The musical career of saxophonist Frank Morgan, who died in 2007 at 73, is notable on several counts, not least the 30-year gap between his first and second albums. With artistic flourishes, N.C. Heikin’s documentary portrait fits the exceptional life story into a biographical boilerplate that covers the general trajectory and turning points. Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story, which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, collects evocative archival material, including interviews with Morgan, and new commentary from friends and admirers that’s often incisive. But what makes the film memorable, and a must for jazz fans, is its deep feeling for Morgan’s playing and, especially, the 2012 concert that frames the story — in which six jazz luminaries paid tribute to Morgan at San Quentin, the California state prison where he spent a significant portion of three decades.
Playing professionally when still in his teens, Morgan was a spiritual son and artistic heir to bebop virtuoso Charlie “Bird” Parker, and considered by many the greatest alto sax player of his generation. But instead of picking up the mantle that seemed so clearly his, Morgan fell into a life of drug addiction, crime and incarceration.
Telling the story of his promise, self-destruction and renewal, Heikin explores the jumping art-and-music scene of Los Angeles in the late ’40s and ’50s. Morgan had come out to the coast to join his father, guitarist Stanley Morgan, a member of the popular vocal group the Ink Spots. (Frank Morgan’s half-sister notes pointedly that their father had another, illicit occupation as well.) In the heyday of Central Avenue clubs, the young Morgan quickly drew attention, backing such major talents as Billie Holiday and winning a TV talent show whose prize, an engagement with an orchestra at the Palladium, was denied him because he wasn’t white.
The film’s interviewees acknowledge the painful effects of segregation and racism on many African American artists of the era. Some of Morgan’s fellow musicians discuss how they, as black males, were discouraged from attending college or even taking academic, rather than vocational, high school classes. Heroin’s role as an extreme analgesic is acknowledged too. For Morgan, the heroin use of his friend and idol Bird became something to emulate along with his groundbreaking bebop (Bird disapproved).
With Parker’s death in 1955, Morgan lost not just his mentor but his sense of musical purpose, and the expectations surrounding the release of his debut album apparently scared more than excited him. He put his creative energies into larceny, robbing banks and kiting checks to maintain an expensive habit — represented in the film by faceless, soft-focus junkie enactments that are more conspicuous than helpful.
Many of the details of his life remain out of focus as well. One interviewee is identified as Morgan’s eighth wife, but the only romantic relationship described is his marriage to painter Rosalinda Kolb, who appears in the film and was a crucial figure in his mid-’80s rehabilitation and career revival. That amounted to a remarkable second chance that kept him working for the remainder of his life.
Heikin offers generous audio selections of Morgan’s playing — his tone is one of tender melancholy and clarity — but skimps on video performance clips. It’s disappointing that she doesn’t turn off the talking-heads commentary long enough to let a performance of Morgan’s play out in full, or at least at greater length than what’s offered here. It’s especially frustrating when she includes footage of his 1986 Village Vanguard show — an engagement that marked his comeback after 30 years and his New York debut — and cuts away from Morgan to include utterly unnecessary descriptions of how important the gig was and how well it went, rather than trusting the audience to experience it.
But in the tribute concert at San Quentin, intercut throughout the documentary, music does the talking. In a plain cinder-block room, a sextet headed by pianist George Cables and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis plays songs that Morgan recorded, including tunes by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. Saxophonist Grace Kelly, a protégé of Morgan’s, brings down the house with a soulful “Over the Rainbow.” The musicians, who also include Ron Carter, Mark Gross and Martin “Smitty” Smith, express love and admiration in every note, and as the prisoners respond to the music, their faces indicate that they second the emotion.
It was in that very penitentiary that Morgan became something of a celebrity during his “lost” years. In prisoner-made tuxes, he and his fellow San Quentin All-Stars, a 16-piece band whose members included Dexter Gordon, performed for paying visitors. The prison was an entertainment destination — one of the fascinating aspects of Morgan’s story and Heikin’s film: in the bleakest of circumstances, the transcendent, intricate beauty of great music.
Production companies: Hieronymus Pictures, Green Garnet Prods., Wild at Heart Films
With: Delfeayo Marsalis, George Cables, Ron Carter, Mark Gross, Grace Kelly, Martin “Smitty” Smith, Clora Bryant, Ed Reed, Rosalinda Kolb, Gary Giddins, Michael Connelly
Director: N.C. Heikin
Screenwriter: N.C. Heikin
Producers: James Egan, Su Kim
Executive producers: Michael Connelly, Linda Connelly, Robert Connelly, Robert Pepin
Director of photography: Kyle Saylors
Editors: Kate Amend, Katie Flint
Composer: Matt Savage
Director of photography for San Quentin concert: Don Starnes
Editor of San Quentin concert footage: Aaron Warren
No rating, 84 minutes