Wayne Kramer’s “Prison Jazz” Roots

Lexington [Industrial Amusement], Wayne Kramer’s first jazz album, was inspired by the MC5 guitarist’s incarceration at the Lexington Federal Prison in the mid 1970s for selling cocaine.
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Lexington [Industrial Amusement], Wayne Kramer’s first jazz album, was inspired by the MC5 guitarist’s incarceration at the Lexington Federal Prison in the mid 1970s for selling cocaine. The famous institution—once “home” to jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and Miles Davis—is being featured in a PBS documentary entitled Narcotic Farm, which Kramer is scoring.

“It dredged up a lot of memories,” says Kramer.

Although known as a hard-rock guitarist, Kramer has a background in free jazz and improvisation, and he collaborated with the late Detroit trumpeter Dr. Charles Moore on Lexington. They met over six weeks to write themes, melodies, and grooves, and then gathered their dream team of jazz musicians, including trombonist Phil Ranelin, pianist Tigran Hamasyan, reed man Ralph “Buzzy” Jones, drummers Brock Avery and Eric Gardner, and bassists Bob Hurst and Doug Lunn.

“We went into the studio for three days and recorded it live,” Kramer says. “No loops, samples, auto tuning, or overdubs. It’s real musicians playing together in real time how they felt in that moment.”

What gear did you use on the album?

I played my signature Fender Stratocaster— a reproduction of the guitar I played in the MC5—and I ran it through a Fender Hot Rod DeVille.

How did Red Rodney, your cellmate at Lexington, influence you?

Red was a trumpeter who replaced Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet, so he was old school. He was an unbelievable musician. Red schooled me in traditional song structure, and taught me my first theory course. We had a band in prison that played mostly jazz and R&B—not too much hard rock [laughs]. I went to prison a pretty adventurous rock guitar player, and I came out a fairly competent musician.

Was there anything particularly challenging during the creation of the album?

Playing in odd time signatures remains a challenge because my background is in 4/4 rock. It’s a moving target! It’s also very challenging and demanding—though rewarding, as well—to let go of rules and restrictions. You see, to play free isn’t free. You have to play what’s appropriate to what everybody else is playing. It requires a great deal of self-discipline, and an open mind to be able to hear what people are doing, and then be able to play without the benefit of playing in a key or playing to a beat. The freedom of it is that wherever the music goes, that’s where the musicians are going. Things changed all the time, but that’s where the beauty lies.

Do you have an example?

When we rehearsed “Elvin’s Blues,” Tigran was on a piano, but when we got to the studio, there was a Hammond organ. He asked if he could play it, and his first pass is on the recording. I think his spontaneous, inspired organ work makes the track.

You also mentioned how important tempo is.

It’s huge. Count Basie said it was all about tempo. Tempo is crucial. It sets the stage.

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