Mar 29, 2017
“This was the same woman who had shot him”: I Called Him Morgan
As established during NYFF last year, I can’t say enough nice things about Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, which concerns the short life (and tragic death) of the brilliant jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. I was already a fan of Collin’s My Name Is Albert Ayler (made nearly a decade ago), but nevertheless entered Morgan convinced the fundamentally conservative music-doc format could go nowhere new. To my surprise, Morgan has all the verve of an arthouse whodunit, wringing a serpentine narrative from constituent archival elements—chief among them, an oral history recorded to cassette tape in the 1990s by Morgan’s common-law widow Helen, who shot him with a revolver outside Slugs’ nightclub in 1972 in a pique of jealous rage.
The tape provides a backbone for Collin’s interviewees (including jazz legends like Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin and Albert “Tootie” Heath) to retrace Lee and Helen’s tortuous relationship. But more importantly, it allows the filmmaker (and thus, makes it incumbent upon his viewers) to suspend the givens of hindsight for 90 minutes, taking each new musical turn and personal pitfall on its own terms—as it could only have been received, then and there. While last-minute interviews are a necessarily imperfect format, I was gratified to sit with Collin (garrulous, intense, a heavy user of the word “fantastic”) a few days ahead of the film’s release, and try disentangling what makes I Called Him Morgan such a lyrical piece of jazz reportage. Now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the film will expand to the Metrograph this Friday.
Brooklyn Magazine: You self-distributed My Name Is Albert Ayler. Talk about the difference between that process and this one?
Kasper Collin: My Name Is Albert Ayler was a seven-year process. It took a while—it had a slow ride. Suddenly it was “discovered” in the UK in the spring of 2007, I believe Sight and Sound helped me get distribution there, then it opened in the US, self-distributed by me. So it’s an enormous difference—you cannot get around it, and I’m not complaining. The new film has a great chance now, I think, and I’m very happy with the possibilities it has. But we still have to take care of some last-minute things before the premiere. We are still finalizing a trailer, in fact [laughs], if you want the truth. And if you don’t want the truth… [indicating 16oz coffee] Is that mine?
It’s gotta be.
I’m still not used to these American coffees…
In Sweden, a regular coffee is…?
All black. Pretty strong. Almost like an espresso—somewhere in the in-between, between an americano and an espresso.
Both these movies hinge on some kind of document—not a piece of paper per se. In Albert Ayler it’s this set of voice recordings made by Ayler, a kind of spiritual narration… and in I Called Him Morgan it’s Helen Morgan’s murder confession, basically. How do you structure your narratives around items like these? Do they make the films possible?
Hmm. My first film started from nothing, just: my passion for Ayler’s music. I had heard it when I was maybe 19, living in Gothenburg, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Then, moving to Stockholm, I realized Ayler had been there, had made this undiscovered stay there, and recorded an album there; for me, I wanted to make a little film about his stay in Sweden, so I did—like a 30-, 35-minute version—and it got funded by the Swedish Film Institute. At the same time I realized there was another story there: his family had survived him in Cleveland. I went there and his father took me directly to his brother, Donnie, so I was growing the story. But I had already discovered the recordings you’re asking about in Sweden.
With Albert, I was coming from this music side, the more experimental side—and Albert was so extreme, just listening to his music and trying to be open to the experience, it’s just: “Wow.” In the beginning, you just don’t know what to do with it, about it. It’s not about understanding or not understanding. To hear Ayler’s voice, suddenly—it was like a contrast, because he was speaking softly, in a very beautiful way, and a lot of people, I think they assumed based on the music that he’d be this big, angry man. He was an artist. Working with the materials of his voice brought me to seeing him another way. His music was an act of love, and it was about love: how to express beauty in a way—of course, it’s much more complicated than that. I began to see him a different way, but that’s just one contrast: the voice versus the music. People are still trying to comprehend Ayler’s music, but he just wanted people all over the world to love what he was doing. He was fighting with that his whole life, so to hear it in his own voice, to create his own narrative—that was fantastic. He was fighting, of course, and I’m on his side even though I can see both sides—it’s scary, in hindsight, knowing how it would end.
Regarding Helen Morgan, it’s very difficult to answer that question direct. After making My Name Is Albert Ayler, I never thought I would make another film set in that era. But then, seven years ago, I found this fantastic clip on Youtube—Lee Morgan playing with Art Blakey, in Japan. 1961. His solo there was just a knockout for me. I had not been listening to him before. I Called Him Morgan ends with this sequence—you hear his solo, and that was the beginning of this journey, for me. I thought I knew about Lee Morgan: he was this young, talented guy who had signed to Blue Note as a teenager. I knew he had recorded “The Sidewinder,” and I knew he was shot by a woman. Beyond that, I didn’t know who he was, much about him, and coming at jazz from the more experimental side, “The Sidewinder” wasn’t really my thing—so I didn’t know much. Listening to that solo made me understand how talented, how searching, this young artist really was.
This is what’s so fantastic about music: there’s always something around the corner that you haven’t discovered yet. I realized there was amazing music there so I began to discover Lee, beyond “The Sidewinder”—also, listening to that solo on repeat. Anyway, I begin asking around: are there people who are still around, who know Lee? You sort of talk to them, say “what is this,” versus what is this.
