Helen Morgan shot jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan in 1972. She's from Shallotte, and spent her final years in Wilmington. A documentary based on the sole interview she granted has been made into a documentary by Swedish filmmaker, Kasper Collin, and it screens in Wilmington on Sunday, 2/25.
The film, I Called Him Morgan, screens at Jengo's Playhouse, 815 Princess Street, at 5:00pm.
The film has already received rave reviews (here, here, and here) after screening for the past 2 years around the globe. The man who conducted the final (and only) interview with Helen, Larry Reni Thomas, lives in Chapel Hill--and he was WHQR's first Jazz Host in the beginning years of the station. Listen to Larry below, plus Charlon Turner, Festival Director of the NC Black Film Festival, above and see our extended conversation below.
Following the Screening on Sunday, Larry will answer audience questions.
Larry: My name is Larry Rene Thomas. I'm a writer and a radio announcer based in Chapel Hill.
Gina: And you did an interview back in 1996 in Wilmington that has led to a documentary. A Swedish filmmaker took this project?
Larry: Yes, he's Swedish.
Gina: Could you just tell me about that?
Larry: Well, I was teaching a Western Civilization course at Shaw University. They have these centers all over the state, and they have one in Wilmington. And one of my students turned out to be the lady who shot Lee Morgan. Lee Morgan was this talented trumpet player who had problems with drugs in his career. He really started performing when he was at the tender age of 16. He was in Dizzy Gillespie's big band at 16. So he was like this a child wonder. And unfortunately he fell on bad times in terms of the drug thing. He had a bad heroin addiction. Helen Morgan, who was my student, met him.
She was living in New York and she met him one cold night in February. I've written a book and one of my poems is called A Cold Night in New York and she met him and she asked him where was his coat because it was freezing. He said his coat was in the pawn shop. So she went out and got his coat for him. His trumpet was in a pawn shop too, so she went out and got his trumpet and his coat and that's when he hung on to her. That's the word she used. He hung on to her. She rescued his career because he was very unreliable. She rescued his career. She told me all of this in the interview about how she met him and everything and how she cleaned him up. And she ended up killing him unfortunately because he started seeing a younger woman. She was much older than he was. She was originally from Shalotte, North Carolina, which is right across the river but she had been living in Wilmington because her mother was living here, so she eventually moved back to Wilmington. And this was after she had killed him and everything.
She didn't do very much time either. It's a story that nobody had but me. It's a very exclusive story. Everybody knows about this story. Everybody knows about Lee Morgan being killed in a club. I mean, people who are into jazz know all about it. And when I interviewed her I knew it be would be something that I needed to do because it was historically significant. Nobody had the story. So it was like a scoop.
As a way of introducing myself to the class-I had two other jobs besides that one- I would hand out this bio of me stating that I was a jazz radio announcer and when I gave it to her she said, "Oh, I love jazz. My husband is a jazz musician." And I said, "Really? What is your husband's name?" And her last name was Morgan. And she said, "Lee." And I said, "Lee Morgan?" And then looked at her kind of funny and she looked at me kind of funny, too. She said, "Yeah, that was my husband." Everybody knows that Lee Morgan was killed at the age of 33 in a bar called Slugs in the lower east side of Manhattan and that his common law wife or his girlfriend killed him. So I'd said, "I sure would like to interview you one day." This was like in 1989. She said, "I'll think about it." It took her about seven years. Every time I would see her I would say, "Ms. Morgan, I want that interview," and she would say, "I'm still thinking about it."
She called me and said, "I'll grant you the interview." So I went over to her house. She lived on 16th and Wooster and I had an old beat up tape recorder and I just put it in front of her and apparently she had to get something off her chest or this was something that she had thought about for a long time. I didn't say very much. I just put the tape recorder in front of her and she talked for almost two hours. You know, she really got excited when she started talking about New York. So that's when I kind of laid back. But she told me the whole story, how she met him.
That was in February of 1996 and in March 1996, she died. I had to cut the interview short because her grandson walked in. Eventually I wrote a piece, I wrote an article on the interview and it went worldwide. It's been translated into six or seven different languages. And one of the languages was Swedish. The Swedish filmmaker read the article. The article is called The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan. He contacted me and he said could he use the interview in a movie. And that's what happened.
Gina: That's what happened. And it got released last year?
Larry: It's been out since 2016. It's been to Toronto, it's been to London, it's been to Paris, it's been to Venice. It's been all over. I just left California. I was at the Monterey Jazz Festival and showed it out there. So it's been around, but this will be the first time it's going to be shown in Wilmington. It's actually been shown in Durham and Asheville. It's kind of late getting here.
Gina: Which is funny because this is where that interview took place.
