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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
Arts & Music

Tampa crime author sings praises of jazz great

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— Michael Connelly is no stranger to crime.

After all, he is the bestselling author of 27 crime fiction books that have sold 58 million copies worldwide, most featuring detective Harry Bosch or defense attorney Mickey Haller.

A television series “Bosch” is under production by Amazon Studios, and Matthew McConaughey played Haller in the 2011 film “The Lincoln Lawyer.”

Once upon a time, Connelly also covered the crime beat for the Los Angeles Times.

Yet even Connelly admits he was uncomfortable attending a jazz concert in California's San Quentin prison in 2012.

“Everyone in that audience was pretty much a murderer,” said Connelly, who has lived in Tampa since 2001. “The night before the concert a sergeant from the prison spoke to us about precautions and how there is a no-hostage policy.”

But once the music started, Connelly noticed a change in the room full of hardened criminals.

“You saw it in their faces — how the music affected them,” he said. “It showed that there was still humanity in them, and where there is humanity there is a possibility for redemption.”

The concert, in fact, was filmed and now is featured in the documentary “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story.”

Connelly is executive producer.

The name Frank Morgan may ring a bell to fans of the Bosch series. His real music emerges as a character in the books, bringing solace to the troubled fictional detective.

The film tells the story of the man behind that music.

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Using a collection of archival material, commentary from friends and interviews with Morgan before his death in 2007, “Sound of Redemption” details how heroin turned the alto sax player from a teenage prodigy of the 1950s courted by the likes of Duke Ellington, into a criminal who spent the better part of three decades in prison before cleaning up his life and resurrecting his musical career.

Morgan often found himself in San Quentin, where he put together a band. Jazz lovers from the surrounding areas came to see them perform.

The San Quentin concert filmed for “Sound of Redemption” was an homage to Morgan. The participating musicians either were mentored by or inspired by Morgan.

The film recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Connelly hopes to screen it in Tampa next year and other select cities “that have a connection to jazz or to someone with the film,” he said.

Connelly and Morgan were friends.

Morgan meant so much to the author that a framed photo of the two sits on an old typewriter in the Hyde Park home office where Connelly does his writing.

The documentary arises from a promise Connelly made Morgan the last time they were together, to help spread Morgan's story and advice.

It was the middle of 2007. They took to the stage at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston to discuss the symbiotic relationship between words and music. Morgan spoke in depth about his mistakes and warned the young musicians against following in his footsteps.

“I've done a lot of speaking engagements,” Connelly said. “That was the best I ever did in terms of audience reaction.”

They agreed to team up more often, but Morgan died that December at age 73.

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The documentary is also Connelly's way of repaying Morgan for the music's role in his writing career.

“In some ways,” Connelly said, “the success of the Bosch series is founded upon a connection to Frank Morgan.”

You can see the association in the TV pilot for “Bosch,” available at Amazon.com.

In one scene, Bosch ruminates about a suspected serial killer he shot dead. He stands trial in the slaying. Bosch doesn't say a word in the scene, but his expression — coupled with Morgan's song “Lullaby” — clearly communicates fear, frustration, anger and loneliness.

Connelly wasn't always a fan of Morgan. There was a time he didn't even listen to jazz.

“I thought it was my dad's music,” said Connelly.

He took to it while writing the first Harry Bosch novel, “The Black Echo,” published in 1992.

He wanted Bosch's musical taste to inform the reader about the character.

Bosch is deeply flawed, tortured by self-doubt and violent tendencies. Yet he seeks to overcome those faults.

“Bosch has a difficult life,” Connelly said. “I wanted him to connect to musicians who had similar ordeals.”

Connelly's wife, St. Petersburg native Linda McCaleb, suggested Morgan fill that role.

Other jazz musicians call Morgan one of the greatest alto sax players of all time, Connelly said. He was considered the successor to jazz legend Charlie Parker, a leading figure in the development of bebop and an icon for the Beat Generation.

But fame found Morgan at a young age and he succumbed to the pressure to use heroin. His crimes — check forgery and fencing stolen property — were to sustain his addiction.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Connelly said, Morgan may have been the best musician no one heard of because his talents could only be heard inside the walls of the notorious San Quentin.

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Beginning in the mid-1980s, Morgan cleaned up his life, recorded new albums, toured jazz clubs and fulfilled his potential.

“He is a true story of redemption,” Connelly said. “And that is an underlying theme in most of my books. I like the idea of characters feeling the need to redeem themselves.”

In 2001, Connelly released a collection of Bosch's favorite songs as a giveaway with the Bosch novel “Dark Sacred Night.” Two of the 12 songs are Morgan's — “Lullaby” and “Mood Indigo.”

A year later Connelly used Morgan's music in another giveaway –— as the soundtrack for a short documentary detailing Connelly's fascination and relationship with Los Angeles, the backdrop for his novels.

At the time, the two men still hadn't yet met.

Blame Connelly.

He had attended a number of Morgan's concerts, sometimes sitting just a few feet from where the musician performed. But famed author or not, he was afraid to approach Morgan.

“He was a creative genius,” Connelly said. “And that is an intimidating presence for me.”

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Connelly finally worked up the courage to approach him during a concert at the Catalina Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Connelly said it was about the eighth time he had seen Morgan perform.

Morgan told Connelly he never read the Bosch books but knew about them.

They exchanged numbers and spoke from time to time. In early 2007, Morgan provided Connelly with music for an eight-minute video of excerpts from Connelly's book “The Overlook.”

Shortly after that, their lecture at Berklee was put together.

The details of that day are still fresh in Connelly's mind.

“He told the students that you don't need drugs to overcome intimidation or inadequacy. He told them to just play beautiful music and never let a day go by without practicing.”

They dined together afterward. Morgan ate his key lime pie dessert before his meal.

“Every time we had a meal together, he ordered dessert first. I think it was a prison thing.”

Connelly recalls climbing into bed later to the sound of Morgan's sax playing, echoing through the halls of their hotel.

“He was following his own advice of practicing every day.”

Morgan left for Europe the next day. He fell ill there and never recovered.

Connelly misses his friend. His documentary stands as a tribute to him and a lesson for others.

“I'm a storyteller but did not think this was a story that could be told in the written word.

“You needed to hear the music and hear Frank tell some of his story through the interviews he recorded before he died. This seemed to be a film project and one that needed to be done.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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