Journalists are often inundated with story pitches and breaking-news cycles, or tracking down their own leads. Then there are times when writers catch lightning in a bottle, interviews or scoops which have lasting impact on their careers and others’ lives. Larry Reni Thomas, a Wilmington native, landed a lead in 1989 after meeting Helen Morgan—common-law wife of jazz trumpeter and composer Lee Morgan. Helen murdered Lee on Feb. 19, 1972, at a jazz club in New York City.
“When she told me she was Lee Morgan’s wife, I asked her for an interview because I knew it would be of historical significance,” Thomas recalls. “I am a historian with an M.A. in history. I was teaching Western civilization at Shaw University CAPE in Wilmington when I met Ms. Morgan. She was one of my students. . . . Nobody knew her side of the story.”
The two-hour interview, recorded at Morgan’s Wilmington home in February 1996, has since been a major resource for Thomas’ work, including an article “The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan” (2007); a short radio documentary, “The Helen Morgan Radio Project” (2007), aired on WCOM-FM, 103.5 FM, Chapel Hill-Carrboro; and a book Thomas penned in 2014, also called “The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan.”
“[The interview] went worldwide,” Thomas continues. “[Then] a filmmaker in Sweden named Kasper Collin read it and contacted me. He wanted a copy; I sent it to him. Later, he used it in a film.”
The 2016 documentary, “I Called Him Morgan” (icalledhimmorgan.com), about the life, times and death of Lee Morgan, uses Thomas’ audio to help narrate the film alongside others interviewed to tell the ill-fated story. The documentary has been shown at major film festivals across the globe, from Venice to Telluride, Toronto to New York, Paris to London. Timed with Black History Month and presented as part of North Carolina Black Film Festival’s monthly film series, “I Called Him Morgan” will screen at Jengo’s Playhouse this Sunday.
“I think this film will resonate with viewers for many reasons: Viewers who have an interest in jazz and American music, people who have an interest in black history, and it will resonate with Wilmington natives and locals because it is a part of the history in this area,” NC Black Film Festival’s Charlon Turner says. “We want to broaden horizons and show films that the community may not be familiar with, but also, show films that create dialogue and engagement. Featuring this film during Black History Month was a great choice because it is a local story that is a part of Wilmington’s Black History.”
Hosted by Speller Street Films and Cucalorus Festival, Thomas, who is featured in the film, will be at the screening for a post-viewing Q&A. He also will have copies of his book, “The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan.”
“[‘I Called Him Morgan’ is] a very important film because it answers a great deal of questions jazz lovers have had for years,” Thomas notes. “Most never knew the full story—her side of the story. It’s a movie that’s been given high praise from folks who are not necessarily fans of the music because it is a tender love story about redemption.”
Like others, Turner didn’t know a lot about Lee Morgan outside of some of his music prior to this film. She certainly was never aware of Helen Morgan’s connection to Wilmington. “I think this is a great film and the director did an incredible job using Larry’s audio recording with Helen Morgan to narrate and craft the story of the film,” she adds.
Thomas describes Helen as “candid” in what was a “very frank interview.” He thinks there may have even been a sense of urgency for her to tell her story before the end of her life. Moreover, after several years of conducting oral histories, Thomas thinks Helen was willing to talk more openly and freely to another person with an African-American perspective.
“I think she said things to me she wouldn’t have said to anybody else,” he clarifies. “She had to tell it to somebody and because she realized I was African-centered, knew the New York scene and had, in her words, ‘been in the world,’ I would understand her point of view.”
Thomas grew up listening to what he refers to as the “most sophisticated music in the world.” He listened to famed artists and composers, such as pianist Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and more before he even knew or appreciated masters of the craft.
“By the way, I don’t call it ‘jazz’ (short for jackass),” he quips. “I call it ‘American classical music.’ My father, Rodderick Harold Thomas, was a mailman who, when he came home from work, would put ‘jazz’ on the record player. . . . We didn’t like the music then (we called it ‘old folks music’), but when I matured, in graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, I learned to appreciate it.”
In fact, Thomas has made a career as an American classical music writer and radio announcer. He started programming music in grad school at a student-operated station, WXYC-FM, in 1978. Thomas has since worked at seven stations, including WHQR-FM (1984-94) in Wilmington. “To me, I am much more than ‘a fan,’” he continues. “I am a gentleman, a scholar and servant of the people.”
While Thomas says most people who know anything about jazz history know about the Morgans, his interview ultimately shed light on a very dark corner that may not have otherwise been explored. Helen Morgan died a month after Thomas interviewed her in March 1996.
“She helped resurrect [Lee Morgan’s] career—one that had been full of drug addiction and hard times,” Thomas details. “He helped her because she had led a life of tough times. They became a couple who would experience good times together. The tragedy was the good times didn’t last and ended in disaster for both of them. He died of a gunshot wound to the heart and she died of a broken heart.”
Larry Reni Thomas is now writing “Carolina Shout: That Wonderful, Soulful Blessing—The Carolina Jazz Connection!” He also is a featured scholar in another well-known documentary film about the infamous 1898 riots, “Wilmington On Fire.”