Lee Morgan and Helen Morgan in "I Called Him Morgan"

Interview: Kasper Collin on Restoring the Name of a Legendary Jazz Trumpeter — and His Wife — in “I Called Him Morgan”

When Kasper Collin was a little younger, he used to play a pretty mean saxophone.

“I don’t do it too much these days, but I played a lot of music earlier on,” says Collin. “Some jazz, but more towards the experimental side of jazz and rock.”

You might figure as much by seeing one of his films and while music may have lost an inventive mind to cinema when Collin decided to major in film studies at Gothenburgh University in Sweden, it’s become obvious in just two films that his desire to try out new techniques has led to a rare ability to marry the two artforms so seamlessly that they cast a spell over both the eye and ear simultaneously. This is the unreasonable demand of the films that Collin has chosen to pursue, but in reviving jazz legends who have been lost all too soon in both his debut, “My Name is Albert Ayler” and his latest, “I Called Him Morgan,” profiling the late, great jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, he has taken the challenge of investigating the lives of artists who may no longer be around to speak for themselves and let their music serve as their words, often letting it take over as other artifacts of their time flood the screen as one would typically use narration.

In “I Called Him Morgan,” you can hear the exhilaration and pain in every recording of Morgan, who was celebrated as a prodigy when he stood out on Hank Mobley and John Coltrane records while he was still a teen, but fell into heroin addiction and was killed at 33 by his common-law wife Helen, who tired of his seeing another woman. Interviewing those close to the couple, Collin has friends and fellow musicians recount Lee and Helen’s tempestuous time together, using every note played to accentuate the complexities of their relationship, as many argue that well before Helen fired the gun that killed Lee, she had brought him back from his addiction. It is then only natural for Collin then to lavish as much attention on a recording of Helen as he does on Lee, her words preserved in an interview made by jazz aficionado Larry Reni Thomas during her later years that’s existence is an extraordinary story in itself.

Over seven years in production, Collin braved one of the harshest winters in New York City history to recount the Noreaster conditions on the evening in which Morgan was shot outside the Manhattan club Slug’s, worked around the schedule of his cinematographer Bradford Young, who would shoot such Oscar-nominated films as “Selma” and “Arrival,” and wait on some of Lee’s confidants such as Wayne Shorter and Judith Johnson to feel comfortable enough with the project to speak about a subject they probably haven’t even discussed with those closest to them. The result is a film that settles deep into the bones, acknowledging a tragic end while filled vividly with life to enable an audience to fully understand what was lost. After premiering at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, the film is starting to roll out across America and while Collin was in New York, he spoke about how he was first inspired to make a film about Morgan, the realization that he needed to tell Helen’s story as well and some of the clever ways he was able to make the story so cinematic.

Is it true that the clip you see at the end of “I Called Him Morgan,” where Lee Morgan is playing “Dat Dere” in Tokyo with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, is what made you pursue this as a film?

Yeah, I made another film before about Albert Ayler, which is also jazz-related and set in the same era and I never thought I would make another film in that era about jazz, but then seven years ago, I fell into this clip and I never heard anyone play trumpet before like that. That performance of Lee’s and that solo there, it really blew me away. It made me realize there’s this young, searching artist that I didn’t know of and that’s one of the great things with music. You think you’ve heard everything but then there’s always something new that’ll take you away. Albert Ayler is more free jazz, spiritual jazz, and the music that Lee Morgan is most known for – “Sidewinder” — is something that I hadn’t been listening to, so Lee really took me away [in that clip] and I found a lot of really great music like “Search for the New Land” and started to discover his full catalog. The beginning of this project was really a discovery process for me of getting into his music.

When I saw this clip on YouTube, I watched it on repeat because I was amazed by it. It’s like it is with great music. You need to listen to it again and I was thinking about if there was a film there about Lee. At that time, I think most music lovers know that he was this amazing talent, that was signed by Blue Note as a teenager and made a bunch of records and he was shot when he was young by a woman. I didn’t know more than that.

Could you actually build upon what you may have learned about the community or how to express jazz cinematically in “My Name is Albert Ayler” to make this?

There are similarities between those projects stylistically, but also in terms of the method of making them — both are long journeys that develop over a long period of time and the research is important. When I made that Albert Ayler film, I never thought it would take that long [especially] the editing, so as the producer of “I Called Him Morgan,” one of the responsibilities of trying to make sure was that we had enough time [for post-production]. The editing of this film was one year, but spread out over a three-year period.

[Bradford Young, the cinematographer] was also a great fan of Albert Ayler — I met him at some conference first and I had seen some of his earlier things and realized he was a great talent, so when I was living in New York, we met each other and we started to collaborate in 2010, 2011 and had a chance to continue later on with this. Then I remember, it was the end of January 2011, he won the cinematography award at Sundance and he started to grow. [laughs] He’s an amazing artist and it’s because of our love of this music that we met.

You’ve said you didn’t know much about Lee’s wife Helen before making the film. How did learning about her change your approach?

