An all-too-familiar story of a charismatic yet self-destructive artist is presented with sympathetic tact — and, better still, a relatively happy ending — in “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story,” NC Heikin’s affectionate portrait of the late jazz great once viewed as a musical heir to Charlie “Bird” Parker. The documentary adroitly sustains interest with a standard-issue mix of archival material, interviews with intimates and admirers, actors’ voiceovers and dramatic re-creations. But jazz aficionados and mainstream audiences alike probably will be more captivated by the extended riffs during a 2012 tribute concert performed at San Quentin State Prison — where Frank Morgan (1933-2007) spent a goodly portion of his troubled life.
Although he was the son of another notable musician — guitarist Stanley Morgan of the Ink Spots — young Frank was drawn to Parker while still in his teens as a mentor and father figure. Like Parker, he chose the alto saxophone as his signature instrument, and made his mark as a musical prodigy in the Los Angeles jazz scene of the late 1940s and ‘50s, a time when Morgan and other black residents of L.A. viewed the segregated city as “Mississippi with palm trees.”
During this period, the documentary dutifully explains, it was not uncommon for frustrated and demoralized African-Americans in L.A. (and elsewhere) to deaden their pain and rage with the self-medication of heroin. Among jazz artists, there was additional inclination to indulge, since, as one interviewee pointedly notes, some musicians “felt you couldn’t get that happy-sad Bird feeling without using drugs.” Parker disapproved of other musicians behaving under his influence — Morgan made the mistake of offering to share drugs with his mentor, who was not at all grateful — but could do little to dissuade the addicts aiming to be like him. Indeed, on the night Morgan and some fellow jazzmen learned of Parker’s death, they walked into the alley outside the club where they were performing — and proceeded to shoot up smack.
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“Sound of Redemption” walks a fine line between the cautionary and the picaresque as it recounts the petty and major crimes Morgan pulled to finance his expensive habit — his bank robberies sound like seriocomic con artistry — and a viewer may occasionally feel torn between smiling and wincing as Heikin details the stranger-than-fiction particulars of Morgan’s repeated incarcerations while “serving life on the installment plan” at San Quentin.
Smack-dab in the middle of “Sound of Redemption” is material that could easily justify fleshing out in another documentary, or even a dramatic feature: At one point, there were enough jazz musicians serving time alongside Morgan in San Quentin (including legendary saxophonist Art Pepper) that prison officials encouraged the assemblage of a big band — the San Quentin All-Stars — that not only concertized inside the Marin County institution (where they drew audiences of visiting non-convicts), but actually performed tour dates (presumably under heavy guard) as well.
Smoothly interspersed with the biographical narrative are highlights from the 2012 tribute concert, where many of the songs recorded by Morgan are performed by a stellar lineup that includes trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis (who serves as chief storyteller and master of ceremonies), pianist George Cables, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and saxophonists Grace Kelly and Mark Gross. The ensemble is nothing short of terrific, individually and collectively, but Kelly, a friend and protege of Morgan, is the one who takes the movie and tucks it into her pocket for the as long as it takes her to perform her soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
For all its time spent dwelling in the lower depths, “Sound of Redemption” ultimately fulfills the promise implicit in its title by reporting how Morgan managed — despite a period of backsliding — to rebuild his life and career after leaving prison for the last time in 1985, with no little help from painter Rosalinda Kolb, his companion (and, for a while, his wife) of several years. Once again, however, the viewer is left with profoundly mixed emotions, haunted by questions of what might and should have been. The documentary doesn’t reference it, but the title of Kolb’s 2014 memoir — “Leave ‘Em Hungry: A Love Story and Cautionary Tale” — may be the definitive description of, to paraphrase Roberto Benigni in Jim Jarmusch’s “Down By Law,” a sad and beautiful life.