“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It’s a traditional narrative, often used today in tawdry soap operas and reality shows. However, the fifth entry in the Winter 2017 STF season, I Called Him Morgan, presented a twist on this tired narrative. The film focuses on the rise and fall of jazz legend Lee Morgan and his common-law wife Helen Morgan, presenting them as complete individuals who lived difficult and compelling lives. Cycles of collapse and redemption are major themes throughout, reinforced by one of the film’s musicians stating early on that “Lee went as far down as he could go… and then he met Helen.”
The film opens on falling snowflakes, and nothing could be more indicative of the unique connection between Lee and Helen. An incredibly talented musician on the rise as a youngster in Philadelphia while playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey, Lee was poised for greatness. His unwavering dedication to the craft augmented his perfectionist nature, and he rose quickly to prominence, heading many of his own hard bop groups. Shortly thereafter, he fell victim to heroin addiction, an affliction all too common to several great jazz musicians. It’s in this state that Helen Morgan, a survivor of extreme poverty from Wilmington, North Carolina, came upon this shell of a man. Helen was the kind of woman who would host constant gatherings at her 53rd Street apartment in New York, described as “the woman everyone knew because she could cook.” After a chance meeting with Lee over one of these meals, it was an effortless pairing. As Helen’s son remarks in the film, “I would say they needed each other at the time she met him.”
Soon after, Lee was back to producing big hits and leading his own groups, now that “his life was restored by Helen. He was living.” as a friend remarks in the film. She supported him through recovery from heroin addiction, at which point he became more adventurous with his music. He also began working with the civil rights movement, a point the film underscores by using his “Search for the New Land” album as the soundtrack for the film. As writer Adam Schatz described in the Q&A, “Lee Morgan was one of the most politically conscious jazz musicians of his era. When he was nurtured back to health, thanks to his wife Helen, he threw himself into activism.” While the title song of the album was an implicit civil rights anthem, the soundtrack also connects metaphorically to both Lee and Helen’s stories, both of which involved the search for new beginnings at points in their lives.
With Lee’s activism came a renewed vigor, one that also led to an illicit relationship with Judith Johnson, triggering a fateful confrontation in Slug’s Saloon on a wintry night in 1972. As this argument crescendoed, Helen shot Lee with her pistol, and though his wound was not initially fatal, due to the blizzard-like conditions outside the club, medical attention was delayed, and he bled to death. After a brief incarceration for manslaughter, Helen returns to her birthplace, Wilmington, for the remainder of her life, a reminder that many of life’s journeys are circular, and home can be as much a concept as a physical designation. The film, however, asks us to not regard Helen with animosity. As Shantz remarked in the Q&A, “One of the things that’s kind of striking about the film, it seems to me, is that it doesn’t have a punitive vision of Helen. There’s actually a lot of pathos in the portrait of her. What could have been a film that portrayed her just as the classic scorned woman actually turns into a film about contrition and forgiveness.”
The film’s sincerity clearly registered with the audience, many of whom knew Helen Morgan from her days in New York. A few members provided recollections of their time with Helen and Lee, highlighting how particularly dedicated he was to his work. Shantz expanded on their points: “A lot of jazz documentaries engage in this kind of voyeuristic spectacle of a musician’s self destruction, and that’s not what this film does. And I think that it’s a celebration of this man’s work.” For those discovering Lee Morgan’s story and music with this film, it depicts a moving portrait of a complex musician and husband, both on and off the stage.