SUMMIT AT SAN QUENTIN (2019)
- for large chamber ensemble
Commissioned by the IU NME
- temporary midi -
Premieres: March 5 (Bloomington), April 21 (Indianapolis)
Indiana University New Music Ensemble
David Dzubay, music director / conductor
SUMMIT AT SAN QUENTIN (2019) - by Michael Schelle
San Quentin State Prison, located north of San Francisco, opened in 1852.
The oldest prison in California, it is also the state's only death row. It has a gas chamber, gallows, and an electric chair, but since 1996 most executions at the prison have been carried out by lethal injection. Throughout its long history San Quentin has been “home” to dozens of high-profile bad guys—murderers, politicians, drug peddlers—and musicians.
Among the many infamous inmates: Henry Cowell (famous experimental composer who did time as the prison’s band leader), Eldridge Cleaver (noted author and early leader of the Black Panthers), Merle Haggard (country music legend), Stanley “Tookie”Williams (a founder of the L.A. Crips gang), Charles Manson (cult leader and mastermind of the “Helter Skelter” murders), Sirhan Sirhan (assassin of Robert F. Kennedy), Danny Trejo (movie star, boxer, restauranteur), and Richard Ramirez (serial murderer-rapist known as the “Night Stalker”).
Before those folk called Quentin home it housed the likes of Earl “Black Bart” Boles (1829-1888), a notably well-mannered poet-stagecoach robber known as the “gentleman bandit,” and “The Duchess,” Evelita Juanita Spinelli (1889-1941)—gangster, pro wrestler, brothel madame, and the first woman to be executed in the state of California.
If one looks for an upside to San Quentin’s rouges gallery it would have to be the San Quentin Jazz Band, a group of talented inmates (most of them in for robbery and/or drug-related charges) made up of both professional and amateur musicians. Its members included saxophonist Art Pepper (one of the 1950’s most celebrated and visible proponents of “West Coast Jazz”), pianist Jimmy Bunn (who performed and recorded with Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus), trumpeters Nathaniel Meeks (who worked with the Gerald Wilson and Johnny Otis bands) and Dupree Bolton (who played with Jay McShann, Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson, and Dexter Gordon), saxophonists Earl Anderza, and Frank Morgan (who worked with Lionel Hampton, Wild Bill Davis, and Leroy Vinnegar before his drug habit led him into spending nearly 30 years bouncing in and out of prison, after which he enjoyed a successful 20-year comeback career).
Locked up in the overcrowded San Quentin—a few yards from the gas chamber, and amid dire prison violence—the San Quentin Jazz Band played strikingly original, vibrant, life-affirming music every weekend in the “Big House.”
"Summit at San Quentin", commissioned by the Indiana University New Music Ensemble, David Dzubay, director/conductor, is a fictional gathering of various inmates (including some of those noted above) under the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The cinematic “form” of the piece is freely episodic—as various participants interact, interject, interfere, intervene and improvise. An oft-recurring rhythmic pulse—a musical reference to the inescapable confines of prison life—surrounds the entire piece.