"The Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story" will be showing on Saturday, Oct. 25 at NW Film Forum in Seattle as part of the Earshot Jazz Film Festival. Frank Morgan was a prodigy, a young West Coast saxophonist who was hailed as "the next Charlie Parker." Morgan's life and career were stalled for 30 years because of heroin use, felonies and prison sentences.
Author Michael Connelly is executive producer of the film. While not a long-time jazz enthusiast, Connelly read about Morgan's story of music, crime, drugs and redemption in a Time magazine profile. He heard some of Morgan's music, and became a fan.
At the time, Connelly was preparing to debut his LA crime novel series featuring a police detective named Harry (Hieronymus) Bosch, a man with a sad past and a strong sense of justice. The character would be an avid and devoted jazz fan, the kind of fan who knows all the details of songs, gigs, recordings, personnel, etc., and one who can relate to the life struggles of the musicians.
Connelly was making a promo video for the books, and it needed a soundtrack. He contacted Frank Morgan and pianist George Cables and asked to use some of their music. One piece in particular, "Lullaby," struck Connelly as the perfect sound for Harry Bosch: lonely and plaintive, yet hopeful. "I used to play that song every day before writing, to sort of drop into the character and the mood," he says.
His friendship with Frank grew after they'd both been invited to visit Berklee College of Music in Boston, to talk to the students about the synergies between music and writing.
Frank was excited about these opportunities to reach young musicians and pass along some hard-earned wisdom. "That was his redemption. This is what he felt he owed the world," says Connelly. "Frank wanted us to create a tour, but he passed away before it could happen. That's why I wanted to make the film — to tell his story."
Connelly knew that he could write about Frank, but a book wouldn't let people hear the music. This story needed to be a movie. He brought the idea to documentary film-maker N.C. Heikin. She found the story compelling because "...it's the journey of somebody who fought against his own imprisonment, his literal imprisonment, but also, he imprisoned himself through a lack of confidence, and the idea that he couldn't live up to being Charlie Parker."
"The first thing you do with this story is listen to the music," she says. "And you'll know he's special, he's touched by the gods, he's lyrical and melodic, and there's soul, in the sense of something ancient and very tragic at times, that comes through in that music."
Then there's the drug addiction. "Frank was like a lost soul, in a way," says Heikin. "Half of him was a con man that you couldn't trust and then the other half was a sort of shaman. That combination of an incredible musical gift and an incredible personal struggle added up to a drama, to me."
Heikin also became fascinated with Morgan's prison time. "He spent so long in prison. What could that have felt like, for a man of such talent, to be in that atmosphere nearly his whole life? So I wanted to get inside." She frames the film around a concert honoring Frank Morgan, staged in San Quentin prison. It was a rare event, and not easy to accomplish; imagine trying to get a group of jazz musicians and invited guests into a maximum-security facility, and then filming it. Red tape and request forms piled up for a couple of years. But it finally did happen, and the concert footage holds the bio-pic narrative together beautifully. The band's performance is outstanding: George Cables on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums, Mark Gross on saxophone, Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone, and a special, emotionally gripping appearance by saxophonist Grace Kelly, who was mentored by Frank Morgan.
Both Michael Connelly and N.C. Heikin cite one of the last scenes in the film as one of their favorites: Frank has finally made it to New York to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a friend describes how his music held the room transfixed as he "stepped into the audience's souls."
"The Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story" shows at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct 25 at NW Film Forum in Seattle. I'll be there and so will singer Ed Reed, a friend of Frank's who appears in the film, and we'll have Q&A session after the screening.