Jazz and the crime film, or more precisely “film noire” is as a perfect a fit as any in the canon of film genres. In the hands of the right musician(s), improvisation can make for an intriguing counterpoint to the moody visuals of dimly lit scenes usually shot at night, with generous amounts of shadows and smoke (preferably in black and white), mounted on a plot complete with degenerate behavior, jilted lovers, and above all, a protagonist who is doomed from the start.
Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin’s “I called him Morgan” fits the bill seamlessly, and is all the more captivating as it is a documentary based on actual events. It revisits the tragedy of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, a prodigiously gifted instrumentalist who shot to stardom as a teenager with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958. By the 1960s he’d lapsed into the morass of heroin addiction like so many of his contemporaries, then overcame this compulsion to regain his musical footing before being shot to death by his common-law-wife in February of 1972 at the age of 33.
Morgan burst onto the jazz scene as a fiery “enfant terrible,” his impeccable technique adaptable to the most complex melodies at the most brisk paces, yet capable of infusing emotion and sensitivity into the most overplayed and redundant ballads. Moving on to acclaim as a soloist and band leader, he achieved that most illusive objective for a jazz musician, a crossover hit with 1963’s “The Sidewinder.”
This catchy, funky rhythm and blues derived track captivated the public so much that Chrysler Automobiles used it (without permission or royalties) as background for its commercials. By then, Morgan was in the midst of his narcotic habit, and the windfall from this success went directly into his arm.
In 1967 salvation intervened in the form of a jazz fan and surrogate mother from North Carolina named Helen More. She’d come to New York to reinvent herself after teenaged motherhood and flawed relationships in her native south. Establishing her apartment as a safe haven for musicians in “the Big Apple,” she became known for her giving nature and exquisite cooking for the talented but damaged figures that populated the jazz Mecca of New York City. Literally picking him up off the streets, she reclaimed the overcoat and trumpet Morgan had pawned for his latest drug “fix,” and accomplished what the fabled rehabilitation facility at Lexington, Ky., failed to do: get him sober.
Theirs was what shrink’s would call a co-dependent relationship, as she nurtured and rekindled his creative output, while he perhaps fulfilled her maternal instinct as his common-law-wife. Acting as business manager, confidant, cook, and lover, Helen Morgan (although never married, she’d adopted his name) guided the hapless junkie into financial stability, reshaping him into a reliable performer, his newfound stability enabling him to become politicized, as he became an advocate for Black musicians.
Abstinence brought with it a roving eye, as Morgan became involved with “the other woman,” Judith Johnson. This triangular arrangement was all the more ironic because as Johnson remembers, “his sexuality was very, very, very, very, limited, almost nonexistent because of what he’d been through…”
Director Collin constructs his film around a low fidelity cassette recording of More/Morgan being interviewed shortly before her death in 1992. Returning to her native North Carolina after serving time for the calamity that unfolded, she made the acquaintance of an adult school instructor and radio disc journey that compelled her to document this almost Shakespearean drama.
The poor audio quality of the recording adds to the complexity of what transpired, abetted by the timelessness of the black and white photographs that form the base of the story. Collin augments these images with moody, 16mm footage by cinematographers Erik Vallsten and Academy Award nominate Bradford Young (whose previous credits include “A Most Violent Year,” “Pariah,” and “Selma”).
The snowy, almost abstract visuals Vallsten and Young capture evoke the circumstances of that fateful day. It started off with an aura of foreboding as New York was hit by a terrible “nor’easter,” the out sized cyclones that regularly hammer the east coast. Morgan narrowly escaped injury in an automobile accident with Johnson, reminiscent of the one that killed his mentor and early trumpet influence, Clifford Brown in 1956.
Emerging unscathed, they proceeded to his scheduled appearance at “Slug’s Saloon” the jazz club on Manhattan’s east side. There he encountered More/Morgan, and she metastasized from benefactor to executioner.
Like all great art, Morgan’s music lives on, as a cursory glance at the internet will attest. For those wishing a more substantial “fix,” his story comes to sunny Los Angeles this week, with all the force of the nor’easter that signaled his demise that fateful day on Feb. 19, 1972. “I Called Him Morgan” opens March 31, at the Laemmle Monica Film Center, 1332 Second Street, in Santa Monica, with screenings at 7 and 9 p.m. For more information, go to http://icalledhimmorgan.com/.