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Prison Jams

The jazz scene that once rocked San Quentin.

The jazz scene that once rocked San Quentin.


When a few years ago Pierre Briançon stumbled upon an old interview with saxophonist Frank Morgan, he began to uncover one of the jazz world’s best-kept secrets: California’s infamous San Quentin State Prison witnessed some mean jam sessions in its day.

“Morgan tells the story about when he was in San Quentin, together with Art Pepper, and they used to play on weekends…and then I knew I had a story,” recalls Briançon, who just completed a book on the musicians’ prison terms. The tome bears the working title San Quentin Jazz Band and will be published by Grasset in France in February.

As the writer combed through California Department of Corrections archives and back issues of the prison newspaper The San Quentin News, the jazz inmate roster grew to include Charlie Parker’s pianist, Jimmy Bunn, and lesser-known musicians such as saxophonist Earl Anderza and trumpeter Dupree Bolton. Mainly charged with drug offenses, the musicians honed their craft in the big house, playing gigs to entertain guards and fellow inmates. They also composed tunes for prison competitions.

While Johnny Cash may have put San Quentin on the musical map when he performed there in 1969, the prison’s role in shaping jazz history is a relatively undocumented—even taboo—phenomenon.

“When jazz musicians get into prison, they disappear….You don’t talk about it,” says Briançon, a Paris-based business journalist for Breakingviews.com. “Jazz critics didn’t write about the heroin trade. They didn’t want to talk about that because it would kind of reinforce the cliché that all jazz musicians are addicts and lowlifes.”

Lewis Porter, director of the master’s program in jazz at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., hasn’t seen the manuscript, but expresses interest in the book’s premise. “Most jazz musicians who have gone to prison have mentioned playing music there,” Porter says. “But…nobody before has put it all together to show just how much activity there was.”

The book attests that San Quentin, while best known for its gas chambers and overcrowded cells, nonetheless had some fairly progressive ideas about prisoner reform back in the Sixties. Inmates were allowed—and even encouraged—to keep busy. Some played sports, worked on the newspaper or staged plays, while others ordered instruments through the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue.

“Within the prison system, you had both the stars and the no-names and the guys who never played before and probably never played after,” Briançon says.

What’s more, San Quentin acted as a sort of incubator for a form of music that was undergoing radical changes in the early Sixties. Rock ’n’ roll was emerging as the dominant music medium and the advent of television was deterring music lovers from hitting the clubs.

“Within this confined space, those guys probably played the best jazz that was never heard,” Briançon notes wistfully. Although a devoted Pepper fan, the Frenchman seems most interested in the stories of the lesser-known inmates, whose careers flourished briefly with a few albums cut between prison stints.

“I came across people I’ve never heard about,” Briançon says with a hint of surprise, given his vast collection of jazz recordings and literature. The stories of those little-known musicians figure prominently in the book. There is a chapter on Bolton, a trumpeter who drifted into poverty and obscurity after serving time. “He’s widely deemed a genius, except that he only recorded two albums and then ended up homeless on the streets of Oakland, literally playing in the streets for change,” Briançon says.

Another chapter chronicles the life of Anderza, who thrived as both a composer and a musician in San Quentin. But he virtually disappeared from the music scene after recording just one album, Outa Sight, in 1963.

“In terms of official jazz history, it is as if Earl Anderza never existed except for that one record,” Briançon writes. “Once the album was recorded, Anderza returned to prison and he disappeared off the music radar.”

The book also examines the prominent role of drugs in the jazz world. Addiction, considered a crime in its own right until 1962, landed many jazz musicians behind bars. Heroin, the elixir of choice in the Fifties, fueled creative brilliance but ultimately destroyed the lives of the likes of Pepper and Parker.

Unfortunately, prison did little to curb those addictions. In fact, an underground economy allowed inmates to easily secure a fix and prison officials often went easy on the jazz musicians who entertained them on Saturday nights.

“Part of the reason a lot of younger jazz musicians in the Fifties got hooked is that there was that aura—that if you want to play like Charlie Parker, you have to live like Charlie Parker—that your musical genius is magnified by drug-taking, by heroin,” Briançon explains.

The author, whose previous books have focused on politics and business, is working on the final edits of the San Quentin story and is eager to publish an English edition soon. And he’s already pondering its Hollywood potential, as well.

“I want Clint Eastwood to direct this,” Briançon jokes. “And I can tell you that Johnny Depp is Art Pepper.”

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