I taught music inside a good number of both NYS and Federal prisons back in the day.
I met a number of interesting players during that time. But here is the best tale to come out of that period of jazz in prison. I wrote it as a chapter in a book I've been doing for a few years (sorry if it's too long-it is what it is):
SMALL WORLD: Who Is That Man ?
In my lifetime, I've worked at a lot of different jobs at different times. When the rent was due or the car needed new brakes, I'd sometimes have to take a job to get that money together. The list of jobs is pretty interesting, now that I look back on it.
I operated a news stand for a few weeks in Jersey City. I sold replacement windows. I was a paid union picketer. I sold conveyor belting, industrial motors and pulleys, bearings and all sorts of industrial goods, and I sold tombstones, too. I once was hired to collect a suspicious bet for a bookie and I did an interview for the New York Post with the "queen of mean" Leona Helmsley, who was locked up at the Danbury Federal prison for Women at the time.
One thing I did for more than a few years was teach inside of prisons. That's how I came to meet Leona Helmsley. But she wasn't even close to the most interesting character I met while teaching in probably 7 or 8 different prisons. I actually taught a jazz history class inside a Federal witness Protection Program that was located inside a maximum security Federal prison- a prison within a prison. There, in one class, I had sitting in front of me the notorious heroin kingpin Nicky Barnes, right off the front pages of the newspapers.
But mostly, I worked inside New York State maximum security prisons, teaching classes for a college that ran programs inside the prison. As I think about it now, I must have been nuts to do what I did but, at the time, the pay was very good and I found it pretty interesting, too. I learned a lot during those years, not the least of which was that you have no idea who's actually in these places and, if you did, you'd be glad most of them are there and not running around your neighborhood. But that's a different story.
Over the course of a few years, I taught a lot of guys about jazz history and music. One of the things that always happened when I'd go into a major prison as a musician is that the musicians in the prison would come around, even if they weren't enrolled in the course I'd be teaching. Anything new was a draw inside the walls.So, I'd get to meet a lot of guys. Some would be good musicians but most would be wannabes or, worse- awful players who considered themselves to be really good players. I met them all and I remember quite a few- Raoul was a beautiful Latino singer and songwriter, played claves and ran the prison salsa band at Green Haven Prison. Jack the Bear was a grizzled, old lifer who went into prison as a drummer and developed into a piano player/ arranger and leader of the prison jazz band. His sidekick was T-Wine, another old, ex-junkie who could really play tenor sax and flute. He looked like the nicest guy on the planet too, mellow and soft-spoken. He'd take you out in a second if he had to, though. He'd done it before.
I did this work for a few years and probably taught more than 500 different prisoners during that time, and one thing struck me for many years after that- for all the guys I'd taught, I had never run into any of them afterward, after they had been paroled or had served their full bid. They were on the street somewhere but our paths never crossed.
Except, many years later, just once.
It turns out it is a small world, after all.
My wife and I started a family and I decided I needed to make a real living, so I started my own business, a small marble and granite company that I ran for about 10 years. But, in 1984, it was still a small operation and I was trying to put together a joint venture with some investors that would enable me to expand. That was the backdrop to a day in August when I needed to see a potential customer in the Bronx and then continue on to Philadelphia for a meeting with some potential investors.
It was easily a sweltering 100 degrees that day.
I had just, a few days before, picked up a brand new car and my plan was to drive to the Bronx, find this small shop and meet with them about some business, then drive straight to Philly from there. My new car had maybe 300 miles on it when I left home that day.
I am often confused driving in the Bronx and I get lost easily and this day was no different. I drove around for 20 minutes trying to figure out where I was and where I was going. But I finally zeroed in on the neighborhood and started to look for a place to park.
Here's the picture: it's over 100 degrees and every fire hydrant in the Bronx is open and spewing fountains of water all around and there are kids everywhere running in and out of the spray. This was the scene at every hydrant I passed. And, every stoop to every 3 story building was covered with people trying to escape the sweltering heat inside. There were at least 8 or 10 people on every stoop, on every block in the neighborhood.
