The Story of Helen Morgan, if You Didn’t Know Already

I recieved this story in my email box many times from friends of mine and I thought I’d share this piece of debated history with those who didn’t know about the details surrounding Lee Morgan’s death.

The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan

By Larry Reni Thomas

Lee Morgan, the fiery-hot, extremely talented jazz trumpet player, died much too soon. His skyrocketing career was cut short, at age 33, one cold February night in 1972, at a Manhattan club called Slug’s when he was shot to death by his 46-year-old common law wife Helen. At the time, Morgan was experiencing a comeback of sorts. He had been battling a serious heroin addiction for years and by most accounts, was drug free.

His gig at Slug’s was the talk of the jazz world and was a must-see for all of those in the know. There was always a packed house during his engagements at Slug’s. He looked good, sounded great and seemed destined for a fantastic future. Then the unthinkable happened.

How could it be? Why would Helen Morgan, whom almost everyone figured loved Lee more than she loved herself, kill her constant companion? What happened in their decade long relationship that would cause her to do something that devastating to Lee and herself and to Lee Morgan’s legion of fellow musicians, friends and fans who adored him?

The only person who could answer such questions is Helen Morgan (aka Helen More). She was arrested that day, February 9, 1972, served time in prison, released and paroled. She lived in the Bronx, Mount Vernon, and Yonkers, New York, until 1978, when she moved back to her hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina to be near her sick mother who passed in 1980. Helen became heavily involved in the Methodist Church, spent time with her grandchildren, took classes at a local college and received a degree.

No one knew about her past other than her family. She almost never talked about it. Yet, she still had friends in New York, like the late vocalist Etta Jones, whom she would telephone frequently to talk about old times. But almost no one, especially in the jazz scene, knew where she was, or for that matter, cared. Most of them expressed disdain for her, some were quick to call her a cold-blooded murderer.

But how cold-blooded was she? How did she feel about the tragic event? What was her life all about? What caused her to commit a crime that she had to live with most of her life? How did a country girl from rural North Carolina end up in the fast lane?

She talked about her life with Lee Morgan in a rare and exclusive interview in February 1996, about a month before she passed away of heart problems in a Wilmington, North Carolina hospital. Her health had been in decline for years, and she explained that she wanted to do her one and only interview because she wanted to tell her side of the story. She was tired, she said, and knew she didn’t have long to live.

Helen Morgan was born in 1926 in Brunswick County, North Carolina on a farm near a town called Shallotte, about 50 miles across the Cape Fear River, from the coastal city of Wilmington. By the time she was 13, the shapely, attractive, talkative, bronze-colored skin, girl had her first child. A year later, she had another child. Both of her children were raised by her grandparents. She left them and moved to Wilmington at age 15 to live with her mother. She said, at that point, she became “disillusioned with men” and was a virgin for a period after moving to Wilmington. When she was 17-years-old, she started dating a local bootlegger who was 39-years-old.

One night she accidentally walked in on him while he was counting money. “It was the most money that I had ever seen in my life,” she said, smiling. “He took a liking to me, and I took a liking to the money.”

A few months later, they were married. Two years later, her husband drowned and she became a 19-year-old widow. Her late spouse was a New Yorker. When his relatives came down to take care of the funeral, they took her back to New York, when they finished with their business. She arrived in New York, in 1945, with the intention of staying two weeks.

“I found out I couldn’t live with his family. They were living downtown in the 50s, on 52nd Street between 9th and 10th. I learned my way around and got a job. And then I began to meet other people, and started going uptown to the clubs. First club was the Blue Rhythm up on 145th Street on Sugar Hill. Little three-piece band–the drummer, singer and organ player. Della, I can’t think of her last name. Let’s see, Etta Jones.

I began to meet all these people. You know I could always fit in. Because I was a talker. And I must say myself, I was not bad looking, and I used to fit in very nicely with them. And I would be invited to the afterhours joints. But after the clubs would close, that’s when you really heard the music. The jam sessions, you know. They would come uptown and really play.

“But, you know, it’s funny,” she continued, “I met most of the jazz musicians through people who weren’t in the jazz world, but was in the dope world. Now, see me–I was a “hip square.’ That’s what they called me. Yeah. You see. I didn’t use no heroin. Because that was the thing. They called it “horse’. You know. I knew the people. The people I met were the dope dealers. I would carry it for them because they knew I didn’t use it. I met the dope dealers by going to the afterhours spots.”

It was at the afterhours spots that she got the chance to meet and listen to the conversations of some of the jazz musicians. She heard them talk about their lives and their frustrations. Helen was convinced that they used drugs to forget about how the white club owners were using them, especially the ones who made them enter through the back door and the ones who would not allow blacks in the audience. She saw how that affected them and how when they were high off of heroin, situated in the safety of the afterhours spots they voiced their displeasures and problems in a way that they would never do to the outside world.

