Break! How I Busted Three Trumpeters Out of a Maryland Prison

by Bill Benzon

Man-try-to-break-jailWell, it wasn’t quite like that.

For one thing, they weren’t really trumpeters. They held the horns and blew through them, but not much came out. If those guys were trumpeters, then my name’s James Bond and I’m a secret agent who’s saved the world from countless psychotic megalomaniacal industrialists. Bond isn’t my name and I’m not a secret agent.

Chet the Jet

But I was part of a situation in which three trumpet players manqué did manage to escape from prison. Me and Chet the Jet—that’s what we sometimes called him, but only behind his back. Dr. Chester H. Wickwire was University Chaplain at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore back in the previous century. I’d been an undergraduate there and then took a job in the Chaplain’s Office. This was during the Vietnam era and I’d been a conscientious objector to military service and so had to perform alternative service, as it was called. The Selective Service System allowed me to work with the Chaplain’s Office.

We, Dr. Wickwire’s staff, sometimes referred to him as Chet the Jet. Just where and why that nickname, I don’t know. It had been in place for some time. But it was oddly apt. Dr. Wickwire couldn’t jet about anywhere. He’d had polio in his youth and needed two canes for support when walking, though he made do with one for short distances.

Nonetheless Dr. Wickwire got around. He was a dynamo and a mainstay of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements in Baltimore, which often created a bit of tension with the university administration. He ran a tutoring program, a free university, two film series, a coffee house, something called the Sunday Experience (in lieu of regular church services) and managed to teach a course or two while also counseling students.

One day Dr. Wickwire got a letter from a medium security institution in the Maryland State prison system—I forget which prison it was, but it wasn’t Jessup, which was a maximum security institution at that time (early 1970s). A group of prisoners had formed a musical group, a rhythm and blues and soul review called Sounds, Incorporated. They were looking for gigs.

Not paying gigs, of course, but free gigs, courtesy of the Maryland State prison system. Here’s the deal: If an outside organization would invite them to perform, the prison would let them out to perform. So naturally they wrote to the Chaplain at Johns Hopkins. If anyone would extend these musicians an invite, he would.

Sounds, Inc. had been practicing for a year and were about to give an in-house performance and dinner on their first anniversary. Wickwire was invited to attend and check them out. As I was a decent musician and Wickwisre trusted my judgment, he handed that one off to me.

Prison

Using the public bus it took a transfer and a bit over an hour to get out to the prison. I remember little about the prison or the event.

But I do remember the double gate. They’d open the outer gate—thick iron bars like a portcullis—and let, say, a dozen visitors in. They’d then lower that gate and then, when it had been shut and secured, open the inner gate, disgorging the visitors into the prison. I must have shown ID, signed something somewhere, and been subject to some kind of search, but I don’t really remember that. I just remember thinking: So this is prison. Grim.

We made our way, no doubt under escort, to the cafeteria and sat down at rectangular metal tables, with attached swing-out seats, three or four to a side. Somehow we got food. I believe, in fact, that we were served. I remember that the food wasn’t awful, just standard institutional food served on paper plates to be eaten with plastic utensils. Nothing that could be used as a weapon, though I imagine that, in a pinch, you could break a plastic knife and get a sharp point that could make a mess of someone’s eye.

I remember a striking woman walking down one of the aisles, tall, stately, modestly dressed in white from her head down to her ankles. I figured she must have been a wife of one of the prisoners and that she, and he as well, was a member of the Nation of Islam. I don’t actually know that, I’m just guessing. Circumstances. The vibe.

As for the music, it was good, very good. But only that. Truth be told, the romantic in me was expecting and hoping to be blown away by an undiscovered Marvin Gaye followed by an undiscovered Temptations and an undiscovered James Brown. But it wasn’t that good. These were good musicians, talented and skilled, but not stars.

I recommended that we invite them to perform. They did. Three times.

A Rainy Night in Georgia

The campus of The Johns Hopkins University was not exactly home turf either for these musicians or for their friends and family. Their first two performances took place in Levering Hall, which is where the Chaplain’s Office was and which served as a student union building. Sounds, Inc. performed in the Great Hall, a large high-ceilinged room that most likely had been built as a ballroom. That’s where we ran our two film series, held the Sunday Experience, and had various lectures and other performances.

