On July 15, Bellingham-based trumpet player Pace Rubadeau found himself in an air-conditioned prison gymnasium with three bandmates in Walla Walla, Washington. Nearby, the outdoor prison yard they were about to play in sat baking in 100-degree heat.

Just to get to this moment, the band had endured background checks, scrupulous inventory reviews, a six-hour drive, and a long walk through intense security parameters. And for all of this, they weren’t even being paid.

“Nothing was normal about this gig,” says Rubadeau of performing at the Washington State Penitentiary, which is nicknamed the “Concrete Mama.”

On that hot summer evening, Rubadeau and his bandmates put on a 90-minute showcase of 1920s and ’30s jazz and blues, in front of 52 inmates who’d been allowed to attend because they’d been on good behavior. In a place where live music is a rare treat, they brought joy to both inmates and themselves.

(From left to right) Kevin Buster, Alex Larson Kubiak, Devin Champlin and Pace Rubadeau played a free show for 52 inmates. The emotional return for the musicians, Rubadeau says, was a good one. Photo courtesy Pace Trumpet

Walking the Line

Rubadeau describes playing a prison concert as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” he’s had the privilege of experiencing twice.

The first time was in 2019, when Rubadeau’s 10-piece Hot House Jazz Band played what would become its final gig. About 10 months ago, he began seeking another chance to perform there, this time with a smaller group who’d not been at the previous show.

“I didn’t imagine ever going back to play there because it was such an incredible, therapeutic experience,” Rubadeau says. “But I also wanted to share that with another group of musicians; it’s something that changes you.”

Rubadeau, 47, has been a professional musician for decades. After growing up in the Midwest, he played as a contract musician at resorts and on cruise ships. Following a four-year turn stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army band, Rubadeau moved to Portland in 2010.

One night while watching the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” with a bottle of wine, Rubadeau wondered what it’d be like to play a concert like the one Cash famously performed at California’s Folsom State Prison in 1968.

He began emailing every prison in Oregon about a concert, but it quickly became clear the idea was a bust. After moving to Bellingham in 2015, the idea again took hold. After another series of emails, the Washington State Penitentiary responded that they’d been seeking ‘non-gospel’ music for some time.

Champlin and Rubadeau converse during the concert. It was an experience both say they’ll never forget. Photo courtesy Pace Trumpet

The 2019 concert resulted in a 190-inmate audience and numerous memories for those who performed. This time around, Rubadeau reached out to local rhythm guitarist Davin Champlin — who runs a downtown Bellingham music shop Champlin Guitars — along with Seattle saxophonist Kevin Buster and clarinet player Alex Larson Kubiak.

The quartet filled a car with equipment the morning of July 15 and made the nearly six-hour drive to Walla-Walla, where they’d play from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

A Memorable Evening

After checking into their hotel, the group arrived at the prison, where every piece of equipment — down to individual guitar picks — was required to have been previously declared for use; anything not pre-approved was carefully scrutinized.

Besides their equipment, the only things the band took in with them were ID badges and keys for valuables lockers. After clearing security, the band had a long, eerie walk to the performance area.

“You’re just in a massive facility,” Rubadeau says. “Everywhere is surrounded by concrete and barbed wire. We went through 17 different security gates before we finally got to the stage.”

This poster informed inmates of the concert, which was only for those deemed to be on good behavior.

They were also briefed on an escape route in the event of a prison riot; during their performance, six armed guards roamed the area. Security cameras and even rooftop snipers were visible, and among those clearly affected by the performance, Rubadeau says, was an inmate convicted of triple homicide.

Though they’d reserved the largest prison yard they could get for this year’s show (capable of holding up to 400 inmates), both the intense heat and prison sewer issues created a scenario in which some inmates stayed in their much cooler indoor cells.

Still, those who came out were treated to expert musicianship, sounds, and even dancing that Rubadeau hopes will stay with them, impact them, and maybe even change them for the better. Kevin Buster had similar thoughts.

“It humanized people that we forget,” he says of performing for inmates. “They had all their privileges taken and they still were humans, still had hope. It wasn’t gone. I’m glad I got to be there to hope with them.”

Comments collected by a WSP liaison also bear witness to the power of music in a cold, hard place.

“It’s easy to hate being in this place,” one inmate said. “This is one of the few times it’s not so bad.”

Others were more light-hearted but nonetheless sincere.

“The most exciting sound I’d heard before today,” remarked one inmate, “was the sound of a fire alarm being tested.”

Taking Stock

As the band prepared to leave the prison that evening, a radio call of a fight between inmates left them one security gate shy of freedom. For several moments, Rubadeau says they were unsure what would happen.

But the gate did open, and the band exited to realize the privilege of being prison guests instead of residents. As they debriefed at a nearby brewery, hosting a terrible karaoke night they complained to each other about, they did not take for granted the freedoms their most recent audience lacked.

Alex Larson Kubiak plays the clarinet during Pace Trumpet’s 2023 performance at the Washington State Penitentiary. Photo courtesy Pace Trumpet

“We [realized] how important and incredible it is to be able to have those complaints,” Rubadeau says.

The next morning, the band picked up an additional (and paid) gig at the Maple Counter Café, a local Walla Walla restaurant owned by Kory and Rachel Nagler — the same owners of Bellingham’s popular Birch Door Café.

Afterward, the band made the long trip back. Rubadeau says he hopes to perform at the prison again next year, with another group of musicians yet to experience a truly unique gig.

In the meantime, Rubadeau continues to reflect on what the concerts mean to him. They remind him to do things that not only bring him motivation and joy, but things that collectively inspire and benefit others. 

“It changes everything for the better,” he says of the experience.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email