Helen said that she thought they carried on very “sensible” talks about world affairs and what was happening to blacks at that time. She was impressed with their intellectualism, yet saddened at the same time, because she was convinced that they were all “hurting inside.” She said that she felt sorry for them because on stage and in public they were putting on a front or an act that everything was fine when it was obvious that this was not the case.

Helen explained that the musicians talked about how the whites were stealing their music, paying them next to nothing and how the whites were bringing all the heroin to Harlem. It was a sad situation that was an illusion to people on the outside who didn’t know any better.

Ms. Morgan, however, saw right through it. “It was like you (the musicians) were living this life. But you really not, you know. You’re just going through the motions. You singing. and the only time you are really yourself is when you are playing, singing and then you forget about everything. You go and play. It would be such mournful sounds. You could hear the sorrow in the music. If you listen hard enough you can hear it.”

Helen gained great respect for the musicians after her visits to the after hour spots. So much so that she invited them all to her apartment, on 53rd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, not too far from Birdland. “Helen’s place,” she said, “became a location where they could get a good hot meal.” She did not allow any drug use. It was a refuge and a safe haven from the hardships of a jazz musician’s life. It was there in her midtown Manhattan apartment, during the early 1960s, where she met the very young Lee Morgan.

“I met Morgan through Benny Green, the trombone player, who I was messing with at that time. Benny brought him around there. And I met him and we talked. And I looked at him and for some kind of reason my heart just went out to him. I said to myself “this little boy, you know.”

And I looked at him and he didn’t have a coat. I asked him why didn’t he have a coat. He just had a jacket. I said, “child, it’s zero degrees out there and all you have on is a jacket. Where is your coat?” And he told me he didn’t have a coat “cause it was in the pawn shop.” He had pawned his coat for some drugs. I told him, “Well, come on, I am going to go get your coat!” He said, “You’re going to get my coat?”

And I said, “Yeah, and I’m not going to give you the money! Because you might spend it on drugs. We are going to go and get it!'”

She said it was too cold for anybody to be outside without a coat. When she asked Lee where was his trumpet (“his axe”) he told her it was in the pawn shop too. Helen asked him how was he going to work if he didn’t have an instrument.

“How is a carpenter going work without tools?” she asked him and every other jazz musician she saw in that sad shape. But because she said she felt sorry for Lee Morgan, Helen went and got his trumpet and coat out of the pawn shop. After that, she said, Lee Morgan “hung on to me.”

Lee moved in with her and she “took over total control of Morgan.” She fed him, nursed and pampered him, and started to get his show business career back in order. Helen began to try to book him gigs again. She found out that he really wasn’t working a great deal because most people knew about his chronic no-shows and his drug habit. He was not working much except for the Jazzmobile on some summer Saturdays, Blue Note studio recording sessions and other assorted functions.

She recalled the time when a well known jazz musician passed and he was asked to play at the funeral. Lee told her that he could not do it because he did not have any shoes. All he had was bedroom slippers. They laughed when he told her that one of his fellow musicians told him, “Damn, Morgan, all God’s children got shoes!”

It’s not that he couldn’t get a gig. Everybody wanted to hire him. They were just worried that he might not show up. Helen became a stabilizing force for Lee, according to her, but she couldn’t completely stop him from using drugs. When Lee moved in, he brought a non-musician friend, Gary, with him. She called Gary a “parasite.” Ms. Morgan claimed he could not stand her and that he did everything to “make something come between me and Morgan.”

She found out that keeping hustlers, hanger-ons, fans, dead-beats and junkies away from Lee Morgan would be something that she would have to deal with for the rest of their lives. She eventually left the apartment and moved into another place. It was around then that her phone calls and her persistence began to pay off. Lee started getting a band together and getting ready to work again. Helen said that most of the club owners said they couldn’t depend on him. Some of them had been burned in the past when Lee Morgan was advertised all week to come to their establishment and he didn’t show up.

“If he did not have money to get high with then he did not even show up,” she said. “Ain’t nothing else was on his mind but getting high. Getting high made him normal. He told me that once. He said that Art Blakey was the one who turned him on. Art turned a lot of them on. Lee told me he asked Art how long would the high last? He said Art told him–forever! I am not saying that Art made them use it. I’m just saying that he was the influence. It’s making you feel so good. You know. I never thought much of Art because he turned so many of them on to heroin. All of them (the jazz musicians) were on it.

They were raggedy and pitiful. Real pitiful! Pitiful! Oh! But they came to my house and they were made welcome. Unless they were really doggish. I would let them in because they were people and one thing they were a mystery to me because I could never figure out how anything could make you in the dead winter time, zero weather, take off your coat and sell it. One time Gary and I was talking and he asked me why hadn’t I ever tried heroin.”

He said “Well, you missed the essence.”

I said “No Honey, I ain’t miss no essence. Looking at you’all I see the essence. Looking at you’all is a enough essence for me to not to want it! And looked at me and said ‘I guess you right. I guess you right.'”

