Art Doc of the Week | The Sound of Redemption

It’s no small feat to turn the cliché-ridden life of a jazz musician (complete with drug addiction, multiple wives, frequent prison stints, and a family tree full of pimps, madams and prostitutes) into something both revelatory and moving, but director N.C. Heikin has done just that with The Sound of Redemption, about the life and career of the late jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan (December 23, 1933 – December 14, 2007).

A child prodigy who learned early how racism would thwart his professional dreams and private life, Frank Morgan was the son of Stanley Morgan – guitarist for the Ink Spots, a black group who were huge with both black and white audiences in the 1930s and ‘40s – and something of a protégé of Charlie Parker, whom he saw as a surrogate father. Like many young jazz musicians of the ‘50s, Morgan’s hero-worship of Parker inspired him to push the limits of his own talent, but also led many neophytes to adopt Parker’s heroin use as a badge of being a real jazz man. The two poles – pushing the innate talent; battling addiction and concomitant criminality – would be in play throughout Morgan’s life.

The spine of the documentary is a 2012 Frank Morgan tribute concert held at San Quentin State Prison – where Morgan was frequently imprisoned, and came to consider something of a home and refuge – in a packed room of prisoners, and Morgan’s family. The all-star band for the tribute consists of old colleagues and a protégé, and is led by Delfeayo Marsalis, whose between-song narration of Morgan’s life doubles as the film’s voice-over narrative thread. Heikin fleshes that thread out with standard tricks of the documentarian trade: stock footage, original interviews with friends and family, news reels, and lots of vintage performance footage. All of it is fantastic. Anecdotes and memories are carefully rolled out – Billie Holiday taking Morgan under wing when he was still a teenager, and being so moved by his playing that she wept; adult Frank, well into his side-career as a burglar, cleaning out a recording studio while Stevie Wonder was sitting in it – with the fleshing out of the jazz man’s family tree and the depths of its criminal underpinnings being a real jaw dropper.

Heikin’s film stands apart from so many music documentaries because of the way she lets her palpable respect for Morgan’s work drive her own artistic choices – not only what performances to include from the tribute concert, and which old performance clips she employs to illustrate a point, but also letting most of those performances play out in full. Perhaps the most powerful example of that is when she shows Morgan’s protégé Grace Kelly taking the mic to explain share the core lesson Morgan taught her: “As much as virtuosity is an important thing, Frank still said the most important thing is to play beautifully.” And with that she delivers a heartbreakingly gorgeous rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that makes the packed prison audience fall absolutely silent, Frank’s sister (who is also in the audience) weep, and the whole room leap to a standing ovation when she plays the final note.

What makes Kelly’s performance almost unbearably poignant is the way the film briskly but deeply sketches in Morgan’s inner world – the fact that he and so many jazz men weren’t merely taking smack to be cool, but to self-medicate against the effects of the staggering racism they encountered daily; the toll his volatile relationship with his father and shame about his mother’s past took on him; and the words of reflection that the elderly Morgan offers when assessing the recklessness of his youth: “You have to care about yourself, and I didn’t think I was worth much.”

 

Previously on Art Doc of the Week: