San Quentin Jazz Concert Honors Black History Month

The Soulful Sounds of Seasoned Ensembles

By Boston Woodard

Toes were tapping and hands were clapping as a standing-room-only San Quentin audience celebrated Black History Month with a live jazz concert.

Joseph Demerson

Joseph Demerson

“It’s been quite some time since I’ve heard live jazz music,” said James Jenkins. “What I witnessed today rivals any music performance I saw out in the free world. I hope these guys can share their talents with us again in the near future,” added Jenkins.

Prisoners hustled from San Quentin’s cellblocks toward the annual Feb. 8 event, hoping for a good seat.

The Protestant Chapel ambiance could have rivaled any jazz club in the free world as music enthusiasts seated themselves by the dozens. Musicians of the jazz genre tuned their instruments on stage while the mass assembly seated itself. This jazz festival was organized and performed by the jazzmen of San Quentin.

The ‘We Just Came to Play’ and ‘NSF’ musicians

The ‘We Just Came to Play’ and ‘NSF’ musicians

Throughout the show, there were periodic eruptions of applause brought on by a well-known tune or a blistering solo by one of the players. Several times throughout the performance, Reginald Austin wowed the throng with interspersed mixtures of familiar rhythmic melodies.

Black History Month in February is an appropriate time to showcase jazz music and what it means to not only the black community at San Quentin, but to every one who appreciates the soulful sounds of rich jazz compositions being played by seasoned musicians.

Watani Stiner addressed the event by asking the attendance to participate in a traditional Swahili intone titled “HARAMBEE (Let’s all pull together).” After a brief historical background on the day’s celebration, Watani introduced San Quentin’s own We Just CameTo Play, a group comprised of prisoners skilled in the jazz genre.

Prior to We Just Came To Play taking the stage, the rhythm and blues group NSF opened the event with two “musicals” written by Rogers & Farris. NSF set the mood with a cadence that compelled the audience to tap their feet.

We Just Came To Play trumpet player Larry Henry Faison said it was jazz tunes like Black Orpheus by Louis Boneli “with a melody that flows,” and Footprints by Wayne Shorter “Where we can go to follow in somebody’s footsteps, and their legacies, that are influential to our love for jazz.”

Keyboardist and songwriter Austin said John Coltrane was the man who made him start listening to jazz. “Coltrane would play things on the horn unlike anything I ever heard. I also loved the way he looked at the mechanics of music.”

John Wilkerson, Arts and Corrections band sponsor and percussionist, added his unique character to the smooth jazz ambience. Several days a week, Wilkerson sponsors various music groups and is instrumental in making events such as San Quentin’s Black History jazz event.

Blues musician Gary Harrell, who was sitting front row, told the San Quentin News, “As a musician, I’ve met many men who have taken the stage honoring Black History Month; these guys are as good as they get.”

During Stiner’s opening announcement, he told the audience that jazz is a complex music that derives from many musical elements. “These elements were recycled through the concepts and aesthetic principles that define the musical tradition of Africa.”

Staying true to his style, keyboardist Austin mixed some of his compositions with the chord substitutions for which Coltrane was well known. Those men in the audience acquaintanced with the work of Coltrane were impressed with the exhibit put on by We Came To Play.

Austin said, “We Just Came To Play’s” repertoire was packed with progressive and classic styles from a comprehensive collection of contemporary songs put together by the ensemble. Watching the musicians negotiating their instruments on stage, listening to their improvising, accompanying grooves, solos, and moving grooves, was a show in and of itself.

We Just Came To Play: Reginald Austin, Dwight Krizmen, Allen “Squirrel” Ware, Larry Henry Faison, Greg Dixon.

NSF: W.R. “Rico” Rogers, D. Farris, R. Tillman, C. “C-Bo” King, E. Wilson, J.D. Strothers, J. Demerson.

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