According to Helen, Lee was a full-fledged junkie at that time, during the early 1960s, he had had his teeth knocked out and had broken some braces that had been in his mouth for years. She told him to clean up so she could try to get him some gigs. She convinced him that he could play again if he quit using so much heroin. Lee Morgan turned himself in to a hospital in the Bronx to beat his heroin habit. That meant that there was no more Gary. She never saw Gary again.

Ms. Morgan found a new apartment in the in the Bronx where Lee moved in to when he came out of drug rehabilitation. It was there in their apartment in the Bronx that she was able to help Lee Morgan get back on his feet. Helen was able to convince most of the club owners that she would personally make sure that Lee would make his engagements. She was extremely proud that she had, in her words, brought him back from near death.

“I’ll never forget,” she said, “the DJ for the black program was Ed Williams and Ed Williams was in my corner. He did the eulogy for Morgan. And people told me that he mentioned me. He said, “Regardless to what happened, we can not leave Helen out of this.”

He said, “Because Morgan was dead to us before she came on the scene. And she brought him back to us 5, 6, 7, 8 years, you know. She brought him back alive to us.”

Mrs. Morgan got him to start dressing neatly again and cleaning himself up. Whenever they would go out or go on the road, she went with him. Lee liked to wear a shirt and a tie and keep his shoes shined, So she made sure all of that was done before he went out for a gig. Helen would iron his shirts for him because she said that he didn’t like what they did to them at the laundry. They were seen together a great deal and were often out at other jazz and social events. It was backstage after one of those affairs that she first met the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, who was an old friend of Lee’s. Helen said he was a “nasty.”

“When I met him,” she recalled, “he said, ‘Hello.'” I said, ‘Hello.’ And he said, “and who are you supposed to be?’ I said, ‘I’m suppose to be…I am ..I am not supposed to be…I am Helen Morgan!”

“Oh you Lee Morgan’s woman, huh?”

And I said, “yes!”

And he said, “I guess you know who I am?’ I said, I don’t have to know who you are! And he laughed, you know. He say, “I see you got a quick mouth.’ And the words he said was like this, “I don’t mess around with bitches with big mouths.’ That was one of his favorite words. And I said, well I don’t consider myself that. But, you know, we ain’t got nothing to say to each other anyway because I don’t play the trumpet, so I sure can’t talk about no music with you, you know.”

Lee Morgan’s first band, according to Helen, after he got out of rehab, was a very young and highly impressive quintet, one that was exciting live and at the forefront, on the cutting edge of the post-bop, funky soul jazz scene of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. It was known as an adventurous group that went out sometimes and took a few avant garde excursions, but always stayed in that soulful, funky, swinging pocket. His working band consisted of Lee on trumpet, Harold Mabern on piano, Jyme Merritt on bass, and Billy Higgins, drums. The substitutes, whenever there were adjustments to be made, were Cedar Walton, piano and Herbie Lewis on bass.

There was also a young reedman named Frank Mitchell, who Mrs. Morgan said they found in the Hudson River. She was sure that somebody killed him but she didn’t say why she thought that way. Frank wrote the tune “Expoobient” from the hit album of the same name. Helen managed Lee’s band business and kept them touring on a regular basis to places like California for a month, with two weeks in Los Angeles at Redondo Beach and two weeks in San Francisco.

The band was also booked in Chicago for two weeks and Detroit for two weeks, on their way back to the East Coast where she had work arranged at most of the major clubs in New York and other cities. She also set up an engagement on the Caribbean island of Antigua that went very well. From roughly 1965 to 1970, Helen was Lee’s true and trusted confidant, manager, and spokesperson. If anyone called their apartment and asked him about work, he handed the phone to her. She did the negotiating with the employers, the arranging of airline flights and transportation needs and Mrs. Morgan was the one who made sure they had hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, Lee concentrated on practicing with his band and recording. He let her handle the business end. No doubt he loved and respected her, so much so, he wrote a composition called “Helen’s Ritual,” which was inspired by Lee watching her take hours getting ready to go out and rubbing generous portions of lotion on her legs and the rest of her body in the process. She was not only the band’s manager, she was their cook, coach, cheerleader and probably their best critic.

Her favorite phrase when the band was really playing well was “Go head Morgan! Go head Morgan!” She said Lee would laugh and the people, including the band members would laugh at her, too. Helen didn’t care. She kept on saying “Go head Morgan! Go head Morgan!” because it made the band members feel good to know someone was listening and, most importantly because it made her feel good. There was one summer engagement in Rhode Island at the ritzy Newport Jazz festival when the music didn’t feel so fine.

“We was at Newport. And they were drinking. All this drinking. I said, you’all ain’t doing nothing out there. All you sound like little children up there. And I…..And they used to say if I didn’t say nothing they knew they wasn’t doing nothing. And I was just sitting right there looking at them. I said, all you’all sound like little children up there. And then Miles told them and Morgan said, “Yeah, that’s what my wife just told me–that I sound like a little child and that we sound like little children.” Miles said, “Well, she told you right!'”

