An Interview With Kasper Collin

| March 24, 2017

There’s a story that theater critic Kenneth Tynan once told regarding Miles Davis’ seminal album Kind of Blue. One evening Tynan was in his study listening to the record when his nine-year-old daughter entered to kiss him goodnight. At the sound of the music the little girl suddenly paused and after a moment declared, “That’s Miles Davis.” Shocked that she was familiar with the artist, Tynan asked how did you know? She replied, “Because he sounds like a little boy who’s locked out and wants to get in.”

Language, despite its richness and complexity, has its limitations. Of course every author wants to take language further than it has ever been, utilizing it in such a way to capture the most seemingly ineffable qualities of the human condition. Although the effort and innovation is quite impressive, time and again when a person is asked to describe their experiences often the response will be, “I can’t really say. It’s just, well, I don’t know.”

Music on the other hand caters to the way we absorb and process emotion. Rather than having the individual strain to find the language that is inevitably insufficient, music works at binding our fragmented thought-process. We may experience loss, joy or confusion, and instead of remaining idle while the mind deciphers how to best construct a verbal or written response, music guides the most visceral of our feelings into a sense of profound comprehension that would be impossible with words. That’s the beautiful relationship music creates between the artist and the listener, it enables rhythm to act as a sort of telepathy, helping one another probe and come to terms with the most difficult sensations clinging to the mind.

The power and mystery surrounding music’s abilities of communication is explored in director Kasper Collin’s latest documentary I Called Him Morgan.

The story follows legendary jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan who burst onto the bee-bop scene in 1956 when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. When the orchestra disbanded, Lee joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers whom he toured and recorded with all over the world. Despite a descent into heroin addiction, Lee recorded The Sidewinder in 1964, an album whose commercial success, pushing into the top 25 on the LP charts and the top 10 on the R&B, is credited with helping Blue Note Records stave off bankruptcy. Lee would go on to record 25 albums for Blue Note, appearing on such jazz staples as John Coltrane’s Blue Train and The Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’.

Although his popularity was growing so was his dependence on drugs, and by the mid-60’s Lee had pawned his trumpet, coat and shoes. Clubs no longer would hire him, but at the point of utter despair he met a woman named Helen More in 1967, thirteen years his senior and a beloved figure in the New York jazz scene. Helen helped Lee get back on his feet and acted as his manager so that he could focus completely on his music. Though the couple never officially married, Helen took Lee’s surname and was recognized as his common-law wife. Their unlikely love story came to a tragic end in February of 1972 when Helen shot Lee dead in a Lower East Side club ironically named Slug’s Saloon.

What transpired that evening and the events leading up to it have been disputed for decades. Now, thanks in large part to the participation of Lee’s former bandmates as well as the only known recorded interview of Helen, the pieces of this puzzle finally come into focus, revealing not just the intricacies of a relationship, but the lengths one will go to in order to further their art.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Kasper Collin to discuss the origins and production of the film.

MV: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the beginnings of the project? Had you been a fan of Lee’s for some time, or was the discovery of his music and the circumstances surrounding his death something you came across recently?

KC: Well, I had made a film which was set in the same era (My Name is Albert Ayler), but after it was done had no plans to pursue another project in that period or really anything involving jazz. Then about seven years ago I was looking at music clips on YouTube. I’m a big music fan, and specifically jazz has been important to me for about 25 years now. As I browsed around I fell into a clip where Lee is performing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in Tokyo in 1961. In it they’re performing Bobby Timmon’s “Dat Dere,” and it’s an amazing performance from the whole group, but it was Lee’s solo that really knocked me out. I mean, I had never heard a trumpet played like that before. The way he communicated the emotions of the piece was so powerful, and I ended up listening to it on repeat for several days.

Now, I knew of Lee Morgan. I knew he was this wunderkind who signed as a teenager and made a bunch of records, and was killed by a woman at a club. If you’re a music fan you know those basic details. In the past though I was listening to more free jazz experimental stuff, and Lee’s hard bop just wasn’t on my radar. But hearing this solo on YouTube was amazing, and really drew me to him. From there I discovered more wonderful recordings like Search for the New Land. That’s the great thing about music, you think you’ve heard everything but you’re always discovering something new.

From there I launched into the project. As a filmmaker you start seeing what’s available to you. How many people are still around? What is there in terms of archives? Calling around to everyone is quite an endeavor, and as I started connecting with the individuals many spoke about the last four years of Lee’s life which he spent with a woman named Helen. They talked very passionately and lovingly about her. She was the woman who helped him out of a heroin addiction that everyone assumed would kill him. No one else would or could do anything for him, but she did. It was love, and she had the ability to help him, but strangely she was also the one who ended up killing him. That was the story I wasn’t aware of. In many ways it’s like a Greek tragedy. But also there was this double feeling that existed amongst those who knew them. That night they didn’t just lose one friend, but two.

