The spirit of jazz without the bars

Music sustained falsely imprisoned Mike Austin

April 04, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Mike Austin learned his musicianship in a hard school - his 27 years of wrongful imprisonment in Maryland Penitentiary.

He talks with passion and conviction about his musical life in and out of prison. He learned to play trumpet and piano in the penitentiary and to sing in the warm, mellow ballad style of Johnny Hartman. He learned music theory. He studied and practiced ceaselessly.

Austin went to prison in 1975 when he was 25, convicted of a murder he swore he did not commit. He came out in December 2001 when the evidence against him was discredited. He's been busy ever since, playing, talking about his years in prison to reporters, on television talk shows, at schools and to adult groups like the one at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington where he spoke and played last Sunday.

"I want to be seen as a musician," he says. "Not as a guy who spent 27 years in prison."

He pauses, characteristically perhaps.

"But I have to earn that."

He plays regularly on Saturday nights at the Blues Bistro, in Eldersburg, with his band, True Spirit. He'll play Sunday with the band and trumpeter Wendell Shepherd at the Caton Castle in West Baltimore.

"I'd say for me this will be my first nightclub act," he says. "Caton Castle has some real good musicians. Caton Castle's like Blues Alley to me. To be able to perform there and have my own show, I really feel good."

But he'll only play trumpet on a couple of tunes.

"Wendell [will] blow me out of the water," he says. "If Wendell knows that you're bluffing, he's going to blow you off the stage. And that's the way it's supposed to be. If you ain't ready, don't come up here ...

"See, you need somebody like that around you, like Wendell. Somebody's going to challenge you, ... that's going to push you and make you better."

That could be his philosophy of life.

"Sometimes," he says, "I wonder if life had treated me different would I be doing what I'm doing now, would I be in the state of mind that I'm in now. I think about that a lot.

" ... But because I've had that experience, that very terrible experience, I try to use it to my best advantage," he says. "It would have been a sin to do 27 years in prison and come out still in the same place and time."

So he picked up the trumpet about 1978.

"I had all the time in the world. When you have 23 hours a day to do nothing and then you have an opportunity to do something, you try to take advantage of it.

"So I started working toward reshaping who I am. I tried to work toward doing it the best way I possibly could. I said let me learn some music. Let me go get my GED. Let me go to college. I wanted to try to accomplish those things. I didn't want to leave out of prison and not have nothing. Twenty-seven years wasted. I couldn't do that. ... That was a waste of life.

"So I jumped into the music and I thank God that I did. That's a beautiful thing. I think it helped me maintain my sanity."

He'd never played trumpet before prison or sung anything but "shoo-wop-a-doo" on the corner.

"What happened was a guy moved into my cell, Glenn Granger, and he had two years," Austin says. "He had a bachelor's degree from Morgan State University. He taught me for two years."

Granger's married now, and he has a good job and he teaches and he plays in church. He and Austin have played together at functions for City Council President Sheila Dixon and at Mercy Medical Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"The reason I really picked the trumpet was that I thought because it only had three buttons it would be the easiest," Austin says. " ... Come to find out this is the hardest. I just stuck with it. It was just something I wanted to conquer."

Granger started teaching music at the penitentiary and Austin completed his theory class.

"I love theory," he says. "Music is so simple and uncomplicated. After you understand the basic theory of it, when you look at [music] everything falls in place."

He picks up his trumpet and plays along with a CD of the Miles Davis classic All Blues. The solo part is left open for his improvisation.

"This is a way for you to really tighten your chops up," he says. He plays a few bars. He's got a lyric, elegiac, bluesy sound. "I love it. I'm able to improvise like I have my own band. It's a three-chord blues, that's all it is. But it's so pretty."

He practices in his studio in the basement of his home in Northwest Baltimore almost as much as he did in prison. He lives here with Yvonne Rahman, whom he met when she was teaching at the prison. The studio is filled with the artifacts of his musical life, sheet music, a CD player, a keyboard and its speakers. He sometimes rehearses with the band here.

In one corner there's a set of barbells. Austin is 6-foot-5 and looks to be in excellent shape, a good decade or more younger than his 53 years.

In prison, Austin was president of the branch of the Left Bank Jazz Society.

"Back in '98," he says. "That's where I got most of my skills from, performing for the guys' families when they came in. Every guy was allowed to have two guests.

"I began to develop my style. I began to develop stage presence and how to communicate with the audience. Because that's a tough crowd, the prison crowd.

"I'm up there singing and you have guys trying to get with their women and I can't get their attention no matter what I sing. So I learned how to wait until all that was over with and then we'd start performing."

He remains remarkably without anger over the 27 years he spent needlessly in prison.

"A lot of people ask me why," he says. "If I get angry, it limits my creative ability. So I try not to argue. It just takes too much energy ... And I want to use that [energy] for my music."

Jazz

Who: Michael Austin, vocals, trumpet, and True Spirit, with Wendell Shepherd, trumpet

Where: Caton Castle, 20 S. Caton Ave.

When: 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $17, with dinner

Call: 410-555-7086.

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