"The Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story" will be showing on Saturday, October 25 at NW Film Forum in Seattle as part of the Earshot Jazz Film Festival. Frank Morgan was a talented West Coast saxophonist whose life and career were stalled for 30 years because of heroin use and prison sentences.
Singer Ed Reed is one of many subjects interviewed in the film. He was a friend of Morgan's, and he has a similar story.
Los Angeles had a vibrant live music scene in the 1940s and 1950s, with nightclubs and concert venues in the Central Avenue area, and it included the "vices" that accompany the night life. Charlie Parker's well-documented visits to the West Coast inspired many young jazz musicians; unfortunately, many of them also picked up the worst of Bird's habits: heroin.
The long-standing culture of racism in southern California (black residents called it "Mississippi with palm trees") also contributed to drug use. For example, Ed Reed was an A+ student in high school, but was not allowed to join the debating team, nor was he encouraged to pursue any career other than manual labor. For some households, selling drugs became the family business.
Ed met Frank Morgan through mutual drug-dealing friends. To support their habits, they lied, stole, robbed and forged. Inevitably, they were in and out of San Quentin and Folsom prisons for decades. Both had to put their musical careers on hold, except for being in the San Quentin All Stars Warden's Band, which at times included such jazz stars as Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon and Hadley Caliman.
"Art Pepper was crazy, but a great musician. He played on everything I did with the Warden's Band. Hadley Caliman and I did a lot of time together," remembers Reed. "I never saw him again after he left for Seattle."
He was pleased to hear that Hadley Caliman became a beloved performer and jazz educator in Seattle for more than 20 years before his death in 2010. Redemption!
For his own redemption, Ed Reed has spent the last 20 years counseling addicts, alcoholics and their families. In 2007, at age 78, he released his first CD "Ed Reed Sings." Three more albums and recognition from the Downbeat Critics Poll as a "Rising Star Male Vocalist" followed. His latest CD is "I'm A Shy Guy."
He says, "If you can free yourself to give most of your attention to the music, it can do miraculous things for you." For himself, his work in the Chemical Dependency Recovery Program at Kaiser is "...the meat, the main meal. Music is the dessert. It's taken me places I never dreamed I'd go. I've been on some of the same stages as the greatest musicians in the world. I'm amazed by that. "
Ed's favorite part of "The Sound of Redemption" is "...when Frank finally gets it. He realizes that 'I need to just do my music and it will take care of me.'" Ed also was delighted to meet and hear young saxophonist Grace Kelly, who was mentored by Frank Morgan. The film is built around footage of a concert at San Quentin in honor of Frank, and Grace's performance is exceptional and very moving.
The past is never far behind, though. Ed said that while watching a screening of the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, he suddenly remembered that he and Frank once "...almost had a fight about drugs--I think he accused me of not giving him all he paid for--right in front of this same theater." Thankfully, since then he's had a chance to make better memories.
Here's Frank Morgan on a television show from 1990, with a stellar performance of "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing."
"The Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story" shows at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle on Saturday October 25 at 3 pm. Ed Reed and I will be in attendance, and we'll have a Q&A session afterwards.
I'll be featuring some music by Ed Reed and by Frank Morgan this afternoon on KPLU's Mid Day Jazz.
My post on Wednesday will include interviews with the film's director N.C. Heikin, and executive producer, novelist Michael Connelly. And on Friday's Morning Edition, listen for Kevin Kniestedt's story about saxophonist Grace Kelly, who will appear with the Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra on November 4 for the Earshot Jazz Festival.