During the research I ended up finding this cassette tape which is of great importance for the film. There was a guy named Larry Reni Thomas who had a blog and was posting excerpts from an interview he did with Helen in 1996. I got in touch with him, and he sent me a CD of the conversation. As I listened it wasn’t just the story she was telling, but how she was telling it and the sound of her voice. It was very fascinating, but I didn’t know if it would work for the film, so quite early on I took the material and edited it down to eleven scenes, which ended up being pretty much the scenes that are featured in the film. I learned from my previous documentary that the editing process is paramount, so I made sure that we built in enough time to edit and ended up doing so for three years. It was amazing to work with three phenomenal editors, and having their perspectives was very important in how the film was able to take shape. It’s a long process, but as the layers pile one on top of the other I think the complexity of the piece comes through.

MV: From jazz fans I’ve spoken to Lee is an icon and a sort of martyr with Helen being viewed, often nameless, as the crazy wife who killed him. What’s wonderful is that you show the intricacy of this relationship, and that Helen was not just some heartless person we don’t need to know anything about.

KC: This film developed as a love letter to both Lee and Helen and the music that brought them together. Of course when I started researching there were a lot of people who idolized Lee and thought Helen was simply the person who took him away. Just a murderer. I still think that’s a popular belief because up until now the perspective of the people who were actually around was unavailable. Yes she killed him which is very wrong, but she also did something that no one else could do. That was a very fascinating aspect, and something that I believe adds a newness to the story of these people.

MV: You had the opportunity to interview such an amazing array of musicians for the film, and I’m wondering how you went about tracking them down and if they were reluctant at all to talk to you about the events?

KC: I think my previous documentary was especially popular amongst musicians and acted as a bit of a door-opener. A lot of people participated without a problem, but then there were some who were more difficult like Wayne Shorter. He’s starting to open up now, but has been known for never talking about this period and has hardly ever spoken of his relationship with Lee. So that took me four years to be invited into his Beverly Hills home, but it was amazing because he talked about Lee so warmly and gave him a lot of love. Having him in the film helped enormously.

MV: Do you feel there are advantages in telling a story through documentary rather than a scripted narrative format? Have you always had an itch to be a storyteller?

KC: Well, I’m interested in feature filmmaking as well. I don’t close any doors, and a lot of it has to do with the subject matter. It’s almost like being a paleontologist. You find this skeleton and you don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out once it’s back together. There’s going to be missing pieces, which is another way of diving in and exploring the story. The unfolding of a story and how you want to present it is crucial. That’s how I approached this film. A lot of it is collecting these fragments of memory and then piecing them together so that you can navigate to a conclusion. You have these stories that do not completely line up, and they’re kind of contradictory in a way because the material you’re building from is inevitably contradictory due to the nature of memory. It’s important for me to keep some of that contradiction in there, and allow the various versions to contribute to the richness of the whole.

MV: And I’m sure visiting the Blue Note archives was like being a kid in a candy store for  you.

KC: Yeah, that was such an amazing part of making this film. I didn’t know how much material existed around Lee, but now I realize he’s probably one of the most photographed Jazz musicians of that era. He certainly was one of the most recorded. I remember I went in 2010 for the first time while I was living in New York. Michael Cuscuna who is in charge of the archive made some copies for me. Maybe like 30. I said yeah, these are great copies, but they’re the familiar ones you can find online and in books. I asked are there more and he said yes, and took me into the archive which is very neatly organized. All the sessions for the musicians they recorded were captured and cataloged alphabetically and by year. I think I spent two or three days there and found around 167 contact sheets from Lee Morgan sessions from 1956 to 1972. Those black and white photographs are such an amazing document. Not only to see the development of this brilliant artist over the years, but to see the small scenes and joys amongst the people in the studio. I had an assistant who made enlarged prints of photos and we spread them out over the living room and me and the editors were literally crawling around on our hands and knees to find the images we wanted. You can see in these photographs that Lee’s spreading joy to all the people around him. It was our objective to show that aspect through the images and music rather than just saying it with voice over.

MV: When you’re deciding on a project, is there a certain element a story needs to possess in order for you to pursue it?

KC: When making films you have a lot of ideas and projects going on, but there are only a few that will move forward. Normally the projects you end up doing are the unexpected ones, or while you’re researching you discover something that leads you in another direction. Both of my documentary projects started with a passion for music. For this film, I started with the music but then as I dove deeper I discovered this relationship story. Like I was saying, really it’s a love letter to both Lee and Helen and the fantastic music that brought them together. I’m hoping the film will turn more people on to Lee’s music because it’s wonderful, and more people should know about it.  Ultimately I want to make a film that I would like to see, and this is definitely one of them.

I Called Him Morgan is now playing in New York.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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