Cellist Zuill Bailey

Cellist Zuill Bailey

By Bill Sessa, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications

The notes from a centuries-old instrument floated across the chapel of CDCR’s oldest prison recently, reminding San Quentin inmates of the timeless healing power of music.

World-renowned cellist Zuill Bailey, a featured artist with the Marin Symphony, took time between performances to share his love of music and the artistry of his most prized instrument, a cello crafted in 1693, about 170 years before San Quentin was built and nearly 20 years before Johannes Sebastian Bach wrote the first music for the cello as a solo instrument.

“Whenever I play in a major city, I try to do performances in places that normally don’t hear a lot of music,” said Bailey, whose crusade to share music has taken him to the top of a mountain and to Alaska’s northernmost village in sub-zero weather.

“It’s more than a concert,” he added, noting that these ad hoc performances often draw everyone who lives in the village or town.  “It’s a community event.”

At San Quentin, it was also a music lesson that spanned centuries in an hour.

Bailey, a Julliard graduate who began playing the cello at the age of four, explained how his Italian-made masterpiece was constructed, decades before Stradivarius made downsized versions more popular.

He demonstrated the wide octave range of the larger instrument, from deep bass to soprano, and how he could skew notes the way a golfer can fade a tee shot to get just the right sound.

He explained how Bach figured out that the cello could do more than play a background role in a symphony. But history aside, the music was the star.

“I’ve never heard a cello before,” said one inmate.  “But while you were playing, I started to cry.”  Then he asked, “Why is that?

“It makes me cry, too,” Bailey said. “The cello is an instrument you hug and it vibrates up against my chest. But mainly, it’s because the music is a mirror into how you feel.”

To demonstrate that, Bailey asked everyone in the chapel to sit upright, take a deep breath and close their eyes, better to focus on what they were about to hear.  He played a song almost everyone has heard as a child, Brahms’ Lullaby.  He played softer and softer, until the room was nearly silent, yet it felt like the notes continued to hang in the air.

“I was a little kid and my Mom was kissing me on the cheek,” said one inmate in describing what he felt.  “The music cleared my mind,” said another.  “I didn’t come back right away when the music stopped.”

“Did you see how the room changed in those three minutes?” Bailey asked.  “It’s what music does. It’s healing.”

Inmates stood in a long line 30 minutes after the scheduled ending time to shake hands and ask for autographs.

“That guy was awesome,” one inmate said to another inmate.