Jazz trumpeter Joe Ambrosia dies back in prison

Joe Ambrosia plays the EVI at Indigo Lounge May 31, 2001.

Locked in a prison cell away from his beloved horn, Charleston jazz trumpeter Joe Ambrosia composed new music in his head and taught himself to play piano using a diagram of a keyboard he scratched out with a pen on a hunk of discarded cardboard.

Ambrosia dreamed of making music again one day when he finished a seven-year sentence stemming from his involvement in a local cocaine ring.

He seemed close to his goal late last month when the state Department of Corrections granted him a medical furlough because he had terminal cancer.

His freedom proved short-lived, however. Ambrosia died Sept. 12 at the age of 71, his son said.

Jean Ambrosi said his father was back in custody when he died. Just a week after Ambrosia was released, state officials revoked his furlough without a firm explanation as to why, and his condition quickly deteriorated, his son said.

“The doctors thought he had at least another six months to live,” he said. “But he didn’t last a week.”

State corrections officials said Friday they were unable to immediately respond to questions about Ambrosia’s return to custody and his subsequent death.

Ambrosia’s attorney, Tivis Sutherland, said he was “terribly frustrated by what effectively ended up being a death sentence for Joe” after he was sentenced to prison.

“His choices were certainly his own,” Sutherland said. “However irate the authorities were at the time, it is difficult to believe that this would be viewed as a just result in the matter of the state of South Carolina vs. Joe Ambrosia. If this is where we are with the war on drugs, perhaps it is time to bring the troops home.”

The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case, had no comment Friday on Sutherland’s statement or the appropriateness of Ambrosia’s sentence, spokesman Mark Powell said.

Ambrosia was well-known in Holy City music circles well before his flight from prosecution in Charleston landed him in the Netherlands and made him the subject of international headlines.

The former New Jersey resident, who also went by the name “Abrosi,” honed his chops playing in venues across the country and abroad before landing in Charleston in the 1990s. He had played with everyone from the Jimmy Dorsey Band to Frank Zappa to Dexter Gordon and the rock group Lighthouse, which earned gold and platinum records in the 1970s.

Ambrosia established himself here while performing in “Serenade,” a Broadway-style revue that had a three-year run at the Charleston Music Hall. He went on to front or play in several ensembles, including Para-Ti, whose hot salsa rhythms were a staple for late-night revelers at Trio Club on Calhoun Street in the late 1990s.

He remained a popular, if demanding, player until he abruptly vanished in January 2004 while under investigation for his role in a drug-distribution ring that involved local attorneys and others. He was accused of purchasing a half-kilo of cocaine from a co-defendant.

Ambrosia fled to Amsterdam and continued performing under his name, even taking on a high-profile gig at The Hague, the political capital of the Netherlands.

Authorities finally nabbed him in July 2006, but it took two years of legal wrangling to bring him back. While held in a Dutch prison, Ambrosia spent his time learning to play guitar and posting occasional blogs on a website his friends set up to garner sympathy and support for the fugitive musician.

In one entry, Ambrosia stated that he had been addicted to cocaine and had even sold small amounts of the drug to friends to support his habit.

“I’m willing to stand up and face a court and admit my guilt,” Ambrosia stated on his blog. “However, the police are trying to portray me as a high-volume drug dealer, which I’m not.”

Ambrosia’s website said he started using the drug occasionally at age 52 to help him practice longer and travel long hours from gig to gig.

He was returned to South Carolina in 2008 and pleaded guilty a year later to a cocaine-trafficking charge. A judge sentenced him to seven years behind bars. Of the six defendants in the cocaine case, only Ambrosia and another man got prison time. The others received probation.

Ambrosia’s son said his father set about learning the piano with the aid of a two-dimensional keyboard he had drawn, working from memory of what the notes sounded like. The warden at Walden Correctional Institute in Columbia later gave Ambrosia access to a real keyboard in the library, and he began to play in earnest, though he had become gravely ill in recent months from lung cancer, his son said.

By the time of his compassionate release last month, he had composed enough music to fill an album, and he talked to his son about booking some studio time and recording the tunes before his health failed him entirely, Jean Ambrosi said.

His son moved from Canada to Columbia so his father would have a place in the area to live, as he was required to stay within the confines of South Carolina until his actual sentence maxed out next year.

Ambrosi said his father, who adopted a no-sugar diet in hope of starving the cancer, seemed to be faring somewhat better during the short time he was out of prison. He said he’s still mystified as to why authorities took his father back into custody.

“We didn’t break any rules,” he said. “He was in bad shape, so he never even left the apartment. ... The whole thing is just disgusting.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.