The room didn’t have a stage so the musicians just set at one end of the room. They were dressed in street clothes, though their guards, who were relatively unobtrusive, wore uniforms. The musicians were allowed to mingle with friends and family, which they did, both in the Great Hall and in a large room adjacent to it, which served as a staging area.

It became clear that many to most people in the audience were friends and family of the musicians. There were, say, a dozen to twenty performers in three or four acts and, say, 100 to 150 in the audience, but no more. As one act performed, members of the other acts talked with friends and family in the adjacent room and even managed some discrete hugging and snuggling in window bays.

I remember one specific performance from the two Levering Hall performances. I was standing slightly in front of and to the right of the performing area, next to a man who was announcing and broadcasting the performance on a local radio station. A young man, the leader and main arranger of Sounds, Inc., was singing “A Rainy Night in Georgia.” One little girl was clinging to his right leg and another to his left.

Daughters.

The light was dim in the hall and there was a chill on the day. Somehow it all suited the mood of the song. Or perhaps the performance just reached out and gathered everything into itself.

Peaceful. Wistful. And a bit sad.

The announcer remarked to me “He’s singing the blues.” My inner pedant told me no it’s not the blues, not the right form, not II V I changes. But my inner pedant had sense enough to confine his remarks to himself. As for me, “Yes, it’s the blues all right.” And it was.

The Big Show: Shriver Hall

For the third show we put them into the big room, the auditorium in Shriver Hall, which was the main performance venue on campus. There they’d have a proper stage.

They did.

I was in the back stage area before the performance, running this and that errand. At one point I started talking with one of the performers, one I hadn’t seen at the previous performances. Told me he was a trumpeter, and new to the group. Told me how he jammed at this or that club in Baltimore. Told me how he’d say “boo doot dop dop” on the horn and the audience’d go wild. Didn’t sound right to me. Seemed to me that no jazz musician would talk that way, not quite. Something was off. He was playing a role.

But I went about my business. When it came time for the show I took the stage, blew a fanfare on the official Chaplain’s Office post horn (something of a gag we’d been running on campus for a year or so), and Chet the Jet took the stage. He welcomed people and the show was on.

It was pretty much the same show we’d seen twice before. Good stuff. After intermission the leader announced that they would be playing some arrangements they’d worked on especially for this show. He brought out three new members of the band, trumpeters. The guy I’d been talking with was one of them.

Between the three of them they didn’t manage one cleanly played line. I figure they must have learned what little they knew of trumpeting specifically for this gig. As they were only there for back-up and punctuation their incompetence didn’t matter much. But they certainly weren’t up to the musical level of the rest of the group.

The show played itself out. It was enjoyable and a pleasure once again to get these guys out of the joint for a little while. The musicians had had an opportunity to meet with friends and family in circumstances more comfortable than a prison visiting room–and that, I figured, was mostly what these gigs were for. A good time was had by all.

Dr. Wickwire and I had gone back to Levering Hall to wrap things up—though I forget just why we had to do back there, as the performance had taken place in Shriver Hall. We were chatting about this and that when we got word that three prisoners didn’t make the bus back to the prison.

It was those three trumpeters who couldn’t play a decent line between them. Gone gone and gone.

Why’d They Split?

Never heard whether or not they’d been caught. And, of course, that was the last time Sounds, Inc. got out to perform.

Here’s what I’d like to know: Why? Well, maybe not exactly why. There’s no particular mystery about why a prisoner would want to escape.

What I’m looking for is the intention: When did these guys form the intention to split? Was it something that happened that night? Or did they join Sounds, Inc. with the intention of making a break if the chance arose? Did anyone else in the band know they were going to do it?

While the musicians, the real musicians, not these jiveass trumpet manipulators, weren’t stars, they were good musicians. They must have known these guys weren’t up to standard. If they’d been free men and this was a gig in a local club, those trumpeters would not have been on the gig. So why’d the let them on stage that night at Shriver Hall?

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