Whenever young (and not so young) men gather round the bar to chew
the fat over the great issues of the day to the accompaniment of
clinking pint glasses, the conversation often drifts into the realm
It's harmless enough - and depending on the amount of alcohol consumed
can either be a demonstration of how exciting a life a person has
led, or how good (or bad) a liar they are.
We all have our own favourite personal anecdotes, and musicians
are blessed with having some of the most funny and bizarre tales
going. The problem is, unless you're drinking with musical buddies
some of the subtleties of 'life on the gig' stories tend to get
But there's one issue that always goes down a treat with men the
world over - the prison sentence.
It's a funny old world where you can spend half your youth travelling
around third-world countries, dishing out aid to starving people,
digging wells and setting up hospitals - and then find that your
wondrous tales of philanthropic derring-do are comprehensively trounced
by an unshaven oik who announces he once spent three weeks in a
The fact that he got busted for flashing at a nun is neither here
It often helps if you 'look the type'. Anyone gazing upon my angelically
chiselled features would be forgiven for assuming that the most
adventurous thing I'd even done was win two bottles of gin at the
local fete's tombola stall (they still talk about it, even now).
But they'd be gravely mistaken... for I myself have 'done my time'.
I ought to leave it at that and let your imagination wander aimlessly
through myriad possibilities (Four years for playing a Kenny G number?
Six months for creaming off that fiver that couldn't be split among
the band? Twenty years for laughing at Ben Webster's hat??) but
I'm afraid you'd be hopelessly wide of the mark.
The non-too-glamourous truth is that I did a gig in a prison - Wormwood
Scrubs, no less.. or 'The Scrubs' as we hard-bitten jailbirds affectionately
I was playing bari with the Goldsmith's College rehearsal band.
Goldsmiths College had a very good music department - no doubt many
British big band fans will have heard of their big band under the
baton of Don Rendell. Actually, there's an 'apocryphal tale' about
Don. He was a well-known Jehovah's Witness, and apparently he was
out and about one evening distributing copies of The Watchtower.
He knocked at a door and a fellow musician answered...
"Blimey, it's Don Rendell - haven't seen you in years. What
are you up to these days?"
"I'm with Jehovah's Witnesses"
"Ah right, er, is that some kind of Crusaders outfit then?"
Ahem, anyway, less well known was the rehearsal band under the
baton of a chap who was what we in the trade call 'a character'.
Ahh, the rehearsal band. The idea behind them is that practically
anyone can turn up and play - as long as they're of the required
standard. And turn up they did. At any one time we had something
like 11 tenors, 8 altos, 7 trumpets, 6 trombones...but only ever
one bari player...ME!
The leader was something of an 'enthusiastic' chap. He liked to
get involved. In his case this varied from gently explaining the
finer nuances of phrasing to the sax section, to shouting until
he was red in the face at the trumpets for hanging onto a note a
beat longer than was written (this was no mean feat, given that
he was black).
I, however, had a charmed existence. Being the sole bari player
I was never on the wrong end of his 'enthusiasm'. Even now I can
see the faces of the rest of the horns as the leader turned from
tearing them off a couple of strips and, in a dramatic and instant
change of attitude, enquired as to whether I was OK (Not too cold
by that window?...That chair OK for you?...Need someone to turn
the pages for you?...).
There was but one time I felt threatened... when another bari player
Fortunately for me he was a very impressionable chap - so I laid
the groundwork by confiding in him what a nutter the leader was,
and kicking him on the ankle and raising an eyebrow every time the
leader went off on one at the other horns.
It couldn't have helped that I pulled my mouthpiece out a tad to
make myself flat - whenever the leader looked pointedly our way
I rolled my eyes at him and shot the other bari player a sideways
glance. We never saw him again. Shame eh?
Anyway - there was much excitement one evening when our leader
announced that we had a gig.. a proper gig. Gigs are pretty rare
for rehearsal bands... that's why they're called rehearsal bands..
you rehearse, you don't gig. With much shouting and tears the leader
drew up the shortlist of the 17 guys who were going to play the
gig. I nipped off to the loo at this point, it was pretty clear
I was on the list.
We were to turn up outside Wormwood Scrubs one Sunday afternoon,
there to play for the inmates for an hour or so.
Never having seen inside a real prison I was rather keen to go
- though a couple of the brass section seemed to put up rather too
much of a fight when picked for the team, I thought.
So we all met outside the prison.
The first thing that strikes you is how hefty the doors are. They
look pretty imposing from the outside, but trust me on this - they're
a great deal more imposing from the inside.
We were shepherded through a small door built into the large door
(one presumes they only open it for really big-time criminals...er,
or vans) and told to congregate by the guard's office. The guards
office had one visible feature - a small open window, placed some
ten feet or so above the ground. Above the window some wag had scrawled
'The Muppet Show' in bold black letters - an inspired piece of graffiti
that really came into its own when a head popped through the window,
looking for all the world like the copper out of a Punch and Judy
We were all somewhat excitable and merry, especially one of our
tenor players - an elderly West Indian gentleman who had arrived
at the gig by way of at least a couple of pubs. When he was casually
asked by a friendly prison officer what he had in the case he decided
that a spot of humour needed injecting into the situation and loudly
announced that the case contained a machine gun.
Thirty second later we were all standing there, cases open, whilst
a battery of wardens inspected the instruments.
Once we'd all had a jolly good laugh about this we were led off
to the venue, the prison chapel.
The gig itself wasn't much to report... we'd already done all the
jokes about there being a captive audience, about 'keeping time'
and any number of puns on the word 'bars'...so we settled down to
play to what we hoped would be an appreciative audience.
They were too, on the whole - though at one point the wardens steamed
into the audience and 'manhandled' a punter away. God knows why,
but it was halfway through one of the trumpet players' solos - and
someone in the brass section was heard to quip "Now look what
yer crap solo's done".
Most 'interesting' of all were the wolf-whistles that accompanied
each player as he arose to take a solo. These weren't 'wohooo, we
like jazz' wolf-whistles... these were more your 'woohoo, me and
my mates can show you a good time.. sonny' whistles.
There was one female in the band... she only did one solo... no-one
heard it, not even her, I think.
After the gig we had to wait until the prisoners had been led away
before we were allowed to leave. We were pointedly told to keep
to the centre of the path and to maintain a 'brisk walk'. We wondered
why... we soon found out.
As we left the chapel and followed the path that ran alongside the
prison itself, the convicts in the cells above gobbed at us out
of the windows.
We weren't THAT bad, honest!
The prison door slammed shut behind me, I was a free man once again.
I got perhaps the faintest sense of what it must be like to have
served your time and been let out into the free world once more,
and it left me with the impression that if you were to take a bunch
of kids and lock 'em up for half a day - just so's they could see
what it was like - you might just see a not-too-insignificant drop
in the crime figures.