How Music Changed One Inmate’s Life

Classic Arts Features   How Music Changed One Inmate’s Life
Through Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, music turned a prison cell into a composer’s studio.
Dexter Nurse with his sons Khaleel and Tyreek
Dexter Nurse with his sons Khaleel and Tyreek

Through Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections, participants collaborate with professional artists and with each other to create, perform, and produce original music and art. They express their voices and have new opportunities for personal growth. Their stories also connect people to each other, creating empathy, informing policy, and strengthening communities. Now in its eighth year, Carnegie Hall’s partnership with Sing Sing Correctional Facility has offered incarcerated men a series of workshops focused on composing and performing music. Dexter Nurse was an active and highly motivated member of the workshop group for five years before he was released from Sing Sing in 2015. He is now a member of the advisory committee that meets regularly to help men transition home and continue to make music. One year after his release, Dexter reflects on his experiences at Sing Sing and beyond.

Since I can remember, music has always been a part of my life. From the very beginning, I have always been a lover of music, regardless of genre. Looking back, I can honestly say that music has been my “great escape” wherever I’ve been. Music moved me physically, mentally, and spiritually, but (strangely enough), I had never really come to appreciate music on the level that I do prior to my incarceration.

Sing Sing musicians Dexter and Hector working with Decoda clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho
Sing Sing musicians Dexter and Hector working with Decoda clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho Stephanie Berger

My mother would sing lullabies to me … and she hired a pianist named Mr. Ridges to teach me the classics. I enjoyed playing, but I didn’t enjoy practicing. At the age of 9 or 10, the word practice itself did not sound like any fun. Practicing turned into frustration, and shortly thereafter, I informed my mother that I did not want to continue with my sessions.

I play a bit of piano now, but I truly regret not taking full advantage of the gift that was given to me. See, in order for my mother to pay for those lessons, she had to put in extra hours at work as well as a side job. Nevertheless, I believe that if my mother were alive today, she would be very proud of what I have accomplished musically. I think that mom is part of the reason why I’ve come to love music so much. The other is my dad—a big jazz fan. Dad introduced me to his favorite swing and bebop albums of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon... I was told that I was named after his favorite tenor saxophonist. Though mom found this tale far-fetched, I still like to believe that I am.

Music can be defined as an art or perhaps a science, but it means more than that to me. Rather, music is me—it’s sort of embedded in my DNA, if you will. It followed me throughout my life, throughout the good and the bad times, though there was a point in my life where I had almost lost that special feeling for it.

Besides the piano, I had never played or studied another instrument. I never thought that I would, especially in a maximum-security prison like Sing Sing. Nevertheless, this miracle happened. My younger brother was the one who brought me a trumpet—a Jupiter model that I named “Bessey” after blues/jazz vocalist Bessie Smith. It took me almost two months to figure out how to get a sound out of it. I got a lot of advice from correction officers who played the trumpet. I’ll admit that if it weren’t for them, the trumpet given to me as a gift would have stayed under my bed. I started getting better at playing the trumpet, which made the officers, staff, and inmates respect me for the effort I put in to learning it. That’s the power of music—it not only touches the soul, but it also brings people together, regardless of one’s nationality, beliefs, profession, or race.

Dexter backstage with Joyce DiDonato after her performance at Carnegie Hall in December, along with members of the extended Sing Sing program community
Dexter backstage with Joyce DiDonato after her performance at Carnegie Hall in December, along with members of the extended Sing Sing program community Chris Lee

My greatest accomplishment as a composer was a song that I wrote called “I Must Confess.” Inspiration came from my personal relationship with my wife, Yasmeen. The words were real and so were the feelings behind them. It has since been performed at Carnegie Hall and even the White House—a very proud moment for me. I am still composing and just finished a song that no one has ever heard called “I Am Yours.” It’s a jazz ballad, again inspired by my relationship, but on another level; this time as a free man.

It’s been a year since my release from prison. My best friend, Pedro, and I built a recording studio at my place; anyone formerly incarcerated can record there for free—it really does help to have somewhere to record your songs or thoughts. I also have a new child: a one-month-old we named Khaleel. He has plenty of instruments to choose from. And no matter which one he chooses, I will support him.

Music connects people; it brought me to a wonderful group that taught me not only the value of music, but also showed me that I still had value myself, regardless of my past. I was taught that it was my responsibility to learn all that I could about music and that I especially had a duty to share that knowledge with others, especially with my baby boy.

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