Twelve songs, featuring music and lyrics written and performed by inmates at San Quentin turned the prison’s Catholic chapel into a concert hall in January.
Musicambia Composition Workshop was an intensive four-day event facilitated by the New York-based nonprofit Musicambia, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the William James Association. It offered space for inmates to collaborate and compose original music.
Students and faculty from the Conservatory worked nonstop with Musicambia’s Brad Balliett to guide inmate artists through the process of creating music.
“From the minute I walked into this room, I knew we were going to have a great week,” said Balliett, a bassoonist, songwriter, composer and teaching artist.
“I feel everyone benefits in the end,” said Matthew Gamboa, a conservatory student and electronic music producer, who plays jazz guitar, bass and piano. “It’s a learning experience that goes two ways.”
On the first day, inmate Jason “Jukebox” Griffin, 42, commented, “It would be cool to write music and connect with people.”
“I teach people how to sing,” said Matthew Worth, a faculty voice teacher at the conservatory, who led the workshop with vocal exercises.
“This is a song writing project,” said Balliett. “Our goal is to bring your ideas to life.”
He had the group begin by writing songs in groups. By the end of the first five-hour day everyone was writing “their” song.
One song, “No More,” emerged on day two. It packed the chapel with energy. Inmates Griffin and Quincy Paige, 32, wrote and performed the song together. The conservatory backed them to give the song weight that became heavier when Balliett came in on the keyboard.
Paige said “No More” was inspired by a phone conversation that he overheard in prison.
“I can’t take it anymore,” the caller had said before slamming down the phone.
“This is the only joyful experience I’ve had in over three years,” said inmate Anthony Beamon, 38. “With this kind of collaboration — this is where music gets created.”
Inmate Dwight Krizman said that, despite the restrictions of prison, the workshop was “a place where the musical community of San Quentin can gather regardless of musical background, skill level and talent to come together and create.”
In an environment where many men self-segregate themselves, music is an equalizer and bonding agent. At the workshop it transcended boundaries between musicians and non-musicians, young and old, rapper and rocker, LGBTQ and straight, Asians, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and others.
Men from all walks of life worked together on the song “On My Own.” The chorus told all their stories: “I am never so alone, than surrounded by broken souls…” Balliett worked as musical director on this tune and played the bassoon as Worth sang lead. Michail Thompson, a conservatory student, added a poignant sound with his trumpet.
“I’m excited about what we have to offer together,” Thompson had said on day one. His skill playing classical jazz added an unanticipated but bright layer of sound to the workshop’s music.
The guidance and encouragement from Musicambia, the conservatory and the talent displayed throughout the workshop revealed that prisoners can perform at professional levels in music and beyond.
“I’m really proud of everybody,” said Worth.
He said by day two people stepped on the stage with confidence and started to sing with authority.
“It was great to see the rough draft,” said Rachael S. a composer on faculty with the conservatory. “We’ve done so much work in two days, and there’s so much more to do.”
Rehearsals looked like scenes from American Idol as groups of performers and musicians gathered in the pews and in various corners of the chapel to collaborate. A cacophony of music and singing could be heard from all directions.
Underneath the inmates’ hard work were the dreams, struggles, aspirations and disappointments of confined men taking advantage of the opportunity to reconstruct broken pieces of a past life. In four days, the men were able to repair a small part of themselves and discover the talent lost or overlooked.
Everyone was serious, but notes, chords, charts, writing and vocal exercises could not contain the impulse of their creative nature. Following a break one afternoon, the men and the conservatory students performed an impromptu spiritual song.
Inmate Michael Adams led the groove and encouraged each musician to perform an improvised solo as he assumed the role of conductor. Conservatory students Gamboa, Thompson, Parsa Mirzaagha (guitar), Gavin Harris (drums), and inmate Mark Kinney all took turns showcasing their talent as they communicated with each other in a language only musicians understand.
Later, Adams and Beamon sang “I Can Feel Your Pain.” Adams delivered a soulful performance as he expressed “feeling all the world’s sorrow…”
As the workshop moved into the night, some conservatory students appeared drained and exhausted, but they hung on like professionals.
By day three, an official set list of songs was created for a concert the following evening.
“There’s going to be a lot of down time,” said Balliett. By then they were preparing for the show, but that didn’t stop the men from perfecting their songs.
Rehearsal moved quickly and once it was determined a song was on track the singers were stopped for the next group to take the stage.
On day four, Balliett said, “My worst nightmare is that we get to 8 p.m. and we have three songs left.”
The show started with Michail Thompson leading the charge with his trumpet on “Pattie’s Wish Dragon,” written by Ronnell “Rauch” Draper. The men sang a chorus that delivered an emotional message with rap and speech as the band accentuated the song.
“Believe it or not, on Monday morning that song did not exist,” said Balliett.
Inmate Richie Morris took the stage at San Quentin for the last time. “After 34 years in prison, the governor in his wisdom decided I can go home,” he said.
The song “Trying To Carry On” was a soulful piece written by Morris and performed previously.
Balliett played piano on “Grace Of God,” a song written by inmate Kahlifah. Rachael S. sang a soft verse and conservatory student Julio Cesar Martinez used the warmth of his deep baritone voice to sing the low end of the song. Inmate Gary Harrell played harmonica on the song, followed by conservatory students Zoe Jo-Yun Lee on cello and Luke Chiang on violin.
On the song “My Life,” Paige engaged the crowd, and they clapped to the beat as he rapped. The horn sounds were the most prevalent throughout the chapel as the percussion instruments held a steady beat.
The music and chorus to “When You Think About Me,” written and played on the piano by this author, sung by inmate Kerry Rudd, who wrote the verses, received an earnest show of appreciation.
The crowd seemed moved during “A Christmas Hallelujah,” especially when Thompson soloed on his trumpet. They applauded in the middle of the song to show their gratitude.
On “Free My Dogs” Luke Chiang steered the song with his violin. Inmate Thanh Tran, 26, sang before the band punched in, like a track triggered from the mixer, as people in the first three rows of pews stood, bounced and applauded.
Derry ”Brotha D” Brown and the choir performed “Everybody Needs Love” to end the night and leave everyone in a serene and thoughtful mood.
“This was awesome,” said Brown. “Hookin’ up with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was an inspiration. I never worked with my vocals, but meeting Matt (Worth) helped me exercise my vocals so I could fluctuate my range. He assured me I was on the right track.”
“This is my first time playing rock and jazz,” said Lee.
“It’s a different genre for us,” said Chiang. “The energy in here was fantastic – not your typical audience.”
“We started talking about (doing) this in 2018,” said Rachael S. “We didn’t know where or what, but it’s been a long time coming.”
“I’ve been amazed at how Brad (Balliett) and the group have been collaborating,” said Carol Newborg, Program Manager for Arts in Corrections at San Quentin. “It’s been really high quality and seemed to involve everyone.”
“I had so much fun tonight watching everyone perform,” said Rachael S. “I’m really grateful people made time and space for us.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” said inmate Bill Harwood, 65. “Three days got us here, and it lifted the roof off this place.”
“It was very inspiring,” said inmate Larry Williams, 54. “I loved it, and everybody did so good. My heart feels so much better. I can sleep good tonight.”
“It’s my hope that Musicambia will come back here,” said Balliett.
The crowd cheered him on, applauding their endorsement for him and the conservatory to return to California’s oldest prison.