Jailhouse Jazz 

Columbus violinist Christian Howes returns from prison with Ten Yard,an album inspired by hard time.

Jammin' in the slammer: Jazz violinist Christian - Howes.
  • Jammin' in the slammer: Jazz violinist Christian Howes.
Drugs and jail time have intersected in unfortunate ways for more than a few jazz musicians. Charlie Parker's highly publicized habits punctuated his short life. Billie Holiday's drug troubles followed her to her deathbed. Drug-related lockups also robbed Dexter Gordon and Hampton Hawes of what would have been their most productive years. Stories like these help fuel the tortured-artist myth especially prevalent in jazz and, in glorifying their bad habits, tend to overshadow the tremendous artistic achievements of said artists. After all, if it weren't for their music, they wouldn't have been remembered anyway.

Violinist Christian Howes has had his own troubles. When the young collegian and advanced music student at Ohio State University dealt acid to an undercover cop, he found himself plucked from one fine Ohio institution and placed in another. But for him, this detail turns out to be much more relevant to his story than it is to others. Before his prison term, Howes had been studying classical violin and composition, as well as moonlighting in rock bands and flirting with jazz fusion. In prison and faced with a much harder reality than he'd previously known, Howes embraced the prison's African American culture; he played jazz, blues, R&B, and gospel in church services with small groups of black musicians.

Howes is now a changed musician. Known as much for his plugged-in, post-Hendrix electronic sound and his burly, fusion-scorched, blues-derived improv as he is for his technique, Howes now works in jazz almost exclusively and still draws inspiration from his time in prison. (After all, his latest CD, Ten Yard, takes its name from the patch of grass set aside for better-behaved inmates.) With his profile on the rise thanks to a regular gig with powerhouse pianist D.D. Jackson, and a band jointly led by Howes and New York guitarist Rez Abbasi, he has also nearly completed a philosophy degree and spends almost as much time lecturing on societal ills and drug culture as he does working on his music. Prison hardly waylaid or stifled Howes's career; it might just have made it.

"It was really only after I went to prison that I got excited about jazz," says Howes. "It wasn't so much that I was inspired by jazz music, or even one specific period of jazz music; it was more that, when I went to prison, I really found inspiration in African American culture -- that was the first time that I was really exposed to it in a meaningful way. With my association with these older African American gentlemen in these small musical groups, I was able to learn things about music that I'd never realized before. And I was inspired by that -- the opportunity to reach out and get to know something that was really unfamiliar to me as a white, middle-class suburban kid."

In a very real sense, Howes's music helped him get along in prison. "I had a professor who taught me [in a correspondence course] while I was in jail," says Howes. "I took an African philosophy course from him. He told me that black people will trust me more for my playing than they will when I speak. In prison, I found that that was the case. If I would step up and play the blues, some brothers would give me a sense of feeling accepted, trusted -- they recognized that, on some level, I was on the same page. I don't know how, but for some reason, by being able to communicate with the same musical language, I was able to establish a bond that allowed us to get close as people."

Prison not only helped Howes find himself as a musician, it also focused him on his career. "When I got out of prison, I didn't suffer from the fear of self-promotion that so many musicians naturally suffer from," he says. "I think it stops people from getting out there, from saying, "Let me have the job, I can do it.' A lot of jazz musicians have this thing where it's not cool to do that -- but that thing keeps them from succeeding. I think that, in part because I'd been in prison for four years, I felt unleashed. I felt like I have every right in the world to pursue my dream, and I'm not going to stop for a second and doubt that it's appropriate for me to be hustling."

After only four years of freedom, Howes has been getting himself out there. Not only has he released two CDs on his own, the aforementioned Ten Yard and the earlier recording, Confluence, but he also plays a prominent roll on D.D. Jackson's latest RCA Victor recording, Anthem. (He got the sideman gig with Jackson by actually booking Jackson to play in Columbus with his own band and effectively arranging his own audition.) On more than a couple tracks, Howes faces off against Jackson's charged gospel piano, Jack DeJohnette's drum kit, or James Carter's high-energy saxophones, or takes his own blasting solos.

"I felt terrified," says Howes of playing with D.D.'s all-star Anthem band. "That was a big learning experience for me, a big rite of passage. My playing speaks for itself, both badly and well. I think that, at times, it's apparent that I'm intimidated. But at other times, I was boosted up by the energy of these other players, and I'm at my best. I wish I could have done that the whole time on the album."

In the meantime, Howes plans to continue to tour with Rez Abbasi, the rock band Shooting Star, and with D.D. Jackson's new road band -- which, curiously enough, consists of all Columbus-based players whom Jackson met through Howes -- while still working to hone his own musical conceptions. Only this time, Howes's new musical ideas have much more to do with his own cultural context. Some of the tunes on Ten Yard lean toward the expansive, bucolic twang-jazz that guitarists Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell have been recording lately. On Howes's next album, expect more of the same.

"That stuff is such a strong part of what I hear, and I think that that's in Metheny's and Frisell's music," he says. "[I write] tunes that sound like they could be pop songs, but with a jazz sensibility underlying them. For me, part of it is tied to a sense of place. I just did a tour with Rez Abbasi, and we went through the Midwest. I was playing Rez's music, and he was also playing my music. These guys are ingrained with a downtown sensibility, because they live in New York, and they're playing music that's associated with that place, and Rez wasn't used to dealing with my stuff. I told him, "Kansas, baby, think Kansas, baby,' referring to Pat Metheny, but also referring to the Midwest. What is it about the down-to-earth warmth we have in the Midwest? We speak with it and act upon it, and somehow it's reflected in the music. Every culture has soul; it's just a different kind of soul."


More by Aaron Steinberg


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