Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Wayne Kramer: Behind Bar Lines

A rock legend Wayne Kramer reflects on his jazz history

Wayne Kramer in his MC5 days

If any film producers or directors are seeking out new subjects for music biopics, the guitarist, singer and songwriter Wayne Kramer has stories worth telling. There’s the obvious narrative-how Kramer and a crew of Midwestern radicals, under the tutelage of poet-manager John Sinclair, kicked out the jams and laid the groundwork for punk rock as the MC5. Over the past six years, there’s been a storyline about Kramer’s non-profit, Jail Guitar Doors USA, which offers guitars and lessons to inmates in more than 50 U.S. prisons. And there’s another tale of how he jammed in a correctional facility himself, in a band with a genuine bebop legend. “When I was in prison and I played music,” says Kramer, 66, on the phone from his Los Angeles studio, “I wasn’t in prison anymore. I was in the world of melodies and chord changes.”

By 1975 the MC5 had imploded and Kramer was up to no good. After getting popped for attempting to sell cocaine to undercover law enforcement, he was sent for two years to the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ky.-the storied “Narcotic Farm” that blueprinted substance-abuse punishment and rehabilitation in America. There he met Red Rodney, the trumpeter who followed Miles Davis in Charlie Parker’s band. He was serving one of his life’s many drug-related incarcerations, and stopped by Kramer’s cell one day with his horn and a fake book. Rodney had thoroughly rebuilt his technique after a run-in with police over a decade prior damaged his embouchure; Kramer, however, struggled with the first chart. “I’m sure I was butchering the changes,” he recalls. “But when we finished, Red said, ‘Yeah, alright, you can play pretty well.’ And then he opened up to me and we became friends and he became my mentor and my musical father.”

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published