Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer Kicks Out the Jazz

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 06.17.14 in Features

Wayne Kramer is no stranger to jazz. As co-lead guitarist in the MC5, with Fred “Sonic” Smith, Kramer helped fuse the outer limits of rock-as-high-energy with the expansive sounds of free jazz. When that classic group splintered in the early ’70s, he spent time in the infamous Lexington prison facility for a drug conviction, a central and life-changing experience he documented musically in his latest release, Lexington.

It is part of a musical renaissance in which Kramer has dabbled in soundtracks (his list of credits include Talledega Nights, HBO’s Eastbound and Down and the theme music for Fox Sports’ 5-4-3-2-1). He’s also a well-traveled solo performer (his quartet of albums for Epitaph in the ’90s are regarded as classics) and a true guitar hero, as well as a new father. His nine-month-old son gurgled in the background as we began our dialogue.

Have you wanted to make a jazz record for a long time?

I’ve been playing this way since the early days of the MC5. Once I learned how to play Chuck Berry solos, some James Brown stuff and the contemporary songs of my early days, free jazz was the inspiration that I sought and found in the work of Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane and Sun Ra, Albert Ayler. They were the power source for the MC5, and everything I’ve done ever since.

I think each new generation is searching for its individual voice. I found mine in those squonking saxophones, the polyrhythmic free time. After Trane did Giant Steps, he came to the conclusion that he had gone as far as he could go with chords, and I like that idea.

Did you feel that you had just begun to explore its possibilities when the MC5 imploded?

Yeah. I think — and we’re just speculating now — but had the MC5 been given a future, we probably would’ve gone further and further in advancing the sense of jazz forward.

Did you ever play in any specific jazz bands at that time, or moonlight on the Detroit jazz scene?

I would sit in with Lyman Woodard, or the Detroit Contemporary Jazz Quintet, which contained Dr. Charles Moore, who wrote horn charts for the MC5. Dr. Moore is my collaborator on the current release.

So you and Charles go back quite a ways. How did you meet him, and how has your long partnership continued?

We go back to the ’60s. [Then] he came out to Los Angeles in the mid ’70s, and I got out here in ’94, and we just reconnected. We had always maintained our friendship, our conspiratorial ideas about music; and so when the opportunity came to write a score for the PBS documentary, The Narcotic Farm, I knew I wanted it to be jazz-based, because of the great history of jazz musicians going to Lexington to get help for their opiate dependencies. I called Dr. Moore and asked him to work with me on the score. The Narcotic Farm program ended in the early ’70s, and the facility was reassigned to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is when I served a prison term there in the mid ’70s. I’ve watched for over 40 years as more and more guys like me went to prison for more and more severe sentences, and began to wonder when somebody was going to say something about this. This is a horrible failure of social policy being played out over the lives of millions of Americans.

I set out to do something about it with a nonprofit initiative I launched with my wife Margaret and the great Billy Bragg. We call it Jail Guitar Doors, named after the Clash song about my misadventures and, among other things, it’s dedicated to providing guitars to inmates. I thought I could tie my anger to what’s happening with hyper-incarceration in with the work I had done on this film score, reimagining this music as an album, and use it as a leverage to have this conversation. It’s a terrible disgrace what we’re doing in the name of justice. We continue at our own peril. If you lock someone up for decades in a world of racism and violence and no positive programming, they only come out worse.

How much of this album was born out of your personal experience at Lexington? That must have been quite a shock to your nervous system, going from being a well-known rock musician to suddenly finding yourself behind bars.

It was very stressful, to say the least. You’re in a world that most people couldn’t identify with. You’re constantly on guard, there are violent and dangerous people that you have to live with daily. It affected me deeply, and I think it affects everyone who serves a prison term. It changes you, and I just don’t believe it changes anyone for the better. I think we really need to take a look at punishment in America and try to come up with a more civilized approach to people who break the social contract. For me, it was the end of the optimism of my youth [laughs]. That bright-eyed bushy-tailed thing went away, and it was a harder and more cynical fellow who came out. With the music, I tried to connect up things that I felt during that period to the compositions. I tried to do it in a literary sense with some of the titles. “Elvin’s Blues” is of course referring to the great drummer Elvin Jones, who suffered with opiate dependency his whole life, and was also a resident at Lexington. And anyone who has dealt with alcohol or drug dependencies has the blues [laughs]. Or songs like the “13th Hour,” which is kind of rueful, and wistful.

I thought your guitar solo at the end of “Taking the Cure” really encapsulated the anxiety you must have felt, struggling with your own personal demons…

Yeah there’s a lot of that in there, looking inward, trying to find out what is the truth about me. And about the larger picture, about things that were going on there: “The ARC,” the Addiction Research Center, where they did drug experiments on prisoners.

What about the band on the album? The Lexington Arts Ensemble. Are they musicians who were they gathered especially for this album?