The good years for the Morgans were when Lee was working and on methadone. Helen was meeting and greeting people who were mostly high-profile, show business personalities who she and Lee would sometimes entertained at their Bronx apartment. They both enjoyed a good party. It was at one of their early morning after-the-set parties that she met an interesting guest. She met the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, a tall, crew-cut, white boy sitting on a pillow in her living room amid a sea of black faces.

Given the time and the place, the late 1960s, during the latter stages of the non-violent civil rights movement and the start of the violent end of the movement, Mulligan was more than a bold white boy. He was out of his mind and out of his place. Especially to Helen Morgan, a fast-talking, former farm girl from North Carolina who was definitely at that time, when she and Lee were doing well, living large and in a very fast lane.

“I’ll never forget I had a party and Gerry Mulligan came to my house. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know nothing about no Gerry Mulligan, you know. And he was sitting out there….And I seen this white boy sitting out there in the corner. And you know, we have a habit, you know how we say, ‘Nigger!’ You know how we call each other Nigger, you know. (Laughs) In a minute, you know. And think nothing about it “cause it was love with us! So I didn’t even know when he came in there. But somebody said something and I said, Nigger is you crazy? And I turned around and looked in this white guy’s face. And I cut me off. And I said, “Well, I done said it now. I said, Well, who are you? And somebody said, “That’s Gerry Mulligan.’ And I said, So! (Laughs). And then Morgan came over there and said,”

This is my wife Helen.’ I was not one of nicest persons either. I will not sit here and tell you that I was so nice because I was not. I was one who will cut you. I was sharp. I had to be. I had to be sharp. And Gerry Mulligan sat over there and I said well make yourself at home, you know. And he sat over there because in my front room I didn’t have no chairs. You sat on pillows and things like that. And he sat and had food. I always had plenty food. You served yourself because I partied too. I was no waiting on nobody. I cooked the food, you know. But it wasn’t no waiting on nobody.” “One time, a trick I pulled,” she continued. “I got some snuff (Laughs) and it was some kind of snuff. And I had this party. (Laughs) and I told them that it was Nigerian coke. They lied and said that they were high.

And it would burn them. I said, hold your head back. Aw, they would jump on it. And it was brown–Nigerian coke. Nigerian coke. And I laughed. Me and my friend did this. And I’d catch them. And they’d never been– because some people had never been in my house before and they had been coming… I remember seeing two of the people. I didn’t even remember them. They remembered me and how much of a good time they had at my house and had I gotten anymore of that coke? And I said, what coke? coke? They said, “that Nigerian coke, you had.’ I said, Oh no. (Laughs). I say, now you see how people’s minds. They weren’t high. You know. We had wine. They was high off the wine and smoking reefer.

And we had some coke before, but I wasn’t giving them all my coke and they didn’t have any.” Helen laughed when she talked about the happy times when Morgan was making a little money. He made money from the hit LP Sidewinder, but she insisted that he wasted it all on drugs. Mrs. Morgan contended that during that period (roughly 1965 to 1970), Lee was shooting “tremendous” amounts of cocaine. He had taken the usual path of some former heroin addicts, who when placed on methadone, shot cocaine instead because they figured it wouldn’t hurt since the white powder was not heroin.

Most of the time it turned out to be like jumping from a boiling pot to a frying pan or exchanging one bad habit for another. In the case of Lee Morgan, it turned out to be, according to her, exactly that and much, much more. He started to run the streets a great deal and sometimes he wouldn’t come back to their Bronx apartment for days. She began to wonder if their wonderful, fun-filled fast times were about to end. It was around that time that Helen began to ask herself : “Did I love him (Lee)? Or did I think he was my possession? And I think part of that might have been my fault because I might have stopped being..I might have started being too possessive or too much like a mother to him.

I was much older than Morgan because he was in his thirties when he died and I was in my forties or late forties. I thought about it because it was like to me, I thought about it. Like I made him. You know. I brought you back. You belong to me. And you are not supposed to go out there and do this. He started seeing this girl and as I understand it now. See I was on him about using so much cocaine. She was using cocaine with him. She was shooting cocaine with him. And you know how long that is. That’s pop, pop, pop! with that because it ain’t going to last you but a hot minute snorting it and less than that when you shoot it.

So I knew that because he’d be there with me when he’d get it. And I said, You using, you shooting, you using too much cocaine, you know. You using too much. You not eating, you know. And your nerves, you using. And I guess I was beginning to sound like a mother. And this girl, she had been after him for a long time. But when he was out there strung out she wasn’t. But once he got himself straight she wanted him. And then they were hanging out, you know. He had somebody (his age) to play with.

I saw her hanging around and I’d go to the bathroom and they would be there, you know. And I said, You better be careful, girl, you know. And I told her, You better be careful, you know.” Shortly afterwards, Helen stopped going to the clubs to see Morgan perform. She was still handling his business and they were still living together.

