The magical tones of Bach compositions filled the San Quentin Protestant Chapel under the masterful hand of Grammy Award-winning cellist Zuill Bailey.
It was Bailey’s second performance this year at San Quentin. Each time he’s played at the historic prison, he’s moved some inmates to tears when they listened to his melodic solos.
“I wanted to make them feel some- thing, even though it was uncomfortable,” Bailey said in an interview. To do that, he used a 325-year-old cello on loan to him for life.
“These kind of performances help with rehabilitation, said audience member Bill Sessa, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson.”
“Ultimately, most inmates are going to go back to the communities they came from, so anything that keeps them in touch with their own humanity and can lift them up a little bit is good for them as people,” Sessa said. “It also helps the morale of the prison, which makes it a safer environment.”
Bach composed all but one of the selections for the Oct. 15 concert. “There’s something very human about Bach’s music,” he told the audience as he educated them on the history of the cello and construction of the first one in 1693.
The show was not promoted, so attendance was thin. It didn’t matter though, because Bailey still played with passion, opening with Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in G major. The pitch of the cello, in the range of the human voice, moved up and down with soft and loud dynamic sound as he played the two-minute piece.
When the song ended, applause filled the room, suggesting there were more in attendance than the actual head count. “I like the smiles because it makes me smile,” Bailey said.
He was dressed in black with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up.
His second selection was Prelude No. 2 in D minor. “There’s a little bit of anger in that one,” he said. “I’m not amplified. I’m acoustic. I can make silence part of the music.”
Continuing with a brief history of music, he said before cellos, violas and violins there were guitars and lutes.
Bailey then launched into a repetitive succession of notes, moving precisely between scale intervals as he performed Prelude No. 3 in C major. His cello growled as he appeared to be improvising because he didn’t have sheet music in front of him.
“Now you can see where Eddie Van Halen got his inspiration,” Bailey said at the end of the song.
Every selection featured a common theme or phrasing.
During certain measures in one song, it sounded as if it would end. Then it continued to the next section, as if the composition would resolve in the next piece. As the music progressed, Bailey played notes with more vibrato.
Bailey stood up and took a bow before the audience after one of many standing ovations and applause. “I haven’t done that in public in a long time,” he said with a warm smile.
During a Q&A session Bailey said “I’m definitely not improvising.” He said 95 percent of everything he plays is memorized. With sheet music, however, he said it’s “a collaborative effort.”
Jenny Douglass, principal violist with the Marin Symphony, joined Bailey to per- form a duet on Beethoven’s Eyeglass Duo for viola and cello. It was her third time visiting San Quentin, once when the San Francisco Opera performed.
Bailey and Douglass used sheet music to perform Eyeglass. “My hands have to be ready to play that piece for you,” said Bailey.
Using only a glance to communicate like only musicians can do with each other, Bailey said “she (Douglass) told me in the hard spots, don’t speed up.”
Douglass is also the director of education for the Marin Symphony. “I’m tasked with bringing music to schools” and other places, she said. “My role is to get music out of the concert hall. This (San Quentin) is our community.”
Since Bailey last performed at San Quentin, he has performed in Spain, Alaska, Morocco and Turkey. “It’s not what you do, but how it makes you feel,” he said.
Bailey had a unique way of closing the performance. “When I’m done (with Bach’s Kel Nidrei), don’t clap,” he said. “Let’s end that way.” He also asked the audience members to close their eyes. “We listen a lot with our eyes.”
Silence filled the chapel for 30 seconds after Bailey completed his set. “That’s a cold way to end, man,” one inmate said. For many, however, it is the beginning of rehabilitation through fine arts, one note at a time.