Chontay Smith taught himself how to play the piano — without a piano.
The would-be ivory-tinkler was more than a decade into a 24-year bid, back in 2009 at Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York, when he felt the bite of the music bug.
Held back by his confinement in a prison cell not much larger than a parking space, not to mention prison officials’ lack of interest in enabling the convicted felon’s musical career, Smith had to get creative.
So drew a keyboard on sheets of paper, where he’d practice mimicking the hand movements of the piano player during services at the prison chapel. Then, he befriended another inmate who could play.
“I would ask, ‘what’s the difference between the white keys and black keys? I said, ‘I don’t have a keyboard, but I can come to service every Sunday, and I can memorize the music,’” Smith, 48, told The Post.
The native New Yorker was born in the Bronx in sparse surroundings, to a single mother. He spent time in a shelter as a baby. His grandmother helped raise him, introducing him to music from BB King and James Brown. By the beginning of his teens, he was working to help support the family.
“I had to grow up fast,” Brown said.
Smith, who declined to discuss the nature of his crimes with The Post, finally struck gold when a fellow inmate sold him a keyboard for $10.
The deal was, the seller had to teach Smith how to play. The first song he learned was Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” Soon, they progressed to pop culture ballads like Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” sometimes just by listening to the songs.
Not long after his release during the pandemic winter of 2020-2021, Smith sought assistance from the Fortune Society in the Bronx, a non-profit assisting with education, affordable housing and jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals.
He began working as an intern when he met Mikell Grant, an outreach coordinator for Music on the Inside, a non-profit organization that connects youth and adults impacted by incarceration with one-on-one professional musicians.
The program was founded by Jazz at Lincoln Center founding producer Alina Bloomgarden in 2015, with music lessons at the Queensboro Correctional Facility, Rikers Island and the Edgecombe Residential Treatment Facility with more than a dozen professional musicians culminating with prison-wide concerts.
Smith was playing a gospel song on the piano, when Grant overheard.
“He started crying and said, ‘that was beautiful,’” Smith recalled of the moment Grant offered him an opportunity to get a piano of his own, and a professionally trained mentor.
In the coming weeks he began doing Zoom sessions with vocal coach Marion Cowings and jazz pianist Peter Malinverni.
This Saturday, more than two years after leaving prison, Smith will perform a rendition of the spiritual song “Deep River,” on stage with his mentors at MOTI’s Juneteenth Jazz Jubilee Benefit Concert at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side.
Smith will be joined by four other formerly incarcerated individuals and 12 professional musicians, including multi-Grammy award winning composer and pianist Arturo O’Farrill, two-time Grammy nominated trumpeter Alphonso Horne, renowned tap dance artist DeWitt Fleming Jr.; along with saxophonist Don Braden and his Earth Wind and Wonder quartet.
Smith has come a long way from his self-taught music theory in prison.
“I would tell him [the piano player in prison] to tap the key and remember what it sounds like. I’d say that sounds like the key A flat. Sometimes I would hit the key right on the nose,” he said of guessing keys to sounds, imitating the hand movements on his paper keyboard.
He’ll share the stage with formerly incarcerated Javier Perez, released earlier this year after serving 20 years.
Perez, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to the Bronx in his late teenage years, started his sentence at Green Haven Correctional Facility in 2008. That year, his mother sent him a guitar with sheet music and around 10 cords.
“I remember I played D Major and E Major [chords] for maybe six or seven months. Only myself and the book,” Perez told The Post, saying that he practiced every day.
In 2014, Perez was relocated to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining where he was able to participate in a music program weekly. Nearly a decade later, he met Bloomgarden and was enrolled in MOTI, just months before his release from Queensboro Correctional Facility in Long Island City.
Perez now lives in the Bronx and is currently taking Occupational Safety and Health Administration classes, hoping to one day pursue a job in construction. On Saturday, he’ll perform a song he wrote while serving time. Titled “Ya Voy,” and written in Spanish, it’s about coming home.
“I wrote that because I had a conversation with my mother. I promised I would get home one day,” he said, noting with pride that his parents will be in attendance on Saturday.
“I know when they watch the show they’re going to enjoy it. For me, it’s so powerful.”