He had spent his last four years with a woman named Helen; they talked warmly and passionately about her, and said she had kind of saved him from an addiction, that almost had threatened to kill him… and they didn’t know how to deal with that. She came in and helped him. When nobody else wanted to. And… I’m realizing this was the same woman who had shot him. Helen was defined only as the woman who had killed Lee Morgan. In the midst of this I found the tape, made by Larry Reni Thomas, in North Carolina.
Listening to this was fascinating: it wasn’t just the story Helen was telling but also how she was telling it, the sound of her voice… and then continuing to work with this, I realized it would be difficult to make this film about Lee, as I had been seeing it, without those guys who had been close to both him and Helen. I’m trying to make a film that I would like to see, trying to look into this world a little bit from Helen’s perspective, was very interesting for me, myself—what would we see if we can follow it from her perspective a bit.
She’s as much the narrator as Ayler is in your previous film.
The voice is something I am interested in—yes? Working with sound is very interesting. I began to work with the interview to see if there could be something interesting—because it was a cassette tape. It was very bad quality, so I edited that tape down to eleven scenes—put them together so it was a little bit easier to work with. That is pretty much the sequence that’s in the film. There are similarities between I Called Him Morgan and My Name Is Albert Ayler if you see it from a sound perspective.
At risk of repeating the same question: where do you decide, “okay, this is enough material for a feature?”
The research has to go on for a while, to see what will work, in a way—there are several factors. I was reluctant to do another film, as I said, in the same era—I know if it’s gonna be a long journey then I will decide that I’m gonna do it in a very specific way, and it’s going to be difficult.
From that 1961 solo, realizing there was this almost Greek-tragedy level story in the relationship between him and Helen, and the people around having double-feelings: many of them were there on the last night of Lee’s life, and everything kind of navigated towards that ending. Because that night they lost two good friends. It wasn’t just Lee; of course they lost Lee but they also lost Helen, which is something we, coming from the outside, have never understood. If you’re a lover of this music or a fan, well, many of them have always been angry at this woman who took their hero away, you know. And I didn’t know anything about this—I only knew, too, that she was the killer. And I found a more complex story—between that and the music, there was something I wanted to explore.
Without abandoning narration, montages, et cetera, I Called Him Morgan avoids so many of the expected traps. It must have taken a lot of fine-tuning.
Thank you for saying so. As a producer I felt my greatest responsibility was to make sure that we would be able to edit this film long enough—to secure the time. It took six years to make I Called Him Morgan, with a three-year editing process. Technically, one year of editing spread out over three years—to let the film grow in the right way. First I worked with Eva Hillström, who edited My Name Is Albert Ayler, and then I worked with Hanna Lejonqvist, who had worked on The Black Power Mixtape… I took a break to do some research and then in the end, I worked with Dino Jonsäter, who edited Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He had a great talent with the music; we polished some pops in there to make it as good as it could be.
I tend as a director-editor to sit with small pieces of the film: “How are we gonna introduce this scene?” “How are we gonna work this transition?” things like that—how do we get down to the story, use this piece of audio? It’s a lot of trial and error. The film goes from being kind of like a good schoolboy in the beginning – laying out Lee Morgan’s progression in a conventional way, and then you realize… No. It’s gonna be correct for the film but it’s getting more and more personal, you don’t want to work with the film in a way. The decisions made in the choices of music were very important to me—finally, we managed to use all the songs I had chosen, with some clearance problems that worked out nicely. They took a while [wincing, laughing].
When you see this film, it’s quite a remarkable story, but in both films, it was very important for me to do my work—that’s what takes a little time. Get in there so you have the space—the music can be felt and heard, you may see beauty and power in Lee Morgan’s music, especially if you can crank the feeling up in the theater. I had to fight with my editors sometimes: “This music sequence is too long and people are gonna fall,” versus “Not if we do it correctly.” We were working over and over and over again, for instance on the first passage with the session photos from Blue Note—a long sequence of nothing but photos and music. Those things can be tricky to get right.
How to make still images cinematic? No dissolves, no star wipes, no pan-and-scan, no diorama-ing in the depth of field…
In the press, many people have written as though all those photographs were taken by Frank Wolff—that’s another long interview unto itself, how I found out Lee Morgan was probably one of the most-photographed jazz musicians of that era. In the Blue Note archives I found maybe seventeen hundred or eighteen hundred stills of Lee Morgan. He covers 167 negative and contact sheets I found from 1956 to 1966—in black and white and in color. I could follow this little wonderkid through that amazing life, through everything that happened—you see the images of him with a bandaged head, you know. Those small stories within there, the communion between musicians on an almost spiritual level—everything was still in there. We who love the music had mainly seen before, you know: pictures identifying Lee with his trumpet, Wayne Shorter with his saxophone, you know—here you could see so much more, the life that was going on.
Another photographer was Valerie Wilmer, who took amazing photographs for the Albert Ayler film. She took the photos of Lee and Helen in the apartment, of Lee as a teacher, and so on. Then there’s Chuck Stewart, maybe most famous for the Impulse! covers—he took some of the pictures of Lee and his friends, dancing around in the studio, and then playing with Gillespie and so on. Those three sources were most important to build this—but the photos were so majestic, in their way, I decided to use as many as I could without going in that trap, if I understand it correctly: no fast zooms, no jazzy tempo. We didn’t need that. So they’re still in a way, but they’re edited sometimes rhythmically, to go against the music, in a way—it’s tricky to get it right but I’m glad we did it the way we did, in the end.
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