“I Called Him Morgan” Is A Brilliant, Clear-Eyed Documentary About A Man Who Should Have Been One Of The All-Time Jazz Greats


July 5, 2017 — In jazz terms, Lee Morgan should have been a major success story.

In the late 1950s, when he was still a teenager, he was playing with John Coltrane. By 1964 he would have his own hit, The Sidewinder.

People who knew him, who worked with him, who remember him, say he was one of the greats.

However, in 1972, he died at the age of 33, shot to death by his common-law wife, Helen.

In between, his life was filled with astonishing talent and squandered promise. For a number of years his extraordinary abilities took a backseat to his raging heroin addiction.

He was so far gone that at one point he pawned his trumpet and his coat. He was sleeping anywhere — park benches, pool tables.

The only thing that pulled him back from the abyss was his relationship with Helen.

Helen was more than a decade older than the young man whom she nursed back to health. She broke his addiction, at least for a time. She forced him to eat. She cleaned him up. She became his common-law wife. She returned him to jazz.

But one snowy night, when he had been flagrantly unfaithful to Helen, she entered Slug’s Saloon to confront him. He had her thrown out of the bar. When she re-entered, she had a gun in her hand. She shot him.

She probably didn’t mean to kill him. Had it been a normal night, he would almost certainly have made it to a hospital. But it was snowy, and ambulances didn’t arrive quickly. Lee Morgan bled out before help came.

Helen had saved his life when heroin had taken control of him; on that snowy night she took his life.

There was a co-dependence to their life together which only the death of one or the other could break.

I Called Him Morgan was primarily taken from an interview which Helen Morgan gave years after she was released from prison for his death.

One of the most acclaimed documentaries of its time, I Called Him Morgan tells a powerful story set to incomparable music.

Stream I Called Him Morgan on Amazon Video.
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