It’s early on a September morning in a downtown office during the Toronto International Film Festival, and although filmmaker Kasper Collin has come ready to discuss his latest project – the documentary I Called Him Morgan (opening at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema this weekend) – the way he describes his recent travel itinerary makes me wish that he gets some rest soon.
Last fall, his look at the life and death of celebrated and tortured jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. From there, Collin took a 31 hour trip to Telluride to screen the film. He was able to sneak away to Los Angeles for a few quick days off before heading to Toronto. While he’s happy to be in Canada to promote what he describes as his latest passion project, Collin is also looking forward to heading back to his native Sweden to spend some time with his daughters in the near future.
Kasper Collin has put a lot of hard work into promoting I Called Him Morgan, but with years in development and extensive research that was required, the film was a lot of hard work to create. On one hand, Lee Morgan is one of the most celebrated jazz trumpeters of his time, a prodigy and musical genius vetted by the likes of Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie. Any film about Morgan’s life and times would be a cause for celebration among jazz aficionados. On the other hand and despite being one of the best selling artists on venerable jazz label Blue Note Records, footage of Morgan performing, solo or alongside anyone else, is exceptionally rare, a problem for a medium as visual as a documentary film. Collin, a musician in his own right in addition to being a director, appreciated Morgan at first, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to take on something he knew immediately to be a long term project.
“Those around him started talking about those last four years, and they talked about this woman named Helen and what a nice woman she was. They talked about her with such passion and love, and they said that she saved him from this heroin addiction. The fact that she was the person who ultimately killed him is kind of an ultimate irony.”
“I made another documentary before called My Name is Albert Ayler, which is also about an American jazz musician and has a New York setting in the 1970s,” Collin begins when talking about how I Called Him Morgan came to fruition. “It took me about seven years to complete that project, and it was a real passion project for me. Being a filmmaker, after that I thought that maybe I had to work on a project that wasn’t actually jazz related. I sort of developed several projects that either happened or didn’t happen, but about seven years ago I found this amazing clip on YouTube of Lee Morgan playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers that I think was from 1961. Lee had a solo in there that moved me to goosebumps. I watched that clip on repeat. My previous film about jazz was about experimental jazz, or free jazz. That was where I was coming from, basically. That was always my way into jazz. I knew about Lee Morgan, and I had listened to a lot of musicians around him, and I’m actually a musician myself, and I’ve played a lot of different kinds of music. For me, Lee Morgan was the guy who made one of the most sold records in all of jazz, but at the time that I learned about who he was, that wasn’t even the kind of music that I necessarily gravitated towards. I appreciated it, but I was never passionate about it. But through watching this clip, I realized that there was this person with this amazing ability to communicate with his horn, and he had just this fantastic sound. It started me thinking about how I would make a film about Lee, and the process started in my head and became another passion project. “
Learning about Morgan’s impact on jazz without much performance footage to go on was surprisingly easy for Collin. Not only was Lee Morgan one of Blue Note’s most recorded artists, but many of the people he collaborated, played, or hung around with were still alive and willing to talk about Morgan’s influence. What changed the structure of Kasper Collins’ film was the fact that none of his interview subjects could talk about Lee Morgan without talking at great length about the last four years of the trumpet player’s life. Morgan had battled with heroin addiction like many other jazz greats, but he found himself saved by the love and support of his common law wife and manager Helen, a headstrong southern woman who left an unhappy life behind for more promising opportunities in New York City. Their love and friendship would be seen by many around them to be rock solid and true, but on a fateful night in February of 1972, Helen would shoot and kill Lee outside of a club. Helen met Lee in 1967 when he was at his lowest, and only several years later she would be convicted of second degree manslaughter in his death.
“I started to reach out to the people who were around him, and surprisingly unlike some other jazz musicians one could profile, a lot of them are still around,” Collin remarks about assembling a group of jazz musicians, scholars, and friends to talk about Lee Morgan’s work ethic and personal character. “When I started meeting up with them, immediately most of them started talking about Lee’s last four years of his life. I knew that he was shot by a woman, but when I started talking to people, I didn’t know much more than that. I don’t think most music lovers know that about him. I think a lot of people who know jazz know his album The Sidewinder and not much else. Those around him started talking about those last four years, and they talked about this woman named Helen and what a nice woman she was. They talked about her with such passion and love, and they said that she saved him from this heroin addiction and nursed him back so he could have this second act to his career. I realized that these people loved Lee and Helen equally because they were always together. The fact that she was the person who ultimately killed him is kind of an ultimate irony. That’s such a tragedy for all of those people. They lost two close friends at once, and one of them shot the other. I didn’t have to lead them there, even if they were with him at other better points in his life. Lee and Helen were inseparable, and everyone knew what they meant to each other. It’s a Greek tragedy, but that’s also the story.”
The backbone of the film as expressed through Collins’ structuring and the recollections of those being interviewed is the love shared between Lee and Helen. While many can speak to how inseparable Lee and Helen were, the biggest piece of Collins’ puzzle was a little heard interview that few knew existed. After serving several years of probation following Lee’s murder, Helen returned to Wilmington, North Carolina to live in peace. Helen began attending night school in the late 1980s, and her history teacher, Larry Reni Thomas, also happened to be a jazz radio host. He approached Helen for several years in hopes of her granting an interview about the time she spent with Lee. For years, Helen declined, until one day in 1996 when she granted Thomas time to talk. Thomas shared the audio recording with Collin, and although Helen passed away a month after granting the interview, Helen is allowed to tell her story in a film about Lee with her own voice.
“I can feel the passion for the people and their music, and that leads me into this organic process to watch the story unfold. There are so many components to this story, but for me it was so important to keep Lee’s music in there so people could feel the same passion he felt about what he did.”
“The film kind of navigated towards those four years, and quite early I found this incredible cassette recording with Helen’s voice from this night school history teacher who interviewed her in the late 1980s,” Collin says about discovering this invaluable document. “She had a short term in prison, and then she got parole and went to school. At that point, everyone lost contact with her when she moved back to Wilmington. This history teacher was also a jazz radio host, and he wanted to do an interview with her because she had never spoken publicly about her time with Lee. She first said maybe, and then seven years later, she agreed and he went down with his Sony tape recorder and he got this amazing life story from her; this story of a woman from the southern U.S. who follows her dream to New York and eventually becomes Lee’s manager.”
Love and passion in all its temperamental forms is at the heart of I Called Him Morgan, and Collin hopes that comes across in the final film. Not just the love between Helen and Lee or the admiration fellow musicians had towards the trumpeter, but love for the music that united them all together. Throughout the film, no experts talk academically about why Lee Morgan’s music is so revered by many. Collin thinks that the passion Morgan had for his work comes through even for those who know nothing about jazz. A large part of that was also Collin sharing on a personal level what he loved about Lee as a performer.
“I can feel the passion for the people and their music, and that leads me into this organic process to watch the story unfold. There are so many components to this story, but for me it was so important to keep Lee’s music in there so people could feel the same passion he felt about what he did. Lee was signed when he was only 18 to Blue Note records, which at the time was as big as anyone in jazz could usually get. That was a big deal in 1956. He is one of the most well recorded artists in their catalogue, but it can be difficult to find his best stuff, so I put a lot of time trying to find what I loved about Lee and to share that. I hope the audience goes on this journey to discover the music in there. I believe in the audience’s capacity to realize this is excellent music without having some expert on hand to tell them how great it is. I wanted to not use those kind of professional commentators to say why this is good. I want people to feel why it’s good.”