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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers I Called Him Morgan, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
Far and away the bit of technology I get in the most arguments with is my Alexa. I have found myself, more often than I would like to admit, slowly but firmly enunciating the phrase “Play. Hard. Bop. Jazz.” only to be told some nonsense about how there is no artist named Howard Jaaaarves or whatever. We can put a man on the moon, they say... but there is in fact a Hard Bop Jazz station playlist that I can enjoy on the rare occasions when that always-on and ever-listening tube hears me correctly. And it’s worth the hassle too, thanks in no small part to contributions from trumpet phenom Lee Morgan, whose story is chronicled in Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, which just hit Netflix. It’s been ten years since Collins’s first feature, My Name Is Albert Ayler, which not only further identifies him as a jazz fan (as well as as being hung up on the names people go by) but if it’s even half as good as I Called Him Morgan expect to see that recommended here also in the coming months.
In these days of streaming oversaturation good music docs need to set themselves apart in some way or another, and Collins manages the task by building his whole film on the foundation of an interview that Morgan’s widow, Helen Moore, gave to a professor, Larry Reni Thomas, not long before she passed away in 1990. To hear Thomas tell it, the opportunity to record the conversation fell into his lap after he happened to make the connection between this woman, then a student of his, and her famous former husband. A straight-ahead telling of Morgan’s tragically short life would have certainly been fascinating enough, but the added dimension of including these recollections from his once common-law wife provides an incredible amount of texture to the narrative being laid out here.
To be honest, despite my predilection for Amazon’s bebop playlists and knee-jerk affinity for impulse purchasing every Rudy Van Gelder edition Blue Note CDs I spot in a used bin, I really didn’t know all that much about Morgan past his incredible album The Sidewinder and his work as one of Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers, so this film was a shock in more ways than one. There’s a tension that’s teased out early on, front loading the film with unmistakably ominous overtones which pays off with a powerful punch for anyone like myself who was previously ignorant of the jazzman’s tumultuous life and early death. After a show in 1972, Helen, who had helped get Morgan back up on his feet after falling into a deep hole of heroin addiction, shot Morgan dead after fighting with him over the other woman he was seeing on the side. He was 33, but had already lived what feels here like two lifetimes of creative accomplishment.
The edges of this story are scattered with stories featuring luminaries from the Jazz canon, from Dizzy Gillespie, who saw enough talent in a then-sixteen year old Morgan to put him in his live lineup, to Wayne Shorter who played saxophone in Miles Davis’s “Second Great Quintet.” But the real joy is getting a sense of what it was like to have simply been gigging around New York in the peak of the 1960s jazz scene, bouncing from session to session and one late-night club-gig after another. My favorite moment was Shorter’s recollection of guzzling cognac in between sets and eating just enough to balance his buzz and keep him in perfect jazz stasis, but there are dozens more bits like that to be found in here.
I Called Him Morgan is a surprisingly heavy film, spring loaded with deceptively simple ways that it can bring up some complex emotions, but not in any expected sense of sadness. Morgan’s battle with heroin is not a happy one, but he triumphs in the end. He hits some intense rock bottoms, including selling his shoes for dope, as well as severely burning his head on a radiator after nodding out, before Helen saves him. A lover of jazz, she nourished every part of him that was holding him back from rejoining the ranks of the jazz scene that had kicked him out due to how inconsistent his habit had made him. She had the power to help him, and was probably the only person with the capability and the inclination to, and, ultimately, she would be the one who would take it all away from him. We can blame part of it on Morgan’s reckless infidelities, and part of it on the ambulance being waylaid en route by a torrential snowstorm, but ultimately she pulled the trigger and was wracked with profound guilt about it ever after, so much so that many of Morgan’s friends and fellow musicians claim to have been incapable of feeling anything but compassion for her once she was released from prison years later.
Despite being a clear cut tragedy, there are no villains in I Called Him Morgan. It’s a powerful and affecting film that never feels exploitative but still manages to maintain more than enough momentum to hook viewers with even a passing interest in this fertile period of jazz history.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.