Steve Simon and his Kings of Jazz are swinging. The five-piece group has launched into a version of the Cole Porter classic, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and the rhythm section, bassist Danny Slye and drummer Markie Morant, give the tune a light touch. Up front, Simon (on clarinet) and LeRoy Smalls, Jr. (on saxophone), provide low-key accompaniment to their guest vocalist, who eases into the song with a confident, loose-limbed grace. The crowd, more than 100 strong, is riveted, cheering and whistling and following the band’s every note with rapt attention. It was at that moment when I looked out the window behind the band and saw the barbed wire circling the perimeter fence outside.
For a moment, just a moment, I’d forgotten I was watching this band perform in the rec room of Perry Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison in Pelzer, S.C. that holds nearly 670 inmates.
I’d also forgotten that Wilbert D., the man so adeptly singing that Cole Porter standard, will probably be here for the rest of his natural life. For that brief moment, he was just a talented singer sitting in with a great jazz band.
I’m at Perry Correctional because of Simon and the program he created, called Jazz in the Joint. This is actually the second time Simon and his band (Smalls, Morant, pianist Oscar Rivers, Jr. and vocalist Chanel Chanel) have performed at Perry. They’ve also played at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., playing a nearly-two-hour set filled with jazz and contemporary classics like “Green Dolphin Street,” “At Last,” “Take the A Train,” “Isn’t She Lovely?” and “Georgia On My Mind.” Throughout the set, Simon and the Kings of Jazz are joined by different inmates, on vocals, harmonica, guitar or drums. The show I saw on Aug. 27 was one of the most inspiring and transformational experiences I’ve ever had covering music, but we’ll get back to the performance in just a bit.
How We Got Here
Steve Simon is a spry, quick-witted 71-year-old man who’s lived all over the world but has never lost that native New Yawk accent. Like many people, he found himself drawn to music as a child.
“I grew up in a very musical family in New York,” he says. “I started playing the clarinet when I was eight years old and taught myself to play piano when I was 12. I’ve always had a passion for music, but my life took a different direction when I finished high school.”
By the time Simon finished high school, the Vietnam War was raging, and he enlisted in the Army.
“Because I played piano, I was assigned to the First Army band, which in those days was headquartered on Governor’s Island in New York,” he says. “So music was still very much a part of my world and my life while I was in the service.”
Real-life concerns came calling when Simon got out of the Army, however, and he married his childhood sweetheart. With a new wife and baby on the way, Simon knew that making music wasn’t going to be a good way to earn a living, so for the next few decades, he put his clarinet and piano aside, working in various industries from printing and publishing (his family business) to insurance and automobile financing. After making a killing in yet another industry, the auto-auction biz, Simon retired in 2000 to a home on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. It was there that he rekindled his passion for jazz, forming a group called The Jazz Islanders.
But a few decades of moving from business to business had created an entrepreneurial restlessness in Simon, and playing jazz with the Islanders wasn’t quite enough.
“I started producing concerts,” he says, “bringing well known blues and jazz artists into the Caribbean. I founded the St. John Blues Festival, a weeklong festival we did for almost 10 years, and I started another program called Moonlight Jazz, where we brought jazz artists from the United States to the Caribbean to perform.”
Simon also felt the urge to reach out in some way to the men and women in the service, stationed in places like Iraq and Kuwait and feeling homesick just as he did in Vietnam. He wanted to do something for them, and he felt the best way he could do so was through music.
“In 2008, I started a program called Bluesapalooza,” Simon says, “and the concept was to provide blues concerts for our men and women in uniform all over the country. We were at war at the time, and we had tens of thousands of men and women who were a million miles away from home, in harm’s way 24/7, and I thought it would be pretty cool to bring them a touch of home, and remind them that there were people back home thinking about them that cared about them, that loved them and were proud of their service.”
The Bluesapalooza shows were so popular that Simon was able to work with the State Department and Armed Forces Entertainment (a division of the USO) to stage versions of it in Egypt, Kuwait, South Korea, Italy, and even Guantanamo Bay.
“It was incredibly inspiring,” Simon says of the Bluesapalooza experience, and it planted a seed in his head for a different kind of show for a different sort of audience.
