Entire concert was videotaped for Death Row viewing
Prisoners and outside guest Tony Saunders played a concert for the 700-plus men housed on the world’s largest Death Row inside San Quentin State Prison.
More than 30 prisoners from the general population did musical performances in the prison’s Catholic Chapel, but due to the security level of those on Death Row they were not allowed to attend. Instead, the entire concert was videotaped by the men who work in the prison’s media center.
“Keep your head up and believe in better days,” said Allison Watson. He spent 31 years on Death Row before his sentence was overturned. He’s now serving his sentence in the prison’s general population.
The diverse show opened with a rap performance by Rasheed Zinnamon, who was well received by the unusually high attendance of more than 100 prisoners and a few volunteers during the broadcast of a Sunday night football game.
“We are Banda Esperanza, and we send our regards to our brothers and sisters on Death Row,” the band leader said.
The all-Hispanic band was joined by the audience with claps as the men sang, played three guitars, bass and drums. A loud roar, applause and whistling from the crowd followed their performance.
“I’m grateful to the administration for letting us have the music,” one of the band members said before they performed. They were Jose Diaz, Martin Y. Vincente Gomez, Jose Vieyra, Senor Figueroa, Guadalupe Aranda and Adriel Ramirez.
“Tonight is all inclusive as you can tell,” said Lisa Starbird of the organization Bread & Roses, which sponsored the event. Starbird looked for men willing to say on the microphone what they were grateful for. “If you’re not involved in some kind of program (at San Quentin), there’s something out there for you.”
“Christ and Me Arrived” was performed by members of the Catholic Chapel Choir that included the music, lyrics and harmony of Gino Sevacos, Dwight Krizman, Rick Evans, Daniel Lee, John Krueger, Kelvin Ross, Bill Harwood and Alan Brown.
“I’m grateful to Bread & Roses for bringing us the gift of music,” a prisoner in the audience said. “One love!” he shouted out to the men on Death Row.
“We all support you and send our love,” a prisoner named Dennis said to the men on Death Row.
“I’m grateful for the blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” said another prisoner.
The jazz band Free Fall, consisting of Greg “D” Dixon (guitar), Lee “Jazz” Jaspar (bass),
Mark Kinney (piano) and Dwight Krizman (drums) performaned a convincing selection that sealed its dominance as the go-to jazz ensemble.
Jaspar played the bass effortlessly as Dixon picked notes on the guitar and scatted note-for-note, in key with the music. As the music pushed on, each musician locked in and improvised with each other. They received a standing ovation.
A small technical problem with the audio stopped the show for about a minute, so Starbird improvised by passing the microphone around to give others an opportunity to speak about gratitude. The comments kept pouring out as the men encouraged the men on Death Row to stay positive.
“There’s always hope,” a prisoner in the audience said. “I thank God for the mercy He has shown me. We can all make better choices and be better people.”
Starbird thanked the SQ media team for coming out to cover the event because it was a Sunday night, which typically receives little media coverage.
The band Quentin Blue performed a number of songs including an original tune called “Chamba’s Mountain.” It had a country vibe as singer Richie Morris and the rest of the men sang backup and played three guitars, piano, bass, mandolin and percussion instruments.
The ensemble was made up of Morris, Dwight Krizman, Joe Thureson, Bill Harwood, Andrew “Boots” Hardy, Ray Simpson and Chris Thomas.
“That was one of the funest gigs I ever played,” said Simpson, who played guitar.
Later, Starbird introduced Tony Saunders. She said he’s “pretty amazing” for all the things he does like coming in to the prison to help. She also expressed gratitude to Father George Williams for allowing them to use the chapel for the event.
Saunders said he was happy to be able to play for the men on Death Row. “Know that you’re thought of,” he reminded them. “Don’t think that nobody notices.”
Using prerecorded music tracks on the first song, played over the chapel PA system, Saunders played the bass lines on his custom-made five-string bass. The melody of the song could easily be identified by his phrasing on the bass. He made the instrument speak to the audience. Then he used his voice to scat with every note as he thumped and plucked the instrument to the delight of the crowd.
“Don’t try this in your cells alone,” Saunders said with a big smile.
Then he did a solo and didn’t spare any tricks as he made the bass growl. His fingers crisscrossed every octave of the bass fret board. Then he played “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix as the audience clapped before he returned to his R&B, jazz improvised solo. The crowd applauded and shouted.
An appropriate song selected and performed for the men on Death Row was Saunder’s song “Always Thinking About You” from his 2016 album Uptown Jazz, produced by Saunders and Larry Batiste on the label SFRecords.
The show didn’t end there. Jaspar, Krizman and Saunders performed an improvised piece that sounded like they’ve been playing together for years. Krizman led with a drum rhythm as Saunders and Jaspar followed on bass and piano, respectively. Saunders’ facial expressions let everyone know he was into the music.
“Two years ago, he (Jaspar) taught me some stuff,” said Saunders of the first time they played together. He said that performance lasted about 40 minutes because they had so much fun.
After Saunders and friends, The Prodigal Sons took the stage by storm with a memorable gospel sounding piece. They were Michael Kirkpatrick, Greg Thompson, Calvin “Sincere” Carter, Michael Bootae and Derry “Brother-Dee” Brown. The lyrics and harmony were inspiring as the men sang: “Well, I went to the church last night, and my heart felt alright, ‘cause Jesus got a hold on me.”
The audience clapped and sang along as they performed this gospel/spiritual piece. No matter what one’s faith, this song was very moving – reminiscent of civil rights freedom songs and marches for civil rights — think Eyes on The Prize. Their harmony was magic, and the crowd stood up and applauded to let them know it.
After the show, volunteer Molly Kittle said, “I was struck by the love in the room. The quality of how every man – performers and audience – chose to use their voice to lift all of us higher.”
“I love rap, ‘80s music, and gospel,” said volunteer and guest Katie Burke. “The concert started with rap and ended with ‘80s and gospel, so I was happy. Thanks to all the musicians and to the camera people who covered the event.”
Recording the “Concert for Death Row” was the SQTV video crew of Brian Asey, Eric “Phil” Phillips, Jerry Welsh, Jaspar (show producer), Joshua Burton, and supervisor Skyler Brown.
The full concert will appear on San Quentin’s institutional television channel in the coming weeks.