On Sunday I went to the Coolidge Corner Theatre for a special event, Grace Kelly presents: Sound of Redemption. The movie was a documentary about saxophonist Frank Morgan, followed by a Q&A with the director and Grace Kelly who afterwards played a few songs. This is a pretty good summary of the film:
Frank Morgan was a prodigal alto sax player who, like so many of his fellow musicians of the era, saw his career plagued by drug addiction. What sets Frank apart is not just his exceptional talent, but also the amazing fact that he survived 30 years of revolving door incarceration and drug abuse and went on to a much heralded comeback career in the last 22 years of his life, during which time he served as a mentor to Brookline saxophone prodigy Grace Kelly. Morgan's story is one of brilliant promise in his youth, a journey through the depths of hell, and redemption through his art.
I didn't know of Frank Morgan before this. I also didn't know that San Quentin prison had a 16 piece jazz band populated by inmates that Morgan called the best band he ever worked with (Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper were in and out of San Quentin too). Morgan's father was a guitarist with the Ink Spots, he took a young Frank to see Charlie Parker. Frank fell in love with the sax and eventually played with Parker, learning from him not just bebop but heroin. I knew that lots of jazz musicians had heroin problems, I didn't realize that it often led to crimes to fund their addiction and not just early deaths, but regular stints in prison.
The documentary took an interesting approach around the problem of not having a lot of footage of Frank to use. They arranged for a remembrance concert to be played by people who knew him, in San Quentin for an audience of friends and loved ones as well as other prisoners. Performing are: George Cables, Ron Carter, Mark Gross, Grace Kelly, Delfeayo Marsalis, and "Smitty" Smith. Good stuff.
Right after this I watched Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead. Cheadle wrote, directed and stars in this biopic of Miles Davis. So far it's my favorite movie of the year. He had the support of Davis' family so they have his music to use, which helps a lot. But Cheadle took an interesting approach to the story.
Instead of a straight biography or really concentrating on specific event or period, he does something unique. There's a starting event, a flashback to a (rather crazy and hopefully fictitious) story which lets Cheadle act out some of Davis' famous demons then it comes back to the "present". To me at least, it gave the film the effect of a jazz song, with a statement, a bunch of improv drawing on his past experiences and a restatement. He tries to get into Davis' head and does it visually, often blending different events into the same scene. It remains coherent and while I read up afterwards to see what was true and not, I feel like I learned about Davis and wanted to hear even more of his music. It helps to know some of Davis' music (particularly the Gil Evans period) and if you do you'll know who various background characters are supposed to be, though people in the group I saw it with all liked it, regardless of background knowledge.