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Redemption Is The Key To An Unlikely Friendship Two Musicians Shared

Courtesy of Terrill Lee Lankford.
The Frank Morgan Tribute band at San Quentin, L to R: George Cables, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grace Kelly, alto; Mark Gross, alto; Delfeayo Marsalis, trombone; Marvin "Smitty" Smith, drums.

How exactly does a man in his 70s — a man who spent most of his adult life in and out of prison and constantly battling a drug addiction — become friends with a 14-year-old girl?

They find a common bond. And in the case of Frank Morgan and Grace Kelly, that bond was music. 

As part of the Earshot Jazz Festival, a new documentary, called "Sounds Of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story," will be shown Saturday night. The film chronicles the life of the late Morgan, who was touted as the next Charlie Parker, but for most of his life battled with an addiction to heroin and troubles with the law.

It took Morgan nearly 30 years to get clean and revive what was once a promising career. But it wasn't until his early 70s when he found someone he could mentor, and it was an unlikely candidate: a 14-year-old girl. 

'We Adopted Each Other As Musical Relatives'

Kelly, a teenage saxophone prodigy, had gone to see Morgan perform one night in Boston, and Morgan's pianist introduced the two. Morgan invited Kelly to join him on stage for the second set, then asked her to travel to Milwaukee with his band for another performance. The two formed an immediate bond. 

"I mean, it got to the point where I called him 'Grandpa' and I was his granddaughter, and we adopted each other as musical relatives," Kelly said. "He was somebody that I just immediately felt so connected to spiritually and musically, and I think he felt the same way."

After that, the two talked on the phone almost every single day. Morgan would attend family functions with the Kelly family, and they referred to each other as grandfather and granddaughter. When the two performed on the road together, Morgan made every effort to make sure that the young Kelly wouldn't go down the same road of troubles that he did.

"He was really strict with all of the band members, saying, 'Nobody smokes in the band room! If you need to do anything, go outside. I don’t want Grace to see any of this.' So he wished he didn’t get into any of that, and he wanted to make sure I wasn’t seeing any of that as a young girl," Kelly said.

Morgan passed away in 2007 when Kelly was only 16. Eventually, novelist Michael Connelly came up with the idea to tell Morgan’s story, and the idea of the documentary came to light. 

'It Was A Short Time, But It Meant A Lot To Both Of Them'

While Morgan was behind bars as San Quentin State Prison, he and other fellow inmate musicians regularly performed for the inmates. During the production of the film, it was decided that Kelly and other musicians would perform for the inmates of San Quentin with a tribute to Morgan. When Kelly took the stage, her performance of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" had many of the inmates in tears.

"I think that is the emotional center of the film," said Connelly, who produced "Sounds of Redemption." "And I think the time he took with Grace…it was a short time, but it meant a lot to both of them. So when you know that, and then she comes out and plays this very symbolic song, especially when you consider that she’s in front of several hundred convicts, it all kind of comes together."

In the end, Kelly found a grandfather figure and a musical mentor. Morgan was able to spend his last years offering musical wisdom and advice to a budding prodigy. Together they connected through the passion they both shared for bringing music to the world. 

The documentary "Sounds Of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story" will be screened Saturday at the Northwest Film Forum as part of the 2014 Earshot Jazz Festival. Grace Kelly will also be performing with the Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra on Nov. 4 at the Triple Door. 

Kevin Kniestedt is a journalist, host and producer who began his career at KNKX in 2003. Over his 17 years with the station, he worked as a full time jazz host, a news host and produced the weekly show Sound Effect. Kevin has conducted or produced hundreds of interviews, has won local and national awards for newscasts and commentary.