When Simon moved to Charleston in 2009, he immediately wanted to get involved in community service organization, and two in particular attracted his attention: Charleston Jazz, which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the city’s rich jazz history, and the Turning Leaf project.
“Turning Leaf is one of the most successful programs working with men coming out of the prison system dealing with conflict resolution, anger management, and also dealing with giving these men the ability to interview for and get jobs,” Simon says. “I was on the board of that organization for a couple of years, and as a result of my involvement, I started to realize that there were men and women in prisons all over the U.S. who, similar to our troops, are a million miles from home, and don’t have any touchstones from home.”
By this time, Simon had become the vice president of Charleston Jazz and formed the Kings of Jazz, and a new idea began to take shape in his mind.
“I simply combined my love and passion for music, the idea that it has an enormous healing effect, and my passion for bringing music to our service men and women,” he says. “And Jazz in the Joint was born with a very simple concept: I would identify someone in the system at various prisons and educate them. What I’d like to do is come up there, meet with them and have them introduce me to inmates who have musical talent, regardless of their expertise. I wanted to meet these inmates, whether they were drummers, guitar players, vocalists, keyboard players, whatever it might be. And then I would put together a concert where I would bring professional jazz musicians to that prison and incorporate the various inmates into the program.”
It might sound simple, but it doesn’t necessarily sound easy. Simon was essentially creating a new program from scratch, there would doubtless be a mountain of bureaucratic red tape to tackle, and the logistics of getting together a performance that involved musicians he wouldn’t be able to rehearse with would certainly be a nightmare, right?
Well, none of that turned out to be the case.
“The prison officials had no hesitation whatsoever,” Simon says. “When I’d give my pitch, I’d barely finish my third sentence before they said yes. You have to remember that there’s zero learning curve here: There are legions of volunteers throughout the country that volunteer to do work at prisons, mostly related to education or spirituality. There are people who come in and teach inmates to read and other basic skills. There are ministers going in and assisting the prison chaplains to help impact the minds and hearts of inmates.”
So another program made up of volunteers coming in to educate and enrich inmates didn’t sound that far-fetched at all. In fact, the prisons even have instruments like pianos, drum kits, and guitars on hand, and as for the material and rehearsal process, Simon had that figured out, as well.
In some cases, the prisons already had musical instruments in their recreation areas. In others, Simon would donate instruments. For the show at Perry Correctional, for example, Simon donated a bass guitar, a tenor sax and sheet music. He would also meet with the inmates a couple of times before that and work out what they wanted to perform.
“For the vocalists, they tell us in advance what songs they would like to sing, and we make sure they have lyric sheets when we get there,” Simon says. “We don’t do a quote unquote rehearsal, but when we get there to do the sound check, we know in 10 seconds what key that person is singing in. Some of the inmates play by ear, and some have the ability to read music, but regardless, we give them a laundry list of songs, mostly jazz and pop standards, and we let them pick which ones they want to do. So they all start out with a comfort zone. We’re all professional musicians, we know how to accompany someone who’s soloing, and it just works.”
Simon says that the first two performances at Lee and Perry have gone off without a hitch, despite the myriad of things that could potentially have gone wrong.
“There’s never been a train-wreck,” Simon says.
But I must confess that, leading up to the performance I saw on Aug. 27, I was skeptical about that.
Our Day In Prison
The musicians and I meet outside the gates of Perry Correctional Institution at around 10 a.m. And then we wait outside with the instruments in the fast-rising mid-morning heat as every bit of equipment we’re carrying is scrutinized, X-ray scanned, and checked in. I was told not to speak to any of the inmates about why they were in Perry, and I was only allowed to bring in my license, a pen, a notepad and, through some stroke of luck, my recording device. All told, it takes somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour just to get through the door.
I was expecting to be led into some sort of cramped, dark room with bars on the windows and armed guards everywhere and surrounded by prisoners glaring at me with barely suppressed rage. Instead, after moving through a couple of thick-framed doors, I followed the band, pushing their equipment in laundry carts, to a cafeteria-rec-room combo that looked like it could’ve been in my son’s school. There are vending machines in the corner and chairs set up, and a few men in jumpsuits are milling around a drum kit and piano set up at the back of the room.
