When she entered the Slugs’ Saloon in the early hours of February 19, 1972, Helen Moore dragged years of resentment behind her. Suspicions of deception, the complex of being older than the loved one, the money spent, the humiliations, too. Her husband, trumpeter Lee Morgan, has been performing every night for a week in the New York club. This is the first time she has come to see him.
When she enters, she sees him on the arm of another woman. The bar is a slender room that she crosses in one go. She crashes in front of him, manages to take him to the counter, where an argument ensues in which all the assistance can easily participate. “You were supposed to not be with her anymore”she exclaims. “I’m not with that bitch, leave me alone”he replies.
Neither one nor two, Helen sends a waltzing slap against her man’s cheek. Just as quickly, she is kicked out of the place by security, without her coat. Outside, it is freezing cold, a snowstorm is raging. Heckled, Helen drops the revolver she had brought. In a fit of anger mixed with composure, she picks it up, turns around and glances upstage, where she can see the musicians coming back up onto the stage. Lee is still at the bar. She points the cannon at his chest and fires. Right in the heart.
A precocious musician
The shot threw a chill in Slugs’ Saloon. Colder than that which reigns outside and which prevents rescuers from making their way in the snowy streets. They delay coming while 33-year-old Lee Morgan bleeds out on the club floor.
Helen fainted, shocked by her own action. She has just killed the love of her life, the one she found on the sidewalk, injured, drugged, a few years earlier, and whom she put back in the saddle until she saw him take flight under the wing of another. Because if this end of life may look like a sadly common act of jealousy, it is not. At the same time as this shot, it is a whole section of the history of New York jazz that resounds.
Lee Morgan is a precocious musician, one of those who are announced without flinching as the next spearheads of jazz. He was born on July 10, 1938 in Philadelphia into a slightly bigoted, frankly music-loving family. He played the piano, then the vibraphone, but fell in love with the trumpet at the age of 13.
He will then become the pupil, the colt of Clifford Brownmaster of the instrument, which pushes him to confront the greatest, until integrating the Jazz Messengers for a week, the time they occur in a few halls in Philadelphia. He signs on the legendary Blue Note labeljoins the group of Dizzy Gillespie then, after the dissolution of this one, leaves to settle in New York. He is barely 20 years old, his career already makes any jazzman pale. He then became a permanent member of the Jazz Messengers, a consecration.
The beginning of the fall
But it is also in contact with the drummer Art Blakey, leader of the formation, that Lee Morgan was introduced to heroin, like so many other jazz musicians of the time. His rapid addiction caused him to be expelled from the group and to have to return to live with his parents for a while.
Drugs don’t suit him. He fails to play in a daze, as others do so well, can’t get up to practice his trumpet. There are two categories of junkies: those who know how to deceive and those who cannot. Question of metabolism, surely. Lee sinks extremely quickly, he who had sprung so quickly into the landscape. Heroin has many harmful consequences. One of them is to damage the mucous membranes terribly, including the inside of the lips.
For two years, Lee Morgan no longer touches his instrument, too absorbed by the satisfaction of his need that has become primary. A rumor circulates: he would have died, would have enlisted in the army… But in 1963, the prodigy is treated. He eventually detoxified, began a return to music and to New York, where he recorded The Sidewinderpublished in 1964.
He then placed several successes for Blue Note, including the superb album Cornbread, recorded in 1965 and released in 1967, but gradually fell back into addiction. Rebelote. In 1967, he was knocked out again, on the street, ruined. This is where Helen Moore comes into play.
Helen Moore, a strong shoulder
For four years, this woman will watch over Lee Morgan. Ten years older than him, she puts him back in the saddle, forces him to drop his addiction, puts a trumpet between his lips and takes him into her home. Their romantic relationship is not really a curiosity: Helen Moore is known in the New York jazz scene, she is friends with many musicians, her apartment being a regular meeting point for parties and jam sessions.
In 1969, although they were not married, the two lovers presented themselves as husband and wife. Lee Morgan is totally dependent on Helen, without the relationship turning into a grip. He has a real need to be supported, accompanied, so that his genius deigns to be reborn and stay alive. Helen Moore, she almost puts her life on hold, until she becomes the manager of her unofficial husband.
In the wonderful documentary I Called Him Morgan, released in 2017 and directed by Kasper Collin, these last years are retraced with precision and poetry. We see Lee Morgan happy, artistically fulfilled, crowned with the success that was due to him since his debut. But with the resurgent notoriety, the temptations are not long in showing up.
An accident avoided before death
Helen Moore feels more and more rejected by her man, by the one she considers her foal. Lee disappears for days and reappears without giving an explanation. Sure, he’s having an affair. It is just after 2 a.m. when Helen decides to brave the cold to go to Slugs’ Saloon on the Lower East Side on February 19, 1972.
A few hours earlier, Lee Morgan had arrived there with his musicians. He had told them how he had almost died in the car, constantly slipping on the snow. He remembered his musical godfather, Clifford Brown, who died in a traffic accident at age 25 in 1956, then played. After interpreting the song “Angela”, in tribute to activist Angela Davis, he had paused and suddenly seen Helen Moore storming into the club. The rest is now known.
Lee stays on the floor until the end, talking lip service to Helen. When the police arrive, they certainly find a body, a dumbfounded assembly, but also a woman in a state of shock, not realizing her gesture. The latter will earn him to spend two years in a prison in North Carolina. In 1996, free and knowing she was dying, she confided to journalist and academic Larry Reni Thomas in a long interview recorded, without detour, then giving material to the documentary I Called Him Morganwhich should not be overlooked.
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Lee Morgan, the jazz prodigy shot dead by his girlfriend
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