Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story (Heikin, 2014)

“We were inclined to accept a little erratic behavior, given his status,” says Ron Carter, jazz bassist, “when he (Frank Morgan) played the horn, you forgot about those things.”

“Those things” refers to Morgan’s drug addiction and the time he spent in and out of prison on account of it. That time in prison as well as Morgan’s musical career and legacy both inside and out of prison is at the center of Sound of Redemption, a tribute to the late, great jazz saxophonist.

In creating its portrait of Frank Morgan, Sound of Redemption cuts between three timelines: Morgan’s early life (filled in with actors while narrated via voiceover), a tribute concert at San Quentin where he spent a good portion of his life, and recent interviews with people who knew him. The triple cross cutting keeps the film moving at a relatively brisk pace, and it is a highly effective way of shedding light on both Frank Morgan the artist and Frank Morgan the man.

Interviews with people Morgan mentored, with friends who performed with him, and people who heard him play all attest to Morgan’s great ability as well as the power of his art to transform not only his life, but those he came into contact with. Most remarkably, since Morgan was allowed to perform in prison, his music created an atmosphere of good will and a sort of redemption not only for himself but the other inmates, and even the guards as well.

Grace Kelly and Frank Morgan

Sound of Redemption focuses on that redemptive ability of art, a power which all great artists have claims one interviewee. Personally, as a musician, I would agree with that claim. Regardless, the film makes it clear that Morgan most certainly had that ability through his music, which becomes especially apparent when the inmates at San Quentin who knew Morgan fondly remember him and his music as they listen to the tribute concert which frames the film.
In recognition of the power of music, director N.C. Heikin, who received his training in musical theater, allows entire jazz numbers to play out. A lot of the music is used for underscoring, but Heikin does not cut away in the middle of performances from the San Quentin tribute concert, and he films two jazz set pieces in their entirety, cutting between the musicians and the enraptured audience. A performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” featuring Grace Kelly, a saxophonist who received some tutoring from Morgan late in his life, is one of the film’s highlights, which drives that point home regarding the power of music.

Music was with Morgan throughout his whole life. We learn that his father Stanley, a guitarist for The Ink Spots, initially taught him guitar, but on hearing Charlie “Bird” Parker play saxophone at seven years old, Morgan was hooked and knew he was meant to play that instrument, whatever it was called. The film mentions his first concerts in LA, his use of heroin like his idol Parker, his subsequent addiction and arrests, and of course the music which overshadowed all of his life.

The myth that great artists need drugs for inspiration and that creative high is what many of the contributors pinpoint as Morgan’s problem. However Ed Reed, a drug counselor, talks about the violence against black men and the ingrained injustices still present from Jim Crow days, and he suggests that drugs were a means of escape, a means of “tak[ing] away the discomfort.” With interviews of that nature, it is impossible to hear about the injustices suffered by Morgan, such as being denied performance opportunities due to his skin color or being targeted for arrest, and not be reminded of the struggles that black Americans still face today.

The injustices, addiction, passion for music, and overriding sense of vocation were all major factors in Morgan’s life. Sound of Redemption strikes a balance between all four, portraying a man whose art incorporated all elements of his life, and also moved and inspired others. Everyone who knew Morgan tells how he had to play the saxophone, and when he did it was impossible to “deny the power and beauty of the music.”

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