They were still going out together in public and when he was invited to be on several TV specials she accompanied him, not his new girlfriend. This situation perplexed Mrs. Morgan so much that she tried to commit suicide by swallowing poison. Lee was home the evening it happened. He called a cab and took her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. Once she completely recovered from that ordeal, she sat down to have a heart-to-heart talk with Lee about their shaky future. “The thing we need to do is separate,” she told him. “You go ahead and be with her and I’ll still do your business.

But what you are doing is not right. I’m not one of those woman that can talk about I’m the main woman and you got somebody else out there. I’m not built that way. That’s not me. I’m no main woman if you leaving me here every night by myself and you out there with somebody else!” Mrs. Morgan said she asked Lee to leave and he wouldn’t. He was not secure enough to go and live with his new girlfriend, Helen contended, because he had sense enough to know that what he was doing with her would do nothing but bring him down. She was convinced that she brought him his much sought after stability. She told him that if he wouldn’t go then she would and that she was going to Chicago to visit some old friends.

Helen also informed Lee that she didn’t know when she was coming back and that maybe when she came back he would “have his act together.” “I even sat down and talked to the girl at the club,” she explained. “I said, I don’t want you to think that..I don’t know what he is telling you. But you sitting here and I’m telling him to go with you. I’m not keeping him. Begging him to stay. I’m telling him that it’s best for everybody around because I feel like something bad is going to happen out of this. And that Sunday he begged me not to go. He said, “Helen, don’t go. Don’t go to Chicago. I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to leave me.

I said, we can’t live like this. It’s not me. And I didn’t go to Chicago. And I told him, you know, Morgan, I’m making the biggest mistake of my life.” That turned out to be a profound and a prophetic statement because it would lead to her making an uncharacteristically dumb move for a lady who had been doing the right things up until that point. She continued to stay at home and Lee even came home a night or two after their discussion. But that didn’t last long. Before the weekend, he was back in the streets, hanging out with his friend and shooting cocaine until the wee hours of the morning. He was working at Slug’s, a downtown club she had booked him in all week that second week in February 1972.

She had promised the club owner, like she had done many times in the past, that he would be there and Lee was there, with his quintet. sounding good and making the news as the act to catch, oblivious to what was about transpire, unaware that this much-heralded, routine gig at Slug’s would be his last. “On that Saturday, I don’t know what possessed me. I said, I’m going to Slug’s.

He was working down there that whole week. I hadn’t been down there that whole week. And I had a gun. He was the one who bought me the gun because he said he don’t be home and he wanted me to protect myself. And I put the gun in my bag. And a fellow was staying with me named Ed, Ed was gay. And Ed knew all the musicians and everything you know. And I said, Ed come on and go with me and Ed said no. He said, “Don’t go, Don’t go down there.’ I said, no I’m going down there. He said, “I just don’t want you to go!’ I said, I’m going to stop in Slug’s and say hello and then I’m going over to the Vanguard and hear Freddie.

I got a cab and went down there and went in Slug’s. And Morgan came around there where I was and we was talking and the girl walked up and she said, ” I thought you wasn’t supposed to be with her anymore.’ And he said, “I’m not with this bitch, I’m just telling her to leave me alone.’ And about that time I hit him. And when I hit him I didn’t have on my coat or nothing but I had my bag. He threw me out the club. Wintertime. “And the gun fell out the bag,” she continued. “And I looked at it. I got up. I went to the door.
I guess he had told the bouncer that I couldn’t come back in. The bouncer said to me, “Miss Morgan I hate to tell you this but Lee don’t want me to let you in.’ And I said, Oh, I’m coming in! I guess the bouncer saw the gun because I had the gun in my hand. He said, “Yes you are.’ And I saw Morgan rushing over there to me and all I saw in his eyes was rage.” It was at that point that Mrs. Morgan shot Lee and her whole world changed the moment that shot went off. She said she became extremely panicky and threw the gun on the counter on the bar. Pure pandemonium broke out and the bar’s occupants fled.

The police and an ambulance arrived on the scene. Helen sat there in the middle of all this in a complete daze, wondering if this was a dream, or was it a nightmare? “I ran over there and said I was sorry. And he said to me, he said, “Helen, I know you didn’t mean to do this. I’m sorry too.'” “I can remember the cops throwing me out. I went into hysterics and I don’t know. It seem to me like everybody must have left. And I don’t know where the girl went.

I ain’t never seen that girl since. I think she thought she was next. But she never entered my mind. You know, it’s a funny thing, she didn’t enter my mind. When that gun went off it snapped me back to reality to what I had done. I didn’t have a coat. I didn’t have a bag. I didn’t have nothing. I was just sitting there, you know. Seemed like it hadn’t registered. I said, I couldn’t have did this. I couldn’t have did this. This must be a dream and I’ll wake up. I couldn’t be sitting here. And then I just went to jail and sat there. “And the next morning I had to go to court. My kids was upset. They don’t know what to think. But the musicians were there. They were there. Everybody kept saying, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. We behind you. Don’t worry. We’ll get you a lawyer. Don’t worry.’

