Monday, September 14, 2009
A Holy Moment in Hell
It was my Folsom Prison moment. I stood there on stage with my sax around my neck, stunned like a trapped animal while 200 prison inmates wearing light-blue prison scrubs came walking single-file past guards wielding shotguns into the meeting room. The inmates quietly took their seats and looked up at the 4 of us with silent anticipation. We stood on the stage and met their stares in a speechless tremble.
Months previous, a relative asked if I knew anyone who could possibly tune the prison pianos where her uncle was incarcerated at the maximum security Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. The piano player in my band tunes piano as his day job and had agreed to tune the pianos and suggested we bring the whole band down for a concert. Brilliant!
Up to this point, the idea of playing in a prison had seemed pretty nostalgic, but I hadn't realized how proximal I'd be to these guys. . . you know, the criminals. As we were setting up, I kept looking over my shoulder. I couldn't help but be suspicious. I mean these guys were in here for doing really, really bad things, right? You don't arrive at a maximum security penitentiary for shoplifting candy from convenience stores
Once everyone was seated, the crowd turned very quiet and all eyes bored strait into us. The lights dimmed except a spotlight that shone directly into our eyes. I turned and faced the band as much to escape the probing glares of the criminals as to begin the concert. "Alright, everyone," I said to the band with counterfeit confidence, "Blue Skies," and began to snap in time, counting off the first tune. Our singer's voice came in with: "Blue Skies, smiling at me, nothing but blue skies, do I see." After the tune, I expected the audience to be silent, like they way they came in, and feared possibly worse, a snicker or a boo. And for a second or two there was nothing but silence. Then, almost like someone had cued them, suddenly the room erupted with applause and cheers.
With only slightly more confidence, we entered the next tune: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing. We played the melody, and then I nodded to Brig, the piano player, to take a solo. He bowed his head in an act that seemed like reverence to the piano and began to play--or maybe he, too, was praying. He got right to work and pounded out a great solo, his fingers rippling along the keyboard like a small blur of falling water. After a couple of choruses, he nodded to me.
My turn. I closed my eyes and put my horn in my mouth. Then something magical happened. The feeling in the room turned completely electric. Even with my eyes closed, I became vividly aware of this impossibly perfect moment. Every eye and ear was riveted on me. I held everyone's complete and unflinching attention. We were their prison visitors who were bringing them Blue Skies and a chance to swing a little. Suddenly, I relaxed and my playing opened up. Something incredible was channeled inside me as I began to sing out the bell of my horn. Maybe I was channeling my great uncle, Lester, who had given me his horns when he died, the horns I was playing on then and still play now, the horns that I believe still hold a portion of him.
I played. And I played, and I played, and I played and let whatever grace my soul held at that moment find some sultry voice out the end of my saxophone. A sound came out that I'd never heard before. Notes like I'd never imagined flew off my fingers and out my horn into the ears and minds and hearts of 200 expectant people. I was in conversation with something inside that I didn't know, something that had never been tapped. And though I had never driven this thing before, whatever it was, I stomped the pedal to the floor. I'm convinced that I was not the only one that night to feel this pulse, this magic.
Eventually, I finished my solo, we played once more through the melody, and in unison, we stopped together after riffing on "Do wa, do wa, do wa, do wa, do wa, do wa, do WA!" Then, without even a fraction of a pause, out burst deafening cheers and whistles, an applause twice as loud and long as the previous. I couldn't control myself from laughing: it was a mixture of equal parts self-consciousness and pure amazement at what I'd found in my soul and had somehow translated through my saxophone. It was feeling the excitement and appreciation and somehow even the love of these people in the audience, these prisoners who for a moment were free. Brig leaned over and shouted above the applause, "Scottro! That was the best you have ever played!" It was the single most incredible musical experience I've had in my life. And I realized that for a moment we were all the same: we were all in prison and we were all free, groovin' on jazz and feeling something together.
The band played several more tunes, played a few encores, and then the lights came on. With a rush, I looked happily into the crowd and I saw smiles and happy faces. I didn't see criminals anymore. I saw people. They hadn't changed, of course. I had. I saw past the prison ID sewn on the chest down to the heart of these people that held a fundamental identity of goodness. I put my horn down and stepped off the stage and walked into the crowd and was welcomed with handshakes, slaps on the back, and congratulations and thank you's from these new friends, many of whom had an impressive knowledge of jazz music. "Hey, I used to play the trumpet!" one guy said. "My son plays the saxophone," another one interrupted. These were regular people.
As we were driving home, completely elated, I realized that if given the chance, I was capable of accessing something beautiful and amazing and unknown inside me. And if that magical part could be somehow liberated and expressed in me, then such was true for each person, even those doing time in prison, despite whatever sour notes they may have played in the past.
This is the essence of yoga. This is oneness.