James Blake, 58, a jazz pianist who was acclaimed for his descriptions of life as an inmate in the Florida prison system, died Monday at Arlington Hospital. He had cancer.
Mr. Blake moved to the Washington area in 1973, two years after he published "The Joint," a collection of letters he wrote while serving time in various Florida jails and in the Florida State Penitentiary in Raiford. Mr. Blake served a total of 13 years in prison, mostly for burglary and similar crimes.
In a review of "The Joint" in The New York Times, William Styron hailed the book as "a record that is both an enormously revealing chronicle of life behind walls and a fascinating self-portrait by a man who continues to be steadfastly an individualist, telling his own truths."
Mr. Blake committed crimes partly to support a drug habit and partly because of a desire to return to the homosexual companionship offered by prison. His correspondents included Nelson Algren, James Purdy, Simone de Bauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.
In a passage written during a period of freedom, he said, "Do you know what's on my mind? The Joint. I thought I was getting off free from that experience. I thought they hadn't managed to touch me, but it colors every moment and every action of my life. I think always of the peace that I had there -- this working to survive [in freedom] and surviving to work seems increasingly like an arrangement I would not have chosen were it up to me; Those gates, man, they're inviting...."
Mr. Blake was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He and his family moved to Chicago when Mr. Blake was 7. He studied to be a concert pianist and attended both the University of Illinois and Northwestern University.
He began his career as a jazz pianist as an accompanist to singer Anita O'Day in the 1940s. He continued to play during his years in and out of prison and was the featured pianist at the old Fitzgerald Restaurant at 21st and P streets NW when he moved to Washington in 1973.
He continued to write and contributed to "The Washingtonian." He also had articles published in "The Paris Review" and "The American Scholar."
Mr. Blake played piano programs at the Smithsonian Institution, the Washington Project for the Arts, and at the Inter-American Development Bank.
He left no immediate survivors.