Remembering A Jazzman Who Overcame Heroin And Prison
Stark shadows. Empty streets. A lone figure clutching a horn. The conventions for depicting a hard-boiled jazz hero have been firmly established for decades, in fiction and in film. The implicit toll of the music, according to this code — a clutch of obsession, leading to one or another form of ruination — would register as hollow cliché were it not for the exception that proves the rule. Somebody like Frank Morgan.
Mr. Morgan, who died in 2007 at 73, was an alto saxophonist with a quiet but penetrating sound, limpid and centered and beautifully personal. As a shining up-and- comer in Los Angeles, he followed in the footsteps of bebop’s paragon, Charlie Parker, right down to a narcotics addiction that had him in and out of prison (but mostly in) for 30 years. His comeback, which began with the release of his second album in 1985, added a grace note to a career that courted tragedy at every turn.
His story and sound have inspired many listeners over the years, none more demonstrably than the author Michael Connelly. In the best-selling series of crime novels that established his reputation, Mr. Connelly has used Mr. Morgan’s music as a leitmotif for his hero, the Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch. Now, in a more direct tribute, Mr. Connelly is the executive producer of a forthcoming documentary film, “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Project,” that aims to shed light on Mr. Morgan’s resilience as well as his hardship.
“I’m a disciple of Raymond Chandler, who said in his essays that there’s a quality of redemption in anything that can be called art,” Mr. Connelly said last week. Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he was putting the finishing touch on his latest Harry Bosch novel, “The Black Box,” he characterized the film as a bit of unfinished business.
Five years ago — not long after he dropped Mr. Morgan’s name in the opening scene of “The Overlook,” a Bosch novel originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine — he appeared with Mr. Morgan at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, in a talk about the relationship between words and music. “I’ve been on 20 book tours, I’ve been on a lot of stages, and that was the single best thing I ever did,” Mr. Connelly said.
At dinner afterward, Mr. Morgan suggested that they arrange a series of similar appearances at other college jazz programs across the country to reach more aspiring musicians. They agreed to pursue the idea after fulfilling some other obligations, including a video teaser for “The Overlook,” with a solo-saxophone score. But then Mr. Morgan’s health declined precipitously. He died months later of colon cancer, and Mr. Connelly began to think about how to tell his story.