Occasionally, a guard will walk in, but it seems like it’s more out of curiosity than anything else. The prisoners greet the Kings of Jazz with handshakes and hugs, and to a man, they all seem overjoyed. There’s an inmate running sound; inmates help the band set up their equipment. I’ve been going to concerts all my life, and I’ve never seen a setup done as quickly and professionally as the one at Perry.
As the sound check begins at around 11:15 a.m., it becomes apparent that most of the men who helped with the setup are also performing today.
A visibly thrilled black man who looks to be in his late 50s steps to the microphone after hugging everyone in sight, including me. His name is Wilbert D., and he kicks off the sound check with his version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” It’s immediately apparent that he knows the song like the back of his hand, and he barely glances at the lyric sheet on the music stand. He plays with the verses so skillfully that there are moments where I’m sure he’s forgotten a line before he playfully speeds up or slows down his vocal just like a seasoned vocalist would.
There’s a tall, salt-and-pepper haired inmate named Troy T. sitting next to me, beaming from ear to ear while Wilbert sings. He leans over to me and says, “He’s great, isn’t he?”
I nod my head.
“Wilbert had a gig in Vegas lined up before he … ended up inside,” Troy says, pausing for a moment before saying, “He used to be on death row.”
It takes me a few moments to recover from that, but the sound check rolls on. Troy and Sam J., who’s doing double-duty as soundman and musician, pick up their harmonica and electric guitar, respectively, and blaze their way through a red-hot blues number, trading licks and figuring out the tempo in just a couple of run throughs. The sound check runs more smoothly than I thought possible, with different inmates coming and going while the band plays, but there’s one moment that sticks out in my mind.
An impossibly young-looking man named Dimitri P. steps to the mic and begins singing “Amazing Grace” in a stunning, soulful voice. He gets through the first verse with the band providing minimal accompaniment before Simon encourages him to sing it a capella before counting the band in. When they kick in behind his vocals, the song goes from a mournful hymn to a New Orleans party, with Simon and Leroy Smalls wailing on their instruments.
When the band concludes their sound check, I look at the clock and I’m stunned to see that it’s only slightly after noon. The entire process took about 45 minutes.
During the break before showtime, I speak to drummer Markie Morant about his experience so far playing these shows.
“I love it,” Morant says. “When Steve mentioned it to me, I told him to count me in. These guys are very talented. It’s just as uplifting for us as it might be for them to interact and join in musically and share the spirit. You can see how much this matters to them. I play music a lot, and the music sometimes becomes background. But here, you can see their faces light up when we play.”
By 12:30 p.m., the room is full, and I’m surprised by the faces I see. The racial makeup seems to be relatively even, with about one-third white inmates, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic. There are some young men in the crowd, but it’s largely a middle-aged audience. For the most part, all of the men in the crowd are attentive, polite, and visibly excited, and some of them sit with employees of the prison, who have left their offices to come see the show.
After a brief introduction and an invocation from the prison chaplain, who was Simon’s main liaison in setting up the show, the performance begins with “Green Dolphin Street.” The crowd politely applauds after the first couple of solos, but during Slye’s bass solo, they come alive, many of them standing up to cheer Slye on while he works his magic on the fretboard.
Next, vocalist Chanel Chanel takes her first turn with “Fly Me to the Moon,” and I confess as she walked up to the mic, I didn’t know what to expect; I’d been trained by television and films to expect chaotic, lewd reaction to a female singer.
And I was completely wrong. The inmates treat her with respect and attention, applauding as she works her way expertly into the final verse and begins playing with the melody. Pianist Oscar Rivers, Jr. leads the band through a gorgeous piece of his own called “El Sol,” and then it’s time for the first guest spot of the day, Wilbert D.’s performances of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “That’s All.” As I spoke of before, he is a remarkably talented singer with a grainy, Nat King Cole-meets-Johnny Mathis voice.
Morant takes his first drum solo on the next tune, “Blue Bossa Nova,” and the crowd explodes, giving him a partial standing ovation. A young man named Patrick sits in behind the kit for the next song, Duke Ellington’s classic “Take the A Train,” and though he isn’t as skilled a musician as Morant, the inmates seem to lift him to a higher level, cheering and clapping and jokingly yelling for a drum solo.