Larry: And it's a dynamite connection because she went to St.Luke church and the filmmaker came and stayed at my apartment in Chapel Hill. He came over twice a week, and we drove around North Carolina. So he did a lot of the filming here in North Carolina. There's actually photos of St. Luke in the movie. He went over to Brunswick County, there’s parts of the movie filmed in Wilmington.
Gina: Charlon, introduce yourself please.
Charlon: Hi, I'm Charlon Turner. I am the Festival Director for the North Carolina Black Film Festival, which is produced by the Black Arts Alliance here in Wilmington.
Gina: And Charlon you're helping present this film.
Charlon: Yes. In conjunction with Speller Street Films and Cucalorus as well.
Gina: How did this catch your eye?
Charlon: I heard about the film through Christopher Everett who produced and directed Wilmington on Fire and he shared the story with me and I've had the opportunity to meet Larry through his work on that project and told me about it. We created a film series. We're doing the film festival in September this year. We didn't do it in 2017, but we're bringing it back in 2018 and wanted to do a film series where we highlight particular films. When Chris told me about this film they were in the works of bringing it to Wilmington.
So it was a great opportunity for the Black Arts Alliance and the North Carolina Black Film Festival to be a part of it. Like Larry said, it deals with local history, so it fit right into Black History Month. It deals with jazz and music, which is always a great way to bring people out and make them a part of something. So it was just a really interesting film. I personally didn't know much about the artist in the film, but learning about it, I just think that the people here in Wilmington would be very interested in seeing it.
Gina: The event is when?
Charlon: It's next Sunday on the 25th.
Gina: At what time?
Charlon: At 5pm. And it's going to be at Jengo's Playhouse on Princess Street.
Gina: Why didn't you all have a Black Film Festival last year?
Charlon: Our board is a volunteer board so a lot of us are involved in different projects and different career paths. So that was the only reason that we didn't do it last year. We're really excited about bringing it back. We've gotten some grants and some funding and we’re excited about some projects. The film series being one. We want to screen a film each month up until the festival in September. We're going to do a black music summer series in June, which is Black Music Month. We did that a couple of years ago at the Cameron Art Museum and we're looking at bringing that back this summer. So just to lead up to the film, to get the excitement going and let people know that we're still here. This is our sixteenth year for the North Carolina Black Film Festival and we actually want to highlight women filmmakers. African American females. One, it's our sixteenth year, so it's kind of like sweet 16 and then with all the things that are happening with women in the entertainment industry, we really want to highlight them and give them a platform to share their projects and just give them special attention. That kind of gets convoluted when you have festivals in general.
Gina: And Larry, you'll be answering audience questions after the film. So the actual voice of Helen is in the film?
Larry: Yes. He did a great job of enhancing it because it was just a regular Sony tape recorder. All that's in the film. And I'm actually in the film where I talk about how I met her and they have a shot of the tape recorder that I used and everything. It's a work of art. He did a great job. He's just been getting rave reviews everywhere. I mean, New York Times, The Daily News, LA Times, Hollywood Reporter.
Gina: I did see some reviews and I mean really, really some great words about the film. It's interesting to me that somebody from Sweden did it.
Larry: Well, he's done movies before on a jazz musician called Albert Isler. This music is accepted all over the world. More so in America. Americans don't really appreciate this art form. I call it American classical music. I don't call it jazz. Jazz is short for jackass. The name was given to the music. The musicians didn't give it that name. I was interviewing Ahmad Jamal once and I said, "How long have you been playing jazz?" He said, "Well, I don't call what I do jazz." I said, "What do you call it?" He said, "I call it afro American classical music." Duke Ellington called it Negro folk music. A musician down in New Orleans- his name is Nicholas Payton- he calls it black American music. BAM. Yusef Lateef has this long, long name for it- psycho analytical something, but he refuses to call it jazz because jazz can mean anything. It could mean a cologne. It could mean anything. You could put jazz on anything, but the point is the musicians didn't give it that name. Somebody else did. As a matter of fact, they used to call Duke Ellington's music when he first started “jungle music.” There's an album called Duke Ellington and Jungle Music. But don't let me get started on that.
I give lectures called the Carolina Jazz Connection where I talk about the fact that there's over 75 jazz musicians who were born here in North Carolina, have some kind of connection. John Coltraine, Max Roach, Nina Simone and Thelonius Monk are the big four. They were born here. I mean, these people are internationally known. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that this music is appreciated all over the world. Like I said, when I posted this piece, The Lady That Shot Lee Morgan was translated into six or seven different languages because they know who Lee Morgan is. The Swedes know who Lee Morgan is. I did a book signing in New York and there was a guy from Sweden there, an elderly guy who was with his wife and he said, "I love Lee Morgan." He said, "I listen to Lee Morgan every day," This guy was eighty years old. I said, "Really?" He said, "I listen to him all day long." I said, "Well, how long have you been listening to him?" He said, "Well, since I was 12. I play him every day." And so his wife was standing next to him and I said, "Do you like Lee Morgan?" And she said, "Well, I have to."
