American Routes Shortcuts: Charles Neville

Sep 29, 2017

Charles Neville with the Jazzmen at Angola Prison
Credit Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

This week on American Routes Shortcuts, saxophonist Charles Neville shares about his time at Angola Prison in the '60s. He was among many great musicians who were sent to the penitentiary for drug offenses. One of his great contributions as an inmate was helping to racially and musically integrate prison life. Charles helped form the unlikely but prolific bebop group, the Nic Nacs, and found solace in the music he encountered while at Angola.

Charles Neville: I got busted for possession of two marijuana cigarettes, two joints, got sentenced to five years of hard labor at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, 1963. It was like going back to the slavery days. My life wasn’t worth a nickel out there. You could be killed in many ways, either by the people who ran the place, the captains or the bosses because the prison was not supported by the state, there was no money to hire guards. So the guards, the guys with the guns, were inmates doing time for manslaughter or drugs, all kinds of stuff, and we’d ride out the field on this open cattle truck, and the guard sees somebody on the truck who ran out with his money for drugs, and he decides to kill him and shoots him on the truck. So you know just trying to get to work was dangerous.

Nick Spitzer: Did you hear work songs, spirituals, anything in the prison?

CN: Yeah working out in the field.

NS: Yeah.

CN: For me that was a revelation, I had heard recordings of some of the slave work songs and some stuff, and out there, we’re in the hot sun, cutting shake and stubble they called it, with the hoe, and the guys’ singing, "Well you don't mind rolling, but they rolled so long, make you wish you was a baby in your mother's arms. See I got lucky last summer when I got my time, my buddy got 100 years, I just got 99."

NS: You’re looking at five years for two joints, I mean what gives you hope and the ability to cope with things day in and day out on the work gangs and all the oppressiveness of it?

CN: The music. I’m the music teacher, helped to put together the jazz band called the Nic Nacs. A lot of really good jazz musicians were getting busted for reefer and for possession of narcotics.

NS: I mean drugs were part of the culture of jazz to some degree.

CN: Right so we had a really great band. So yeah being able to spend my day in the music room was like a really big release from the prison actually.

CN: There was no real fraternizing amongst the whites and blacks because it was actually against the law. The only place that the white and black prisoners met was in the education building because there was only one education building. There was only one music room, so the white and black prisoners had to share that. One day in the music room, one of the white guitar players comes in, he puts his knife on the desk and says, “Hey man look. I’m 33 years old. This is the first time in my life I’m trying to hold a conversation with a black person. I was taught by everything around me that black people weren’t really people.” He said, “I was taught that the black man did not have the brain capacity of the white man.” He said, “Now, I’ve been struggling trying to play this guitar, and here you come in here teaching people who have gotten better than me. So now if your brain capacity is so much less than mine, something is f**king wrong!”

NS: Thanks for sharing your memories. I think it helps everybody to know that there’s life on the inside and the outside.

CN: All right, you’re welcome.

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