By now, what started as an enthusiastic-but-polite crowd has truly come alive. By the time Wilbert returns to the mic for the gentle ballad “Who Can I Turn To,” they are ecstatic, shouting “Sing that song!” while he works his way through the verses. Chanel’s note-perfect rendition of Etta James’ immortal “At Last” brings them to their feet again, and the blues number featuring the call-and-response between Sam J.’s guitar and Tro D.’s harmonica transforms from a tentative-but-fun number from the sound check to a barn-burner that has the crowd cheering throughout.
Between songs, Simon exhorts the crowd by asking, “Does anyone else feel the spirit in this room?” and talking about how the idea behind Jazz in the Joint is that everyone deserves a second chance, including the men in this prison. At least once, as I sit off to the side taking notes, he turns, smiles and winks at me.
Then something happens that truly stuns me; during a performance of “88,” a lively hot number on piano, an inmate gets up and begins dancing his way to the front of the crowd. He looks to be in his 20s, he’s rail-thin and he’s doing a joyful shuffle, his arms and legs jerking and flying in time to the music. I don’t know what to expect in this moment; will a guard come and ask him to sit down? Will he be escorted out? Will other people start to get up and dance as things get more chaotic?
None of that happens. Instead, Chanel, who’s been seated next to Rivers playing a tambourine, gets up, walks across the floor and begins dancing with him. They’re both beaming, and there isn’t a single moment when anyone seems to feel unsafe, or that something’s happening that’s not supposed to be happening. When the song is over, they shake hands and the young man returns to his seat, where he gets a series of handshakes and good-natured back-slaps from everyone around him.
The show rolls on with the crowd fully behind the band now, cheering and singing along to “Georgia On My Mind,” “Route 66,” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” with Simon and Smalls wailing, Rivers unleashing some dazzling work on the keys, and Slye and Morant pumping away.
Two hours fly by like 30 minutes, and it’s time for “Amazing Grace.” Young Dimitri steps up and delivers a pitch-perfect a capella intro and counts the band in, and for the next six or seven minutes, it’s like a revival meeting, with inmates jumping out of their chairs and shouting, clapping, and demanding one more refrain until Dimitri is simply exclaiming, “Praise God!” over and over again as the men sing along. Smalls and Simon go out into the crowd, New Orleans second-line style, dancing their way up the aisles while Dmitri wails away.
And then after some thank yous and final words, the show is over. The chairs are stacked, and the equipment loaded up before I know it, but even as the inmates are being urged to pack it up and head out, some of them linger around the musicians, hugging them and shaking their hands and talking to them about the next time.
Watching this scene, it makes me think of what Simon told me about the experience during our interview the day before, and about his goal for the Jazz in the Joint program.
“We’re not there to be judgmental,” he said. “We go into these prisons in a very apolitical fashion. We don’t ask the prisoners why they’re there; we know the common denominator is that they broke the law and are doing time as a result. What we are trying to do is let them know that we recognize that, at the end of the day, their lives turned in a bad direction, they’re human beings. They’re people who have families just like we do. These men are just like you and me. They just made big mistakes and thank God we didn’t. And the love we get from this audience is so wonderful.”
And maybe one day, Simon hopes, there will be Jazz in the Joint programs all around the country.
“My goal is to make it a national program,” he says, “to inspire jazz organizations and musicians in other parts of the country to do the same thing. It’s a simple formula: Everyone donates their time, so there’s virtually no cost to it. We’ll happily give them the name, and help them navigate the Department of Corrections bureaucracy, because we understand how to network through that. There’s an opportunity for us, by virtue of what we’re doing, to encourage and inspire musicians in other parts of the country to do the same thing.”
I think about those things, but mostly, as we file out and back into the early-afternoon sunlight, I’m thinking about Wilbert D., and something he told me before the show started. Something about how much this day means to him.
“To me, jazz is food,” he says. “And being in this institution, not having the opportunity to do what I love and what causes my heart to beat, them coming in here and providing that opportunity for me, it’s like all three meals. It’s breakfast, dinner and supper, and throw in a little brunch. And all of the meals are five-star quality. That’s what this means to me.”
“It’s life,” he says, gripping my shoulders. “I don’t know how to describe it in stronger terms. If I were singing, and somebody unplugged the mic, or for whatever reason the music just stopped, I would feel like life left my body. Does that capture it for you?”