When Larry Reni Thomas, a North Carolina teacher, started to get to know his class in the mid 90s, little did he know that it would end in one of best music documentaries of recent years. In speaking to Helen Morgan, an older black student almost in her 70s, something piqued his interest, starting with her surname.
There is a tier one of jazz greats that people are aware of even outside of fans of the genre – Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and their ilk. There is then probably a second string of influential but slightly more obscure jazz players. People like Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins. These are the ground breaking musicians who have contributed to what jazz is today.
We are then into those musicians without whom the others wouldn’t have flown. On the classic Blue Note label, I’m talking about your Larry Youngs, your Bobby Hendersons, your Grant Greens. To this list, one could add trumpeter Lee Morgan.
Joining Dizzy Gillespie’s band as a star performer when he was 18, Lee Morgan was good looking, dressed sharp, played even sharper and boy did he know it. Graduating quickly via John Coltrane and Art Blakey’s bands, he was signed to Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff’s iconic label. By the time he recorded his landmark albums “The Sidewinder” and “Search For A New Land” in 1963 and 1964, he’d already released over a dozen albums and was still in his mid twenties.
It was all going swimmingly. Morgan had a clear direct melodic style which was accessible and whilst he stretched out across long songs like the title tracks of the two aforementioned album, he never lost your attention.
Unfortunately, the familiar issues so prevalent amongst young black musicians in the 60s raised their heads. Drug addiction and the resultant relationship problems affected Lee. Miles crops up at his misogynistic worse. Morgan’s addictions affect his health and well-being. He nods off against a hot radiator, burns a whole in his scalp and as a result, Lee combs his hair forward to hide the scars.
Lee meets Helen in 1967. Helen is a girl on the scene and they tear up New York, partying and enjoying life. Within 5 years, Lee is dead and Helen’s life is changed tragically.
Kasper Collin’s film captures the comet like trajectory of their lives in 90 minutes, relying on the interviews that Larry Reni Thomas conducted with Helen on a pile of C90 cassettes before she died in 1996 and conversations with surviving contemporaries, now in their 70s and 80s. Their memories are clear and lucid and tell the story of both Lee and Helen but also provide an insight into New York’s scene of spit and sawdust haunts and all night bars.
There is enough surviving film of Lee in performance to understand why he is an important musician. His albums didn’t change the course of jazz like Coleman’s, Davis’s or Coltrane’s. They are though approachable and of high quality and immediately evoke the era, all bluesy rhythms and smoky atmospheres.
But Lee and Helen’s story is so extraordinary that it bears telling in this manner. If you watch it now on Netflix, the icy New York weather at the time of Morgan’s death resonates with this cold January weather. The film is engaging and rattles along at sufficient pace to draw in not only jazz fans but music fans too.
A decent way to spend an hour and a half whilst we wait for the temperature to rise.