July 26, 2018

I Called Him Morgan

I Called Him Morgan

Ebba Wester

Lee Morgan and Helen Morgan

I Called Him Morgan is not a typical music documentary. The villains are heroes and the heroes are flawed and fallen in Kasper Collins murky and enrapturing jazz thriller about trumpeter Lee Morgan; a sparkling talent whose contribution to the New York jazz scene was cut short by a fatal bullet on a cold night in 1972. Morgan was tragically dead by 33, at the hands of his own wife. The tale of the fallen prodigy taken-too-soon is one not uncommonly told, but Collins filmic story explores a far richer, more complex reality and morality, emotionally and sensorially worldbuilding and seamlessly transporting the viewer back to the smokey saloons and stomping after-hours flat-parties of 1950s and 60s New York.

In the mid-1950s a sweltering New York City was liquering up and spilling over the edges, drinkers and dreamers pouring into the sleepless streets and swinging nightlife seeking love, freedom and of course, great music. In the first half of the decade a new jazz style called ‘cool jazz’ dominated popularity, combining “white swing jazz” and “black bebop” for a calmer, breezier and less frantic sound than of the 40s.

Lee Morgan slipped in effortlessly among the jazz elites around this time, joining Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1958, not long after graduating high school and producing 6 records in a year as a trumpet soloist in Dizzy Gillespie’s “legendary big band”. Blakey, a notorious jazz legend whose Jazz Messengers collective was a “rite of passage in the jazz world”, is widely considered the godfather of a new sound that emerged in response to the growing popularity of so-called West Coast cool jazz. They called it ‘hard bop’, a style that Morgan’s “shouting” trumpet would come to develop and define in his music both with the Messengers, and later in his solo career.

Hard bop was a darker, more brooding and hectic sound associated with adjectives like “earthy”, “funky”, and “soul”. Hard bop grew out of the concrete cracks of NYC as a direct response to a frustration with the ‘whitewashing’ in cool jazz, black musicians having to continuously struggle for the same success and visibility as white players who “rose to fame singing black songs”. The blues and gospel influences of hard bop marked “a return to music that was more Afro-centric”, rising in protest alongside the growing civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

One should be careful to generalise and oversimplify, but to paint a picture in broad strokes: if cool jazz was laid-back, boundless and dreamy, hard bop was darker, more urgent, more restless. So, besides an affiliation with black culture and black music, ‘hard bop’ was also characterised as reflecting New York City itself, while cool jazz geographically mirrored the lighter, slower lifestyle of sunny California. David Dicaire writes on the New York-ness of hard bop:

“There was urgency in hard bop, the blues of country players transplanted into the jungle, dirt, and noise of the big city. In fact, hard bop was a reflection of urban existence, the pent up frustrations, the fast paced lifestyle, and the sea of restless humanity […] The improvisational quality of hard bop reflected the necessary life skills required by the inner city dweller in order to deal with the daily life struggles they faced”.

("Jazz Musicians, 1945 to the Present" by David Dicaire)

Lee Morgan - nervy, talented and brimming with the unshakeable confidence of prodigal youth - gained enormous popularity in the early 60s, his 1963 soul jazz album “The Sidewinder” skyrocketing him to international and commercial success, and becoming no less than Blue Note’s best-selling record ever. In I Called Him Morgan, one of Lee’s bandmates recounts how Lee wrote it one day after disappearing into the bathroom for a little bit too long, eventually emerging with the song scrawled on scraps of toilet paper.

By the time of “The Sidewinder” however, Morgan had already been infected with the sickly poison running through the veins of the jazz scene at the time: Heroin. Blakey was known for introducing the new young musicians in his collective to the stuff, only to cast them aside when they strung out. Morgans addiction eventually came to consume him, the heroin hollowing him out and leaving him broke and unable to play his music.

By 1967 when he met his would-be wife Helen, Morgan was broke, cold, and had even sold his trumpet for junk. Helen was also brushing elbows with heroin herself, but maintaining a no-pleasure strictly-business relationship that allowed her to support herself selling the stuff. A mother of 2 by fourteen and a widow by nineteen, Helen ran away to the big city to make it on her own shortly after the death of her first, much older husband.

As a young black woman new to the city, job options were limited, and she didn’t hesitate to use her street smarts and social skills to find her own way into the workplace and public spheres, the more mainstream or conventional of which she was not welcome to participate freely in due to the color of her skin. In Collins haunting film, Helen speaks from beyond the grave in an interview from 1996 recorded on cassette tape, in which she tells her side of the story. Of her rise in the social circles of New York she recounts,

“I began to meet other people, and started going uptown to the clubs. First club was the Blue Rhythm up on 145th Street on Sugar Hill. Little three-piece band — the drummer, singer and organ player. Della, I can’t think of her last name. Let’s see, Etta Jones. I began to meet all these people. You know I could always fit in. Because I was a talker. And I must say myself, I was not bad looking, and I used to fit in very nicely with them.”

