Grammy Award winning cellist, Zuill Bailey, returned to San Quentin State Prison’s Protestant Chapel for a third time to perform for an audience of inmates, staff and outside guests.
“Thank you for taking me out of prison for a while,” an inmate in the audience said.
It was by far the best turnout for one of Bailey’s performances. The audience kept growing during the performance as inmates and staff trickled into the chapel for the noontime show.
It was a sunny afternoon at the prison, so Bailey was competing for attention with men playing basketball and activities on the Lower Yard while others waited for the performance to begin.
Bailey opened with a solo performance of the The Swan by Johannes Sebastian Bach, written in 1717. He followed with a piece by Tchaikovsky, and the audience quietly listened as they watched the emotion Bailey displayed as he played his 326-year-old Stradivarius cello.
“Thank you,” Bailey said in a humble greeting to the audience. “It’s really great to be back.” Remaining consistent with his prior engagements at the prison, he spoke candidly on the stage about his path to music.
“I didn’t ask to play the cello,” said Bailey. “It was destiny.” He shared a story of his first run-in with the cello at age four when he accidentally knocked the instrument out of a girl’s hand at a concert and broke it.
Moving through his selection of songs, he played faster and used more of the instrument’s fret board to demonstrate the auditory range of the instrument from high piercing notes to low bass tones.
“You smoked Eddie Van Halen,” one inmate in the audience called out, arousing laughter.
“Don’t tell him,” Bailey responded with a smile.
Some parts of his next slowly played melodic composition sounded sad, then picked up with quick striking phrases that morphed into a range of what sounded like an ensemble of musicians. When he was done, the applause that filled the room was anything but obligatory.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Bailey asked the audience. “The slow parts are the hardest to play,” he said.
At age 19, Bailey said he was told by an accomplished musician, “Congratulations, you can play the cello. Now go get a life so people will care.”
Because of his age and years of dedication playing the cello, Bailey said he had not experienced hardship and “didn’t even have a girlfriend.” He said unlike many kids of that age, he didn’t know loss, suffering and other things life brings to someone, so he had to get some life experiences to play some songs well. Now he says: “It’s not what I do but how I feel is what sticks with me.”
Halfway through the show, Bailey welcomed Jeremy Constant, Marin Symphony’s concert master and Jenny Douglass, Marin Symphony’s principal violist to the stage to play violin and the viola respectively.
The trio performed three parts of a five-piece movement, reading from charts. The first movement opened with a strong attack, filling the chapel with centuries-old sounds; the second was a pleasant piece played with single low notes from the cello that supported the high notes played by the violin and viola.
In the third movement, the cello growled as Constant and Douglass played the violin and viola, at times in what sounded like a call-and-response style. “You have to be able to read together,” said Bailey.
“The key is to let yourself go there,” explained Bailey. “Music lets me know I’m alive.”
“Have you named your cello?” an inmate in the crowd asked during a brief question and answer session after the show.
“I’ve considered calling it Rose,” said Bailey, referring to the rose painted on the centuries-old instrument. He told the audience they’re lucky to hear such an old cello because most are in museums.
Constant played a 1850 violin. “It’s amazing to be able to play borrowed instruments,” he said. “In a sense, these are our voices.”
It was Douglass’ fourth visit to the prison and her second time performing at San Quentin with Bailey. She is the Director of Education at Marin Symphony. She said the program trains children, ages 8 to 19, in orchestral ensemble. She’s been playing the viola since age four.
“When the three of you played, it seemed like there were more of you,” an audience member told the group. “When are you coming back?”
“This is my personal third time,” said Bailey. “I guarantee we’ll be back.”