I was just going back. Worry about what? And the lawyer told me do not plead guilty. Plead not guilty. I didn’t understand that, I said, “Well I killed him. I’m guilty, you know.”

So I did what he said–not guilty. And then I went on back. And when they had the hearing, my mother came up. Then that was another…She was in trauma because she couldn’t believe it. This is my daughter!

I said, “well, Helen, you got to get yourself together. It’s done. You done put yourself in it now. So, you got to get yourself together. You got to get your mind together. You got to get yourself together mentally to accept what you have done.”

Helen said she spent several weeks on Riker’s Island in jail before she realized no one was going to help her except herself. She fired her lawyer after he paid her only one visit and failed to say anything to her after their initial meeting. Her supporters had dwindled down to family members and close friends who stuck with her in and out of prison.

It wasn’t until she had been out of New York for almost 20 years, in failing health, back down south in North Carolina near where her life began, that she decided to grant an interview and talk about the sad, tragic event that had shaped her fall from being “Lee Morgan’s woman,” a possessive lady in the fast lane, to the devoted, loving, church-going mother and grandmother known as Ms. Morgan. Less than a month after she gave this interview in February 1996, Helen’s song came to its coda, its final note, when her weak heart gave out and she died at a hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina, surrounded by her loved ones.

44 Responses to “The Story of Helen Morgan, if You Didn’t Know Already”

  1. Interesting story, but to think a murderer only doing a few years? If Lee would have shot her, he may still be in jail.

  2. Heard an interview with her on WPFW .

  3. George Wolfe Says:

    This is a movie……start with the murder and then have her narate from the beginning…what a life!

  4. Michael Childress Says:

    this is all sad, because people who haven’t listened to lee will only see the drug usage. lee was one of the greatest players to ever live and he had it at 18! while he didn’t have freddie’s technique, he had a unique feel and expression. he could play inside and didn’t need to go outside! i used to watch him at slug’s, 242 e. third, in the heart of the east village; here my memory had failed me because i remembered e. frazier (not third) from the jazz calender. i never went there on saturdays, because that’s when the talkers came, but i was in there that week. i knew helen by sight because he had celebrated her birthday during one of his gigs. also, lee respected harold maburn and you could tell by the way he talked to him. they played a song written for one of the players’ (?harold mabern) son who had been killed by a car and i don’t think it was ever recorded. once he told harold that he had been practicing and asked could he tell. he hated sidewinder and fortunately, didn’t play it all the time. lee was like fats, kenny, clifford and booker: cats that died too young and left freddie and miles with the “cross.” there is a list of his appearances on line and this is an incredible effort, but shows the love that many have for this genius.

    • I was truly moved by Helen Morgan’s life story before, during and after her oftentimes sad autobiographical account and the events leading up to the death of Jazz Trumpeter Lee Morgan. Hers was truly crime of passion!!! However, I must state, for the record, I will never condone her crime. Although I am still a fan of this very talented musician, I realize that Lee and many of his contemporaries had serious drug problems, such as Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and Miles Davis, to name a few. I also recall a cold, snowy New Year’s Day, in 1969, a few months after my son was born, I was invited to a concert in Brooklyn, by my then husband. The venue was The Bellrose Ballroom, on Bedford & Rogers Avenues. Both Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard performed with their respective bands! The Music was Awesome and there was dancing and champagne cocktails were served. We were there for the Love of the Music…Jazz!!!

      I also remember visiting several of those Greenwich Village Jazz spots in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Slug’s was one of my favorites. We enjoyed the beautiful piano stylings of a ‘young’ McCoy Tyner, embarking on his solo career, The Late Greats Stanley Turrentine and Shirley Scott, Yusef Lateef, Julian ‘Cannonball Adderly and Nat Adderley, Dexter Gordon, among others. It was during those lean years, we would scrape together a few dollars and head down to the Village to hear our favorite players! I’m very proud to state that I had the distinct pleasure of seeing so many of my Jazz ‘Idols’, if-you-will perform “Live” at those clubs; many of which are now closed.

      In closing I’d like to say that I was always impressed by the amazing talented musicians, who played so brilliantly, many of whom never received the pay, nor the credit that they so richly deserved!!

      • Thanks for sharing your experiences!! It would have been amazing to hear Lee and Freddie’s bands perform on the same night! What a treat!

  5. wilbert perro Says:

    What a Beautiful Woman! Just proves that, even people with Beautiful Souls can get caught up,Bravo to you Ms.Helen.nice to see that even in his final moments,Lee was able to put your mine at ease.what a life story!

  6. Thank you for this story. I can almost remember the call I got from my dear friend (also now gone) like yesterday. And as I type these words I’m realizing it’s February 15th,2013,41 years ago. I’m from Philly. I’d see him at the Blue Note on 52nd Street. Loved to hear and watch him. He’d call me by name say “hey mike”, I’d say “what’s up lee”. I discovered Billy Harper with him. Lee I remembered, with somewhat of a laugh would introduce Billy and say ” this is my new saxophone player “, and with Jimmie Merrit and Harold Mabern, they’d burn the damn stage up ! There is always two sides to every story. It doesn’t mitigate the tragedy of it all. I went to the funeral. Rest in Peace Lee. Rest in Peace and may God spare us all from our ignorant ways. Blessings to all who read these words.