The jazz clubs were certainly important gathering places and hot spots for communities and musicians, but the after-hours “buffet flats” and apartment after-parties played an equally big role in facilitating encounters, building relationships, and of course, making music. Helen tells how she would be invited to “the after-hours joints”, places where “after the clubs would close [...] you really heard the music [...] the jam sessions, you know. They would come uptown and really play.” Helen also used her own apartment to insert herself into the public sphere, hosting and feeding jazz musicians after-hours.

Helen’s apartment became ‘the place to be’, a safe haven for the difficult lives of jazz musicians where they could relax and eat, and drug use was forbidden. She built her own reputation as the neighborhood matriarch, cooking overwhelming portions of delicious comfort food for anybody who came by, and was said to always have ‘great jazz music’ crooning from the record player. She also admittedly had a soft spot for the misfortunates, acting as a sort of motherly figure for some musicians and struggling addicts.This is how she met Morgan, “raggedy and pitiful” and much younger than her, and she decided to take care of him. More than that, she essentially revived him from his addiction, managed his life, and soon the two were inseparable

Thanks to Helen, Lee put his feet back on the ground and his lips to the trumpet, now independent of Art and the Messengers, releasing records like ‘Taru’ and ‘The Sixth Sense’, the hard bop qualities of which are described by Allmusic:

“High drama identifies "Anti Climax" with a dark, closet film noir sound acceding to hard bop, while the great Cal Massey composition "The Cry of My People" is covered, a ballad dominated by Morgan's somber and deep muted trumpet, swinging lightly on the bridge.”

Despite, or even because of his popularity, Morgan has not necessarily been remembered as one of the great, radical jazz musicians. Lee was also known for his taste for sports cars, “ivy league” clothes and lady-killing attitude, perhaps more so than for any involvement in any overtly political activity. Yet in the last two years of his life, Morgan became increasingly politically involved, becoming one of the leaders of the Jazz and People's Movement (JPM) protest group. Between 1970 and 71, JPM stormed various broadcast recordings to protest the lack of jazz venues in New York and inadequate expose and representation of jazz in the media. As detailed in an article by the Independent, JPM stormed Marv Griffin’s chat show in 1970:

“[Morgan] and other musicians invaded the set and whipped out whistles and flutes in order to, as Chuck D would later say, bring the noise. The trumpeter and his fellow rabble-rousers then hoisted placards that read, "Stop the whitewash now, hire more black artists on TV", and, provocatively setting cultural records straight, "Tom Jones rose to fame singing black songs".”

Lee Morgan's death in 1972 was a tragic and careless mishap. Helen and Lee had been fighting, the latter having grown sick of the formers ever presence and moving on to younger company and women closer to his own age. When Helen one night decided to go see Lee play once again for the first time in a while, she showed up at Slug’s Saloon with a gun she’d started carrying around. She walked in, Lee’s new girlfriend in her former front-row seat, and soon she and Lee were in a huffying argument that resulted in her tumbling out the club by force. Pushed out into the snow, she flashed her gun to the bouncer to get back in and then planted the bullet in Lee’s chest just below his heart, before dropping to her knees in regret. The heavy snow falling in New York prevented the ambulances from getting there in time to save him from bleeding out.

Lee’s story shows how the spaces through which we move ultimately come to define so much of our behavior, our sense of belonging, the shape of our communities and even the aesthetic subtleties of our art - all from where we are seen, where we are welcome, and where we are not. The city is a living, breathing organism, as much a character of Collin’s documentary as Lee or Helen; the clubs, the streets, and the secret safe havens where the marginalised could express themselves freely, nurture their art and take care of each other. From Helen’s Bronx apartment to the cat’s corner Slug’s Saloon, the histories of the swinging bodies, beating hearts and dizzy lives of those who lived life in the margins of society during decades of great injustice are once again retold, their stories singing to the brooding, bluesy melodies of hard bop jazz.

“Blow” said Dizz and Charlie Parker came in for a solo
with a squeaky innocent cry.
Monk punched, anguished, nub fingers crawling
at the keyboard tearing up foundations and guts
of jazz from the big masterbox
to make Charlie Parker hear his cry and sigh,
to jar the orchestra into vibrations,
to elicit gloom from the doom of the black piano

(History of Bop / Reading by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation)

Jazz Musicians, 1945 to the Present by David Dicaire
Slick Chick, or Helen Morgan’s Jazz Life by Nicole Rustin-Paschal
The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan by Wayback Machine web archive
Clarifying labels: Cool Jazz, West Coast and Hard Bop by Mark C. Gridley
Lee Morgan: His life, music and culture by Tom Perchard 
The Sixth Sense AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos
History of Bop by Jack Kerouac
The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan by Larry Reni Thomas
I Called Him Morgan by Kasper Collin

You can always go and check out the jazz musucians on the Low-Fi platformby using the genre filters. And, who knows, maybe something will even inspire you to host a concert at your place.


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