The core of the group are Detroiters: Charles Moore, Buzzy Moore on tenor sax and oboe, Phil Ranelin, the great trombonist; Bob Hurst on upright bass. And then the rest of the cats are players I’ve been working with in L.A. for the past 20 years: Doug Lun on bass, Eric Gardner and Brock Avery on drums. And a fantastic pianist, Tigran Hamasyan, a young Armenian immigrant, well on his way to superstardom in the jazz world.

It’s quite a communal effort. I don’t see them as being your backing band by any means. There’s lots of step-out solos and virtuosic interplay constantly moving the music along.

As musicians, we all share this need to fly without a net sometimes, to step off into improvisation and see what happens. People often think that playing “free” means you just go off and play anything you want to play. But freedom in music, like freedom in life, is not free. It’s like a coin: One side says you’re free, and the other side says you’re totally responsible. When we’re improvising without the benefit of a key or chord changes, or rhythm pattern, everyone has to pay more attention, be more sensitive, be more intuitive, more open-minded than you do when you have specific melody or beats to lean on.

You have to feel the musicians breathe…

You’ve got to be 100 percent connected up. And sometimes you end up playing things you never knew you would.

How did you go about recording the album? Was it mostly live in the studio, or were things more structured in terms of overdubbing and editing?

Charles and I wrote for about two months. He would come over to the studio and we would work up themes and melodies and rhythms, and then we had a rehearsal schedule with the band, where we got together once or twice a week for a month. I wanted everyone to internalize the themes; I didn’t want to have people reading charts on the session. And then we went in for three days, and played everything live. All the solos are first takes. On the second day we had a computer crash and we lost a couple of tracks. We had to come back and do them again, but I think they came out even better.

When you were at Lexington, you were tutored by the great Red Rodney. Could you describe how he mentored you?

Red was the formidable trumpet virtuoso who replaced the young Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker quintet. By the time he had gotten to Lexington on this trip, he had been there two other times in the ’50s and ’60s and he was kind of like the mayor of the prison. He told me once, “Wayne, I like doing business with established institutions” [laughs]. But he was such an advanced player, of a school of chops like Dizzy Gillespie. His musicianship was stunning. He practiced every day, and ran me through a Berklee School of Music course in theory; he became my musical father. He was of the kind of guy I idolized, dope fiend jazz musicians, and there he was, in his mid ’50s when we served our sentences together. I was in my mid 20s, and he had been around the block a few times. He knew a lot about life, what being a musician, and what being a junkie meant, and so we talked a lot. I went into prison as an adventurous rock guitar player, and maybe I came out a competent musician.

It seems in a strange converse way that the experience in Lexington was positive for your personal growth, that you were able to use it to turn you life around.

Well, I think it saved my life. It happened at a time when the MC5 had broken up, and my life in Detroit was on shaky ground. I was associating with very bad people, and I was doing very bad things, any number of which could have resulted in my death. I tried to use the time for personal growth. My liver got a break, I exercised every day, ate not great but decent food. It’s amazing what people can endure and rise above. My experience in prison was life-changing for me, and it makes me think hard about the 2.3 million of our fellows that are serving much more severe sentences than I did.

Are you thinking of taking the Ensemble on the road?

We have started a Pledge Music campaign to underwrite the expense of a tour. I want to play this music live for people. We’ve been doing some gigs around southern California. It’s so much fun playing with these guys, and the audience reaction is nothing but positive. I thought the rock guitar fans were going to rise up in protest, think this was a bunch of shit with saxophones. But I haven’t gotten any real grief about it. Everybody seems to like the record. I woefully underestimated people’s listening tastes.

Well, there is that meeting ground when you get beyond jazz or rock where the music becomes its own force of nature, blending sound upon sound, what Sun Ra used to call “out there.”

I agree with you. We have 12 notes to start with, and all the ones in between, and you can stretch the boundaries.

Listening to this brings me back to a certain moment in rock and jazz when this adventurism, this limitless tonal possibility, was in the forefront of the music’s progression. Now it seems as if we’ve receded from this, that each music has gone back to their own corner, that we’ve gotten more conservative. How do you feel about the state of rock as it melds with the state of jazz today?

I agree with you. It may be one of Wayne’s crackpot theories here, but when Albert Ayler died, and Coltrane died, it left a huge vacuum. In that vacuum, Miles Davis, who was always ahead of everybody, realized he could reach more people by opening for the Grateful Dead than playing five sets a night for years at the Village Vanguard. He thought that’s what rock was, so he moved in that direction — as opposed to Jimi Hendrix, who had a different attitude about what rock could be, or the MC5. That influenced the next generation of musicians, and we ended up with fusion, and smooth jazz. Terrible things.

Today we have retro be-bop; and that kind of more visceral, sonic, passionate approach which I found so inspirational slipped away. That’s what I’m trying to stay true to with Lexington, to keep that commitment, to keep pushing at the boundaries of communication. There’s nothing new on the record. It’s a way of approaching music, a way of playing music with other people that doesn’t get a lot of exposure these days. I like the idea of inner musical conversation within a band, where musicians express their emotions through any means possible.