And, the neighborhood, ah yes, the neighborhood.
Well, let's just say that I was the only white face within a mile, as far as I could tell. And when I finally spotted the shop I was looking for, I realized that there wasn't a parking space on the block. Nor on the next block. It was two blocks away that I found a spot, in front of one of those building with a dozen black men sitting on the stoop, just like every stoop I had passed driving slowly down those two blocks. As I pulled into that spot, I could feel every eye on the block looking at me and my car and, to tell the truth, I thought that there was no way my car would still be there when I got back. But I had no choice but to hope for the best. Too much was riding on my business that day.
So, I got out of the car, opened the back door to get my suit jacket and briefcase and took a deep breath. Then I heard this coming from somebody sitting on that stoop:
"Hey, Joe. Hey , man, Joe!"
When I turned around, I was face to face with a huge black man with a gold tooth flashing inside a big smile aimed at me. I knew that face and that tooth from playing Horace Silver tunes in Downstate Correctional Facility's music room. The name attached to the owner of that smile was Clyde Jackson, a less-than- accomplished trumpet player who, nevertheless loved to play and worked hard at it, if we use Clyde's idea of "hard work" as the measure, if you know what I mean.
After all these years, this was the first and only time I had ever run into one of the guys on the street and I just happen to pull up in front of his apartment.
So, the meeting goes like this. He gently knocks me in the shoulder as he greets me, and I, in return, smack him with the back of my hand in his chest. I always liked Clyde and I especially liked him at that moment.
"When did you get out?"
"Man, about a year ago. What are you doing here?"
"I've got business down the street at the stone shop. You know it?"
"Yeah. The Italians. What are you doing with them?"
And I give him a brief update on my life and he does the same, and all the while, everybody on every stoop on the block is watching us. We may be smiling but nobody else is and I can feel it.
"Clyde, listen man, I've got to make this meeting and I'm a bit concerned about my ride being here when I get back."
Clyde flashes that gold-tooth grin again and tells me not to worry about it.
"You want it washed?", he asks.
Of course I do, I tell him, and off I go down the two blocks with every eye on every stoop following me. There's not a friendly face to be seen, it's 100 degrees and nobody is in a good mood.
An hour later, I exit the stone shop and start the walk back up the 2 blocks to my car and it's still 100 out and everybody's still on the steps of the buildings. But this time, I begin to hear this:
"Hey, hornman. Play that thing."
And that's all I hear for 2 blocks and now almost every face I see has a grin or smile showing a bit. The word had gotten out about who I was and how I was connected to Clyde Jackson, who obviously had some pull in the neighborhood, and things were different. I could hear and see it for sure, but I could feel it too.
When I got back to my car, Clyde was on the stoop, my car looked wet but not particularly cleaner than it had been when I left, and there was a bottle of wine being passed around. It was offered to me as I approached the men, who were now smiling, and I gladly took a quick swig and handed it back.
Clyde got up from the steps and walked with me to my car, his arm around my shoulder and a big, laughing grin on his face, and we made some jokes about this and that. Then I pulled a twenty out of my pocket and handed it to Clyde, telling him the next bottle was on me, and , with that, got in my car and headed out for Philly, leaving Clyde smiling on the sidewalk in my rear view mirror.
I never saw Clyde again, and I have never come across another con from my days of teaching in prison. But I always remember that one time and how it may have saved my new car, and I know that it also made me feel good to know that the many hours of showing Clyde the music of Horace Silver in the cement-block music room at Downstate Correctional Facility gave him something that's hard to describe but easy to recognize.
It was right there in that gold-tooth smile of his on that Bronx street that sweltering August day. I have no illusion that Jackson was anything other than a real con in many respects, but I also knew something more about the man that maybe could be communicated only by the music we shared, behind bars.