  7. Richard Morgan Says:

    I want to thank whoever posted this article and thanks to my cousin for sharing the link with me. My name is Richard Morgan and I am Lee Morgan’s cousin. I grew up not knowing my dad’s side of the family and last year I had the pleasure of meeting The Morgan family and that’s when I first heard of my cousin Lee. I love music and love jazz and I have not stopped trying to find and listen to every project that Lee has played on. So, to read this story is bitter sweet, bitter to know his life in drugs and being murdered but sweet to know how good of a musician he once was.

  8. I’ve been a Lee fan for 40 years and have looked for answers to the question,”Why did this tragedy occur?” I haven’t been able to find any articles in archives about the trial and subsequent events in Helen’s life. Anyone know what happened next? Hope no one makes a movie about this. It won’t be possible to capture the passion of Lee’s playing and the pain Helen must have felt at being rejected.

    • Michael Childress Says:

      saxophonist fred foss might know something further. i don’t remember a trial; he told me helen did not serve any time. fred is a great guy so he will probably reply to ur inquiry.

  9. Marty Molloy Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Lee has been been a major influence in my trumpet playing carreer, along with Clifford, Woody, Freddy, Dizzy and Miles. RIP, Helen and Lee.

  10. Ra Harrison Says:

    helen morgan was my grandmother.

  11. I had the good fortune 2 meet bro. Lee in slugs 1 afternoon.he was super hip,gracious,and cool than a quesadilla.over wine we rapped and kicked it.4 a minor.he wasn’t playing ,just hang ing.I was bout 20 yrs time I see him in my hometown chicago playing at Roberts show lounge on king Dr.intermission he come thru the lobby and say ,how u like the set.l say I ain’t been in ends ain’t right. He tell no legal,put my man up front with a drank .then he burnt the joint up.dude was on fire.following February bad news

  12. Harold Welton Says:

    I won an album(LP) in March of 1971 at the Lighthouse -Hermosa Beach California,(CHARISMA)…I have the autograph’s of the band that night,Lee Morgan(he said right-on),Jimmie Merritt,Julian Preister,Harold Mabern,MIckey Roker…Of all things Helen Morgan’s also…(She said “Lots of Love”) SMH RIGHT-ON!

  13. This is correction-I said kicked it for minute – then it was supposed ubiquitous to say cooler than a mother not a quesadilla-and finally it should have said Joe decal who operated the jazz showcase in chicago.

  14. I’m surprised she didn’t mention her Buddhist period. I was a young musician in NYC then and connected with her through members of my band, one of which managed to work his way into her bed at age 19!
    … …
    She then credited her Buddhist practice with getting her through that situation – though I don’t think a black female is going to do much time for killing a black, drug addicted, jazz musician ANYWAY!
    … …
    But she DEFINITELY had friends at that time, I saw them and knew them. They were the ones that introduced her (and me) to Buddhism.
    … …
    She was a VERY nice but totally FREAKY lady!

  15. I have always loved Lee Morgan. He has always and still is my favorite trumpet player. God only knows how bad I wish I could have played half as well. Lee was a once in a life time talent. RIP Lee. There will never be another. MACK

  16. I went to a show at Howard U Cramton Aud. that night, expecting to see Lee Morgan. Obviously, he wasn’t there, someone else played. They got up on the stage and announced that he’d been killed in NYC. There was a stunned silence. No one knew how to react.

  17. Lee Morgan is my uncle. Never had a chance to meet him of course I’m only 23 but my father and Grandmom his sister told me a lot about him and his music growing up.. I never heard the other side. It makes since now to me.. But she differently should of got more time than that.

  18. Samuel Harps Says:

    After much research, and speaking with many musicians who knew Lee and Helen, and a few patrons who were present at Slugs on the night of Lee’s death, I wrote a play (fictional) titled; Don’t Explain, written in memory of Lee Morgan, which was staged at the famed Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, and directed by Rome Neal. The Cafe where Don’t Explain was first staged was (ironically) located 2 doors from the original club Slugs. My story centered mostly on Lee, because Helen was “unavailable” at the time. Most of the people I spoke to talked of her “mothering” of Lee. Most felt it was a bit much. But most agreed that she was a big influence in getting him “cleaned up.” When I spoke with Lee’s brother, Jimmy, he didn’t know much about Helen…other than “she killed my brother…she killed the music…” My story focused on the love between Lee and Helen, and the music that this genius of the Be-Bop era created in his short life. In the final scene of Don’t Explain, thanks to the eyewitness account of those in the club on that cold February night, I attempted to come as close to possible of what actually transpired. As I sit here now, writing this…I am shedding tears. Something that happened often throughout the writing of the play, and whenever I hear the tune “In Search of a New Land” (by Lee) God Bless them both.