I started to see how many people were still around that knew Lee and when I was talking to those guys, most of them [would] talk about the last four years in his life. They talked lovingly and passionately about [Helen] and how she helped him stop his heroin addiction that almost killed him, [saying] they themselves didn’t really know what to do, but she had an ability to go in there and try and help him. And I realized this was the same woman who also killed him. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy. So coming in from the music side, it all navigated to this relationship story and I would say this film is some kind of love letter to both Lee and Helen and this music that brought them together.

Early on, I found this guy Larry Reni Thomas, who had a blog and this was in 2009 and I contacted him because [he detailed an interview he did with Helen and] I wanted to listen to it. He sent me a CD of it and it was not just the story she was telling, but how she was telling it and the sound of her voice. That was remarkable when I listened to it for the first time, and I didn’t know then that it was going to be used in this way [in the film] exactly. That recording was messy in a way and it had very bad sound quality, but it’s a remarkable document, so I [needed] to see what kind of potential there was in this material. Because I edited it myself, I sat down with this material and narrowed [the audio clips] down to 11 scenes and pretty much those are the scenes that are still in the film.

Having that as a foundation, was it a challenge to then build the rest of the film around that?

If you see it that way, it’s a challenge, but it wasn’t just about Helen’s voice then. We worked with a lot of materials and [with] those people who are still alive and their memories, everything navigated to this last evening [when Lee died], which was always dreamlike [for them] because I realized pretty [quickly] that that last night they didn’t just lose one good friend and colleague, who was Lee, the amazing musician. They also lost Helen. That’s quite a traumatic thing, something you will bring with you for the rest of your life, so I realized this film was about both Lee and Helen. The challenge then became how are we going to balance this [relationship] out in the film? Lee, we found all this great footage [for], all these great still photos and he had his music, and [we wondered] how are we going to treat Helen because there’s only this recording? Then there’s a lot of hard work to getting this together in the editing.

It’s interesting because you have Helen’s voice from the interviews, but no images and the images for Lee, but not necessarily his voice, but you come to rely on his music to be his voice. Did you have a soundtrack for this pretty early in the process?

The soundtrack was built up over maybe two years maybe. At the beginning, it was more like [me] being a good schoolboy finding the tracks that would be most significant for Lee Morgan, but it went on to be a more personal journey where I think the music I used in the end are very personal choices. I envisioned quite early how I wanted the film to be, but of course the research went on for several years.

You build up these remarkable sequences around some of the still photographs, which I understand actually was inspired by the way you found them. How did that come about?

That’s part of how this film grew. Being so passionately fascinated by him as a musician and his music, I was going to this music archive, the Blue Note’s Photo Archive, and I remember Michael Cuscuna, who was managing this archive, he handed over these great photographs of Lee Morgan, but those are the ones you’ve already seen online or in books. So I asked, “Are there more?” And he kind of lost it. [laughs] And he said, “Yeah, man.” And he took me into the real archive, very neatly organized, and I could go through the complete archive. It must’ve been like two days and I found 165 contact sheets covering Lee from his first recording in 1966 up until 1967 and they were all in black and white. I didn’t have time to look through everything when I was there, so I made copies of all those contact sheets and brought them with me down home to Sweden.

I had an assistant help me make enlargements of quite a few of them and my editor [Eva Hillström] and I were in her apartment in Stockholm and we were putting them on the floor, crawling around trying to make sense of this enormous document that we had in front of us. It was this amazing — you could see the joy and the communion amongst the musicians and the development of this young artist from a teenager on. He must’ve been one of the most well-documented jazz musicians in photographs, and you saw those small narratives in there. You could see this guy who had that ability to get all the other guys [excited] and there were a lot of scenes that I wanted to use in the film that I thought should be wordless and just use the still photographs and the music to tell their own stories. I was fighting with editors — there was one long sequence with music and still pictures, and they told me, “Oh, it’s going to be very long,” but that really was important when I was making this film to give the audience the chance to feel the power and beauty in Lee’s music. You need some space to do that, so I felt it was very interesting to work with the music and the still photographs.

After seven years in the making, what’s it like to be putting this out into the world?

If you go back to that interview with Helen, you try as a filmmaker to make a film that I want to see, and being a great music fan – music means so much in my life. I’ve been listening to jazz for 25 years, and listening to Helen and to look at this from her perspective was a fascinating perspective for me into this world. When I started this project, the only thing I knew about Lee was he was this wunderkind, he made “Sidewinder” and he was shot early by a woman. And the people who really love music, I think tend to really hate Helen – she was the woman who killed their hero and took him away from them, but when going into this project, I realized it was much more complex than that. She had also been the savior of him, the only one that tried to get him back and succeeded for a while so that he could give even more music to us. So hopefully people who see the film will have more of a chance to realize what a wonderful musician and artist Lee was and that more and more they will listen to that music, but also it felt correct that Helen would be known more than for being the woman who killed Lee Morgan.

“I Called Him Morgan” is now open in New York at the Metrograph and opens on March 31st in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and Pasadena Playhouse 7 and Washington DC at the Landmark West End. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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