Freeing music from prison: Florence concert to debut jazz composed behind bars and finally seeing the light of day

  • Jazz saxophonist and composer Felipe Salles of his ensemble will play the music from their album “Tiyo’s Songs of Life” June 11 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity in Florence.

  • A snapshot of the late Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, who spent a good chunk of his adult life incarcerated but composed music in 2005 that’s now been released on a new album. CONTRIBUTED/TAPESTRY RECORDS

  • Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, seen here in 1950 as a member of his high school band in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was known then as David Riley Jones. Image courtesy Tapestry Records

  • Prison reform activist Lois Ahrens spent years trying to get Tiyo Attallah Salah-El’s music out to larger world before connecting with Felipe Salles. Gazette file photo

  • “Tiyo’s Songs of Life” features an hour of blues, swing, bop and ballads that were composed by Tiyo Attallah Salah-El and arranged by Felipe Salles.

  • A sample of the scores Tiyo Attallah Salah-El shared with incarceration activist Lois Ahrens. CONTRIBUTED

Staff Writer
Published: 6/3/2022 6:48:59 PM

For many years, Lois Ahrens has been pushing to change the nation’s prison system. The Northampton activist, who heads the Real Cost of Prisons Project, has worked with fellow activists, artists, researchers and incarcerated people to try to end extreme sentencing such as life imprisonment without parole and to improve conditions for people behind bars.

Ahrens has corresponded with hundreds of incarcerated people over the years. But in one of her more unusual exchanges, in 2005, she sent 50 blank sheets of music paper to a man named Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, a jazz saxophonist and composer serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison.

Later that year, Salah-El sent back to Ahrens an extended series of compositions on those music sheets, with melody lines, basic chords and some harmonies. For years afterward, Ahrens tried to find some performers who might bring that music to life — and now it’s finally happening.

After recording an album of Salah-El’s music last fall with three other players, jazz saxophonist and composer Felipe Salles will bring his ensemble to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity in Florence June 11 to play “Tiyo’s Songs of Life,” a rich mix of blues, swing, bop and ballads that’s also a testament to Salah-El’s own efforts to reform the prison system.

Salles, who lives in Florence and teaches jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he was drawn to the project not just for the music but because of his own concerns about mass incarceration, both in the U.S. and other countries. Salles, a native of Brazil, says harsh sentences are also a problem there.

Social justice has been a component of some of his own music. A few years ago, Salles composed and produced a large ensemble jazz piece, “The New Immigrant Experience,” which was based on interviews he conducted with several “Dreamers,” the young immigrants granted legal status in the U.S. after being brought to America and raised by undocumented parents.

“I was really struck by Tiyo’s music and by what I learned about him as a person,” Salles said. As part of his preparation for recording the music, he read the 2020 book “Pen-Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row,” which features many samples of the correspondence Salah-El had with different people during his 40-plus years serving a life sentence, including Ahrens and the late historian Howard Zinn.

“He was someone who remained positive and engaged in life, engaged in music and committed to changing the prison system,” Salles said. “He didn’t let prison destroy him. As much as I admired his music, it was the social justice aspect of this project that was really important to me.”

People who commit serious crimes must face consequences, Salles acknowledged. But he also noted, “If the prison system is only set up to punish people, how does that make us better as a society? Why not give [incarcerated people] a chance to improve themselves, to get an education, to evolve?”

Ahrens says Salah-El, who died in prison in 2018 at age 85, earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s while imprisoned and was also a teacher, a bandleader, and a writer. In 1995, he also reached out to scholars and activists to form a group called Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons (CAP).

“He had a great writing style,” Ahrens said. “He could be funny and philosophical, but also very serious about what it was like to be incarcerated.”

About 15 years ago, Ahrens arranged with the late Rob Cox, then the head of Special Collections at UMass, to have many of Salah-El’s papers stored there; a summary of his life that’s part of the collection provides some basic background on him. He was born David Riley Jones in 1932, in West Chester, Pennsylvania and fought in the army during the Korean War; afterward he played music part time and worked in his father’s plumbing business.

Salah-El — he changed his name when he converted to Islam in the 1960s — tangled with the law after getting involved with drugs through his nighttime music life; at one point he served six years in prison for aggravated assault, according to the UMass summary. In the 1970s, he was sentenced to life for other drug-related charges and for his conviction in a murder he said he did not commit.

Ahrens says Salah-El’s prison activism likely worked against him ever getting a chance for parole, as did Pennsylvania law for certain crimes. She also notes that the U.S. prison population has mushroomed from roughly 200,000 people in the 1970s to 2.2 million today: “It’s an industry — the growth has been exponential.”

A long search

Ahrens says Salah-El, who she visited in prison a few times, didn’t request that she try to get his music recorded or heard when he sent his compositions to her in 2005. “I think he just wanted to write it, to have it be part of his legacy,” she said. “But I really wanted to hear what it sounded like.”

She talked to a number of saxophonists over the next several years about performing the music, but those efforts fell through. Then one player, Berhani Woldu, who in 2018 had agreed to perform some of Salah-El’s music at a UMass event but had to back out at the last minute, suggested Ahrens contact Salles, Woldu’s former teacher.

Salles couldn’t do anything immediately, either; he had plenty of his own commitments, including his work on “The New Immigrant Experience.” But he was intrigued enough to meet with Ahrens and hear more. “I was curious — the best way to grow is to learn something new,” he said.

The pandemic caused further delays in playing the music live, but it also gave Salles time to review Salah-El’s compositions in depth. He had written them as lead sheets, with basic guidelines for melody, meter and chords, but no scoring for specific instruments. Salles arranged the music for saxophone, piano, bass and drums and made other adjustments as needed, including changing the meter of some tunes or combining a few compositions.

“My idea was to arrange it in a way that would honor the traditions of the music Tiyo played while giving it a more contemporary feel,” he said.

Salles enlisted another musician with UMass connections, bassist Avery Sharpe, and a friend and former fellow music student, Zaccai Curtis, on piano; Curtis in turn recommended drummer Jonathan Barber for the project. Salles says those three players made sense not only because of their shared roots with the style of music Salah-El composed but also due to their own commitments to social justice.

Sharpe, for instance, has composed a number of works that honor historical African American figures including Sojourner Truth and Jesse Owens; more recently he recorded “400,” a musical exploration of four centuries of African American history.

The ensemble rehearsed a few times at Salles’ house last fall before recording about an hour’s worth of Salah-El’s music in a one-day session in a studio in Acton (the album is on Tapestry Records of Colorado). Salles says they had plenty of material to choose from: “Tiyo wrote a lot of music. I picked out [compositions] that I thought would be good examples of what he did.”

Salles says he’s indebted to his fellow musicians for making the project a reality — it was funded through a grant Salles received and by funds that Ahrens raised — and Ahrens says she’s indebted to Salles for taking on the project and seeing it through. Both are pleased as well that the music will debut at the Bombyx Center, based at the Florence Congregational Church, which was an important meeting place for local abolitionists and free thinkers when it opened in 1861.

“It feels wonderful to have Tiyo’s music here, with the legacy of the church and of Florence being such an important part of the abolition movement,” Ahrens said. “It feels like we’re completing a circle.”

“Tiyo’s Songs of Life” will take place at 8 p.m. at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity. Tickets are $20 in advance ($25 at the door) and can be ordered at bombyx.live.


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