Cover of Jeffery S. McMillan’s book about Lee Morgan (from the book’s Amazon.com Web page)
Last night the Balboa Theatre celebrated the birthday of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan with a screening of Kasper Collin’s documentary I Called Him Morgan. The film is not so much a biographical or musical study of Morgan as it is a journey through the parallel lives of the musician and his common-law wife Helen, who shot and killed him on February 19, 1972. As is the case with many jazz musicians, his was a life of ups and downs; and, at the time of his death, he was on an ascent with regular performances at Slugs’ Saloon, which, for its time, was the place to go for the most adventurous approaches to jazz.
The film is framed by one of Morgan’s best known compositions, “Search for the New Land,” recorded in 1964 and released on a Blue Note album of the same name. This was clearly a calculated decision on Collin’s part. There were a variety of different senses of quest that unfolded as the film progressed. Those senses of quest involved not only the ascents and descents of Morgan’s searches for ways to make music but also the ascents and descents of Helen’s life, which amounted to a quest for her own sense of identity. That latter quest culminate in tape cassettes she made for Larry Reni Thomas, which included her account of the killing at Slugs. Collin also included lively commentary by many of the jazzmen who made music with Morgan, including Wayne Shorter, who was part of the sextet that recorded “Search for the New Land,” and both Jymie Merritt and Bennie Maupin, who were members of the quintet that Morgan took on a tour of California, which included the sessions at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, which were subsequently released as “live” recordings by Blue Note.
However, the screening of Collin’s film was only a part of the birthday celebration. For about an hour prior to that screening, a quintet of jazz musicians affiliated with the Noise record shop played six of Morgan’s compositions to set the tone (so to speak) for this review of Morgan’s life. The group was led by tenor saxophonist Danny Brown, joined on the front line by trumpeter Scott Jensen. Rhythm was provided by Grant Levin on piano, Chris Amberger on bass, and Genius Wesley on drums. Amberger was the “seasoned veteran” of the group, having heard Morgan playing at Slugs’.
There did not seem to be much (if any) overlap between the recorded music on Collin’s documentary and the Morgan compositions performed in the Balboa lobby. However, those selections included “Mr. Kenyatta,” which was one of the other tracks on the Search for the New Land album. I also took some comfort in the absence of a performance of “The Sidewinder,” which seems to be the Morgan tune that attracts the most attention. Indeed, none of the tracks from the Blue Note album The Sidewinder were included. All members of the quintet had ample opportunity for extended solo work with each member providing his own take on Morgan’s prodigious inventiveness.
The other special guest for the festivities was Jeffery S. McMillan, author of Delightfulee, part of the Jazz Perspectives series published by the University of Michigan press. (The title is taken from one of Morgan’s Blue Note albums.) McMillan did not read from his book, but he offered a few anecdotes prior to the screening of I Called Him Morgan. These provided perspectives on Morgan’s character that did not come across in the profile that Collin’s documentary unfolded. As a result, there was a thoroughness of both background and music, making for an extended evening in Morgan’s honor that could not have been more absorbing.