Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story
SOUND OF REDEMPTION: THE FRANK MORGAN STORY, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
Charlie “Bird” Parker, the alto saxophonist who unleashed the bebop jazz revolution, influenced a generation of musicians, and not only with his music. Parker’s disciples, much to the saxophonist’s dismay, also took cues from his lifestyle, which included heroin addiction. Alto saxophonist Frank Morgan first heard Parker when his father, Stanley Morgan, a later member of the Ink Spots, took him to a concert at Detroit’s Paradise Theatre in 1940. Morgan, who was seven, was hooked. Parker’s music that day “went to the very core of my soul,” Morgan says in N.C. Heikin’s engaging documentary on the troubled heir to Parker’s music. He met Parker backstage and expressed an interest in playing the horn, but Parker suggested he start with the clarinet. The young Morgan did just that before moving to the alto sax two years later. By the time he was fourteen, Morgan was so proficient with his instrument and so closely identified with Parker that he was nicknamed “Little Bird.” By the time he was seventeen, Morgan, too, was addicted to heroin.
At his prime, Morgan was dubbed the greatest living alto saxophone player in the world by fellow musicians, even if the only place he could be heard was behind the walls of California’s San Quentin State Prison. Addiction, and the crimes he committed to pay for his habit (some of them requiring disguises and improbable ruses of the sort one might expect from characters right out of Ocean’s Eleven), kept Morgan behind bars — his first arrest was in 1953 — for the good part of three decades. Yet he emerged in 1985, with help from methadone and close friends, to a second act that saw him recognized not only as a virtuoso but also as a player of beauty, warmth, and character.
Heiken’s film revolves around a tribute to Morgan, who died in 2007, presented at San Quentin by the pianist George Cables, alto saxophonists Grace Kelly and Mark Gross, bassist Ron Carter, and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. Marsalis’ remarks to the crowd tie the larger aspects of Morgan’s life and music together, freeing the filmmaker to delve into details drawn from associates, jazz critics, and family (among them, Morgan’s mother, who was fifteen — some sources say fourteen — when he was born). The best moments here reconstruct LA’s Central Avenue jazz scene as well as the city’s racism and its war on musicians who were drug users (Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, and many other musicians also passed through San Quentin’s gates). Heiken is clear-eyed about the notion of redemption as he follows Morgan though his later years. One may now be sober enough to make the gig, but that doesn’t mean the demons stop pulling at you. They can be heard tugging inside every beautiful note Morgan recorded.
Sax man: Frank Morgan