As a lifelong jazz buff I was eager to see I Called Him Morgan to learn more about one of my favorite trumpeters, Lee Morgan. His recordings from the 1950s and 60s still sound vibrant and fresh today. I couldn’t have anticipated that Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin would provide such a personal and moving portrait of the musician, who died at age 33. He was able to interview a number of Morgan’s colleagues, but he hit pay dirt when he located several people who knew Morgan’s wife in her final years. One of them found her so compelling he recorded an audio interview with her (with no particular purpose in mind) more than forty years ago. Mind you, this is the same woman who shot Morgan dead in a Manhattan nightclub!
Helen Morgan, who fell in love with Lee, managed his career, and helped him overcome a frightful heroin addiction, winds up narrating much of the film. I Called Him Morgan is full of such surprises and offers an unusually intimate look at its subject’s life and career. (Incidentally, many of the interviews were photographed by Bradford Young, the cinematographer whose career is soaring since working on Selma and Arrival.)
Collin makes especially vivid use of photos taken by Blue Note record producer Francis Wolff during a series of now-classic recording sessions. Their candor and immediacy give you the feeling of being there as Morgan and his cohorts create some of the greatest music of the 20th century. The effect is positively exhilarating.
I Called Him Morgan opens today in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center in Santa Monica and Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, with other cities to follow. You don’t have to love jazz to be drawn into this remarkable story. For more information, click HERE
Another fine documentary, SOUND OF REDEMPTION: THE FRANK MORGAN STORY (2015) has recently been released on DVD by Kino Lorber. This poignant film chronicles the life of a child prodigy whose hero was Charlie Parker. Like Parker, he played the alto sax, and like Parker his life was overtaken by heroin. The film is framed by a tribute concert at San Quentin State Prison, where Morgan spent a number of years. The all-star lineup of musicians who play bebop classics make a visible impact on their audience, especially when young Grace Kelly (who was befriended by Morgan) plays a stunning solo rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Bravo to director NC Heikin, the people close to Frank Morgan who opened up to him on camera, and the jazz greats who play in his honor (George Cables, Delfayo Marsalis, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Ron Carter, and Mark Gross).
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