The San Quentin Prison Jazz Band

Perhaps one of the most underrated alto saxophonists in jazz history, Frank Morgan was best known not for a specific album or project, but for the years spent in the notorious San Quentin prison, where he formed part of the warden’s jazz ensemble.

The last two decades of his life, clean of heroin and out of incarceration, shone a light on a remarkable life and a lesser known story from jazz history.

I don’t know about you, but prison doesn’t seem like the ideal place to practice as a jazz musician!

But rewind to 1960s and that’s exactly what was going on in the infamous San Quentin prison in California.

It was the era of brilliant jazz and terrible heroin addictions, which afflicted the music community more than others.

Leading saxophonist Art Pepper found himself in San Quentin on two occasions during the decade, and was swiftly enlisted to join the warden’s jazz band which, at times as big as 17-musicians, included names such as Hampton Hawes (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass) and Frank Butler (drums).

Fellow inmate and saxophonist Frank Morgan told the story in an interview with The Washington Post back in the late 1980s, who wrote:

“Every Saturday night, the prison would host a public tour of the facilities — the gas chamber, the textile mill, the housing units, the works. Following a steak dinner, the evening would end with a performance.”

His story formed the basis of the 2014 film Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story.

In a piece for Vinyl Magic, Morgan recounted:

“We used to play every Friday night (for fellow inmates). We would color our white stripes with charcoal to make them look like tuxedos.”

When posed the question about the best jazz musicians he played with, the answer was fascinating…

“You wouldn’t know their names, no one’s ever heard of them. They did some bad things and they’re never getting out, but they practice and play ten to twelve hours a day and they are incredible…”

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