    • This was a love story of Shakespearean proportions. But the key , it seems to me, is to transmit the power of Lee’s music . With all it’s fire,humor and heart. Would love see or read your play some day. Do you think it could ever be a film?

    • According to the biography by Jeffery McMillan ( Delightfulee University of Michigan Press) Lee was married once before to a Kiko Yamamoto who he met in Chicago. This was several years before Helen and this marriage fell apart due to his addiction.

  19. stilljohnny Says:

    Well, this story contains a powerful message! I’m an addictions counselor and plan to use this to demonstrated how the arms of addiction wrap around friends and family. Excellent bio-psych-social material for codependency as well.

  20. One of the greats, taken away at way too young of age. Not sure how accurate her account is, or just how self-serving.

    • I am not sure I see this story in the magical way the writer perceived her. It was nice of her to get Morgan on the right path. However, this woman was out there like a groupie. She had two babies when she was still a child, allowed to leave them for someone else to rear and run around NYC. She started a relationship with Morgan, her boyfriend’s friend. Interesting. Very self-serving. She became part of the jazz world’s inner circle. What did she get it of that really? What did she do in her own life? She met some people who became renowned musicians. So, that makes her story interesting.

  21. What was Lee Morgan girlfriend name ? The girl that left out of the club, the night that Lee Morgan was shot.

  22. A Fantastic Musician. Truly one of Jazz music’s all time greats.
    I could not begin to count how many hours I’ve spent listening to Lee Morgan.
    Thanks to the digital age his music can be found everywhere now.

  23. I remember hearing The Last Sessions somewhere in 1994. I was at a friends place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where i still live He was a local rap producer hunting for samples for bis beats. And i, i was just a lover of Black music who got acquainted with jazz through spike lee his movie Mo’ Better Blues.

    I was heavily into John Coltrane,Charlie Mingus, manu dibango and branford Marsalis. You can imagine i was puzzled when i heard The last sessions and forgot to ask the artist his name. Did not realize that there could be any musician who approached the genius of John Coltrane.

    My friend the rap producer got into a psychose. He never became who he used to be. I could not ask the name of the artist and had no acces to his record collection. It took me around 15 years before i found the album. By, coincidence.

    After finding the album, i bought lee morgan his other albums just because of his greatness.

    For many years i wanted to know the true cause of his murder. I think i found it: A sad love story about helen and lee it is. Every story does have two sides. But i think helen her story will be the same story Lee might tell us if we ever meet him and talk to him. In the meantime i hope these two souls have found each other whereever they are. I’ll keep enjoying lee his music. Especially croquet ballet and mr. Kenyatta.

  24. We owe helen a debt of gratitude, and of course, forgiveness. None of us fully comprehends the powers of family, history and psyche. All of these are at play in this story. Oedipal tales never end well.

  25. the music of those young lions will be with us into perpetuity. if this present generation wants a history lesson in where the music came from, do your due diligence, all these cats were ahead of their time, yet held back by their own pecadilloes, there will never be another like Lee, or, Miles, Clifford, or, Freddie.

  26. Linda bradshaw Says:

    An amazing story! Someone should make a movie about it! I ❤️🎼 Jazz!’

  27. Reblogged this on Curt's Jazz Cafe and commented:
    For those who have seen and loved “I Called Him Morgan”, here is an extended take on the Helen Morgan interview that serves as the film’s centerpiece. Thank you Larry Reni Thomas and Jason Palmer.

  28. I’ve just finished watching the documentary ” I Called Him Morgan” on Netflix. What an interesting love affair these two had. This article goes a bit more into detail about her character than the documentary did. I’m not sure what to think about her, because most accounts seem to play it safe, respectively. I guess his demise boils down to jealousy and a forced bend in the road that one or the other would eventually have to take. Had he lived and she actually left to Chicago, I’m sure street life would’ve taken complete control over him again.

  29. […] hit “The Sidewinder” that kicked off the boogaloo craze in 60’s soul-jazz and his cocaine use late in his life. But for the most part, those things were already widely known. Instead, Collin […]

  30. Been listening to Lee Morgan since I was a teenager. I am 64 years old & had never researched the cause of his death. The commonlaw wife shot & killed him out of jealousy. What a waste. Brilliant trumpet player but lost in the life of dope!!!!

  31. Johnny Elmore Says:

    Very interesting and informative. I watched “I called him Morgan ” many times, in fact, I’m watching it now. I understand more after reading this. Lee was a great and gifted musician.

  32. Stephen Knowles Says:

    This story is now on Netflix; very well done documentary! I would like to ask the girlfriend, whose relationship with Lee was the catalyst for Helen shooting him, how she feels about her actions leading to his death; she could have said, “Sorry Lee, but you are “married” (yes, it was a common-law marriage, but she knew what was going on) and I can’t be involved with you.”

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