents More) and no catharsis for all the suffering it examines. But Morgan's story has been neglected for too long, and that's reason enough for Collin's ultimately moving film.