LOS ANGELES — The tributes that poured in following Wayne Kramer’s death last week came from musicians praising the MC5 guitarist’s contributions to rock music, as well as from prison reform advocates who extolled his legacy of bringing music to incarcerated people.
Kramer, who died Feb. 2 at age 75 of pancreatic cancer, influenced generations of artists with his screaming guitar chords on hardcore anthems like 1969’s “Kick Out the Jams.”
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello said MC5, with an uncompromising sound that fused music to political action, “basically invented punk rock.”
Not long after the band broke up in 1972, Kramer was arrested on drug charges and spent two years in prison. Determined to straighten out his life while maintaining his activism, Kramer co-founded Jail Guitar Doors USA, based on a British charity that provided inmates with musical instruments. Kramer’s nonprofit is named after a Clash song that refers to his struggles: “Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine.”
Kramer recruited famous friends like Morello, Slash and Perry Farrell to perform concerts at prisons in California and his home state of Michigan, where he would leave behind guitars.
Gradually he began spending one-on-one time with inmates, helping them craft their own songs and “watching the creative lights go on in their heads,” said Jason Heath, a close friend and executive director of Jail Guitar Doors USA.
“Working with inmates was cathartic for him because music had saved his life when he was inside,” Heath said this week.
“Creativity is the solution for the challenges we face,” Kramer told Mojo magazine in December.
His group ultimately distributed thousands of instruments and created a songwriting mentorship program that expanded to lockups nationwide. Its work was cited in research by University of San Francisco professor Larry Brewster that found introducing arts to incarcerated people led to fewer disciplinary actions, increased self-esteem, improved emotional health and reduced rates of recidivism.
“He invited people to tell their story via music, that was Wayne’s gift,” said Elida Ledesma, director of the California-based nonprofit Arts for Healing and Justice Network. “He knew that everyone was worthy of respect and dignity.”
In recent years, Jail Guitar Doors USA spun off a partner nonprofit, the Community Arts Programing and Outreach Center. Its headquarters in Hollywood include a recording studio and teaches multimedia production to young people recently released from custody and trying to start their lives over. A federally approved apprentice program for formerly incarcerated people offers a 2 1/2 year curriculum for audio recording and a shorter one for film editing.
One of the young apprentices, 24-year-old Joseph Jimenez, said it never occurred to him that he could be a filmmaker after spending more than five years in juvenile halls and other correctional facilities. One day, he tagged along to the center with one of the residents of his halfway house.
“They handed me a camera, and I just started learning,” Jimenez said.
He recently shot and produced a music video for a rap song written, performed and recorded by him and fellow students. He said the program has instilled in him an ambition he didn’t know he possessed.
“Now I want to have my own production company,” Jimenez said. “I want to do independent film.”
Jack Bowers, who ran the arts project at California’s Soledad prison for 25 years, credits Kramer with helping restore funding for cultural programs in state lockups. Amid a budget crisis in 2003, the state slashed all money for arts within the California corrections system. Nine years later, a group of nonprofits including Jail Guitar Doors started lobbying for restoration. Kramer eventually delivered testimony before a joint committee on the arts, along with actor Tim Robbins and others.
“Wayne just gave this moving speech about how important it was to have music and arts in prisons,” said Bowers, who’s now a mentor at the William James Association Prison Arts Project. “Because he had been incarcerated, he understood it from the point of view of somebody who was inside. His voice carried a tremendous amount of weight.”
It was out of that meeting that the program was restored, Bowers said. The state provided $1 million in 2014, and the prison arts budget has since been increased to $8 million, he said.
Heath said the next steps for the Community Arts Programing and Outreach Center is to provide on-site housing for the paid apprentices, where they can focus on the work to avoid the temptations of repeating behaviors that got them in trouble.
“We can sign the youths up while they’re still incarcerated. Then when they’re released they go straight to the house, where they have a place to live, and straight to the center, where they’ve got a job,” he said. “That puts them on the right path.”
Jimenez, the young apprentice, admits that as a hip-hop fan he didn’t realize that Kramer, the unassuming guy mentoring people and running the program at the center, was a rock star.
“I Googled him, and it kind of blew my mind,” Jimenez said. “He was so cool and so down to earth with the work that he did with us. He’s a legend.”