New Documentary Tells Story of Bird Protégé Frank Morgan
When director N.C. Heikin’s new documentary about alto saxophonist Frank Morgan (1933–2007), Sound of Redemption, was screened to a small group of industry insiders last March, the reaction in the room was unanimously strong. But an official from the Los Angeles Film Festival had the most telling approbation: “I want to premiere this movie at the festival in June.”
Morgan’s story is compelling. He was an alto saxophone prodigy, and a Los Angeles “son” to Charlie Parker. “Little Frankie,” as Bird called him, was a star on his instrument that was home to alto saxophonists Sonny Criss and Bud Shank, among others. But early on, Morgan acquired the drug habit that would hobble his life and career. He spent his most promising decades in and out of jails and prisons, where he functioned as a model prisoner. Morgan was a star in San Quentin and Chino, playing in prison bands with the likes of Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, Dupree Bolton and Frank Butler.
Music was easy for Morgan; the real world was always his undoing.
In the 1980s, Morgan faced his fear of success, got on a Methadone program and, with the help of his selfless girlfriend, artist Rosalinda Kolb, stayed out of prison and concentrated on playing. A well-received 1985 album, Easy Living (his first in 30 years), and equally fine follow-ups signaled Morgan’s ticket to the big leagues of jazz. He was received as though a cryogenically preserved master from an earlier bebop age.
Heikin digs deep in this 84-minute examination of a great talent gone wrong. Father Stanley Morgan was a guitarist for vocal group The Ink Spots, and introduced his son to Parker at age 10.
Frank immediately gravitated to the alto and studied it prodigiously. But praise and encouragement from jazz heavyweights couldn’t erase an erratic home life: In the film, a half-sister reveals that his mother was a 15-year-old prostitute and their father was also her pimp.
Montages of mug shots, rap sheets and probation reports give an idea of the criminal and legal treadmill that Morgan was on. A composite of talking heads, including pianist Horace Tapscott, lays the blame for Morgan’s drug habit on L.A. racism. But Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy and Tapscott himself faced the same conditions without succumbing to the needle.
Ed Reed, addict-turned-drug-counselor and singer, interjects testimonies of great authenticity, detailing scams and rip-offs he pulled with Morgan to get drug money.
Critic Gary Giddins recalls the great anticipation that Morgan’s New York debut stirred. Kolb and others note that drugs and prison had allowed Morgan to avoid East Coast scrutiny, and playing the famed Village Vanguard filled him with anxiety.
During his renaissance, the charming and charismatic Morgan gave many interviews, and Heikin compiled a wealth of archival footage. Morgan spoke candidly and often about the dangers of drugs and the gospel of bebop.
Morgan and Kolb married, he played the top jazz venues around the world, rubbed shoulders with Jane Pauley on The Today Show and the world was at his feet. At some point he relapsed into drug use.
His career suffered, Morgan and Kolb dissolved their marriage and he had a debilitating stroke. But she took him back and nurtured him, and Morgan reemerged one last time—seldom playing anything faster than a ballad, but with an added poignancy. During his last years, Morgan befriended the 14-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly and mentored her.
Heikin staged a Morgan tribute concert at San Quentin with Delfeayo Marsalis, George Cables, Ron Carter and Marvin Smith. Altoist Mark Gross burns through the break on “A Night In Tunisia” like a blowtorch, but Kelly draws a standing ovation with her heart-tugging “Over The Rainbow.” By the film’s conclusion, it’s clear that Morgan’s redemption was tied to the generosity of spirit shown to this young woman.