The story about Lee Morgan getting killed- a lot of people didn't like the fact that I interviewed her. Nobody has her side of the story and I was the only cat who came up with her side of the story. She trusted me for some reason because I used to live in New York and I knew that scene. I knew the scene, that drug scene she was talking about and she was up there during the late sixties and early seventies and that's when she killed him, in '72.
Gina: You know, I would imagine that the general feeling about Helen is…
Larry: She's a dog.
Gina: Does that change after watching this and hearing your interview?
Larry: That's interesting that you said that because I've been bombarded with email since people found out who I am. People have actually called me, which is strange because my number is unlisted, but they saw me in the movie and they said they really appreciate what I did, recording an interview, because everybody wants to know that side of the story and well, she saved his life and his career and cleaned him up and a lot of people were appreciative of that. There was a musician, his name is Benny Mop and we just did a book signing and screening in Durham. He came out and we did a Q&A and whatnot, and he was saying that brought some closure because he was really tight with Lee and he was in one of Lee's last bands and he said I brought some closure to the whole thing because he was really shook up when he found out because he said they were like family because Helen was known as a dynamite cook and she would cook for people in the neighborhood. Bums would come by her house and she would serve them and stuff.
She was known as a dynamite cook at St Luke. They knew her as Mrs. Morgan the Cook because she cooked for the church. So I guess some people will never forgive the fact that I interviewed her, but I'm a historian and I posted on Youtube: I'm not on Lee Morgan's side. I'm not on Helen Morgan's side. I'm on the side of history and this is why I have an MA in history. I've done several oral history projects before. I interviewed 100 people when I did my study on the Wilmington 10. So I knew how to interview people, but for some reason she trusted me and I always say that an African American person who's interviewing another African American person- she's not going to say the same thing to me that she would say to a European American.
She just opened up. She had a very interesting light. She had her first child at 13 and she had another one at 14 and then she just abandoned and left and came to Wilmington and married a bootlegger. He was 39 and she was 17 and she only knew him for a week. I said it was love at first sight. She said, "No, I fell in love with the money and he fell in love with me." He drowned when she was 19 and his family came down from New York and that's how she got to the city in 1945 and she never came back to Wilmington.
Gina: How old was she when she met Lee?
Larry: She had to be in her forties when she met him.
Gina: And he was in his 20s?
Larry: He had to be. He was 12, 13 years younger than she was. She said “this little boy,” you know. If you look at photos of him, he looks little, really.
Gina: But they were lovers. They were partners.
Larry: Yeah. She fell in love with him. I think she died of a broken heart. She fell in love with him and I'm sure he loved her, but she was much, much older than he was. I mean, imagine you being around seeing someone grow. But he was still getting high, was still shooting cocaine. He'd stopped shooting heroin, but he was shooting cocaine because he started making a little money. He had his hit tune called the Sidewinder. He made a lot of money off of that and she said he shot all of it up. They use it in a Chrysler commercial during the Olympics. Sidewinder. He got a little money off of that, but most of the record producers got most of the money. They're like parasites, vampires. But he got a little money off of that and she said he blew it.
But the main thing is it's a story about redemption. She redeemed his life and to a great extent, he redeemed her life, because she wasn't doing all that, you know. He gave her a purpose because they were doing pretty good. Started making a little money that they lived on the grand concourse and during that time that was a nice place to live up in the Bronx, up by Yankee Stadium and they were going to the Caribbean and they were going to the west coast doing gigs on the west coast. She was actually an amazing woman because she was doing stuff that a person with an MBA would do; she was booking the gigs, booking the flights, booking the housing accommodations. I don't even think she graduated from high school, so she cleaned him up and she redeemed him.
Gina: And then she shot him.
Larry: And then she shot him.
Gina: Have you listened to any of Lee Morgan’s music, Charlon?
Charlon: Not knowingly. I've heard a few things, but I think at the time I was listening to it I didn't know and I've seen some of the film and seen some of the clips and some of the music that's in the film. I just want to say that we're excited to have this film. I think it's a very intriguing story and I think people who know the story, who know the history, who are into jazz music in that era will be really interested. But I think people who are not as familiar, especially with the connection to Wilmington, I think it's going to intrigue a lot of people. We're already selling tickets and tickets are selling out and I wouldn't be surprised if we do another screening. I hope that we will be able to do it in the future, but I just really appreciate Larry and Chris and letting us know about the film. And the opportunity for the Black Arts Alliance to partner with them and to bring it to Wilmington. The film is about Wilmington, has been out for over a year, almost two years and it's never been screened here. So I think that that's really important. I know we have a big jazz and music community here, so I'm hoping that they'll come out and be a part of it and follow the rest of the film series throughout the year.
Transcription Assistance by Production Assistant, Lindsay Wright