This previous Oscar season was full of surprises, but chief among them was that the movie world suddenly found itself hosting a passionate conversation about the inherent blackness of jazz, and the tenuous share that white musicians — or connoisseurs — might possess of the art form. “La La Land,” in its own particular way, encouraged audiences to reckon with the history of jazz, and to consider whose it might be to preserve and pass down. But for all of the talk about the perils and problems of people writing themselves into that story, there’s been precious little discussion about the people who have been erased from it. Chief among them: women.
Seb could probably talk your ear off about legendary trumpeter Lee Morgan, about how the “hard bop” virtuoso joined up with Dizzy Gillespie when he was only 18, and went on to play with the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis before recording the album that would save Blue Note Records. Seb could definitely tell you about Morgan’s stint with the Jazz Messengers (whose name inspired John Legend’s band in the film), and how he was shot dead inside a jazz club on a snowy night in 1972 — hell, Seb probably owns the gun. But does he know the first thing about the woman who pulled the trigger? Who saved Morgan from the depths of heroin addiction and homelessness, got him back on his feet, and was instrumental in the best years of the life that she would eventually end in a fit of passionate rage?
Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin, whose only previous feature (2006’s “My Name is Albert Ayler”) was also a documentary about a semi-esoteric jazz great, is clearly entranced by the untold stories of 20th American music, and his interest in the Morgans’ tragic partnership is contagious. The director never intrudes on his film, but — even through the melancholic veil that Collin drapes over this ghostly portrait of the past — you can still feel his unbridled sense of discovery as he introduces the man who made this movie possible. His name is Larry Reni Thomas, he’s a retired radio announcer down in Wilmington, and in 1996 he recorded the only known interview with Helen Morgan; she died the following month.
It’s hard to know exactly how much time Larry had with Helen (their conversation was ultimately interrupted by her grandson), but it’s tempting to hope that Collin used every last second of the fuzzy recording that survived their conversation, because “I Called Him Morgan” sparks to life every time it revisits that candid audio. Helen, who simply hated her common-law husband’s first name, was a fascinating woman, self-possessed and generous but also wracked with guilt. “I will not sit here and tell you that I was nice,” she says to Larry, “because I was not. I was sharp, I had to be. I looked out for me.”
After nearly 40 minutes of generic table-setting, during which Collin deploys a bevy of well-chosen (if poorly sequenced) talking heads and archival photographs to establish Morgan’s unique swagger and walk us through his rise to fame, Helen’s voice is a welcome jolt of intimacy, strong enough to assert the value of her existence and speak for any number of women who were lost in the shadows of their husbands’ glory. The details of Morgan’s life are catnip for jazz obsessives, but Helen’s story is richer and more urgently compelling than fame or lore.
It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t elaborate upon the jealousy that drove her to shoot her womanizing (but impotent) partner, or her success in rededicating her life to the church after getting out of prison, but the insights she does share paint an incredibly vivid portrait of a faded moment in time. As entertaining as it is to hear Helen talk about her first encounter with a foul-mouthed Miles Davis, it’s even more rewarding to listen to her reflect upon the child she had when she was only 13, or how she was looked at by the men in her second husband’s circle, or how she would carry Morgan when he was too strung out to walk. Left with an audio recording and two photo-shy subjects, Collin smartly complements Helen’s voice with oodles of gorgeous 16mm footage shot by “Selma” cinematographer Bradford Young, whose haunted images of a snowbound New York City evocatively summon the night that Morgan died, and the senseless feeling of loss that he left behind.
Even during the extended periods when the film treads water, flailing to compensate for its lack of material, that bittersweet quality galvanizes Collin’s portrait with a steady undercurrent of absence and regret. It draws attention to the stories that aren’t being told, to the people behind the people, to the accents that give a song its soul even though people only tend to remember the melody. “We weren’t finished,” Larry laments of his interview with Helen, that note hanging over the air as the film fades to a close, but there’s something resonant about that lack of resolution. The great jazz recordings don’t end, they just stop. And the best parts only make themselves heard on second listen.
“I Called Him Morgan” is now playing in theaters.