Episode 16: Henry Robinett - Jazz in the Joint

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Here is the link to the Arts Extension Service: Creative Community Leadership Course Info.


Episode 16: Henry Robinett - Jazz in the Joint

Jazz musician, composer, educator Henry Robinett has the kind of calm, purposeful trajectory that allows him to ignore the detritus, and collect the sublime and the quirk, all in service to making and recording extraordinary award-winning music and helping heal heads and hearts in the largest prison system in the world.

Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes:

How are jazz legend Charles Mingus, the world famous Manhattan Plaza artist residence, and Henry Robinett connected?

"I had a very famous cousin of mine, a jazz musician by the name of Charles Mingus. Well in 1977, I lived with him in New York. We lived in these condos, it was a condo full of artists called Manhattan Plaza and it was subsidized housing for artists. It was great, cause you had some very famous musicians who lived there, and once a week, twice a week or something, they used to have a big band, like in the basement of the people who live there. And so, I'd go down there and play. He came down to watch and listen. And that was a big deal because he was the greatest of all the musicians who lived there. So even these famous musicians would go off. And so right afterwards, he came up to his place on the 43rd floor. And there I was it, so he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Rehearsal and stuff", he said, "You're supposed to hang. You're "supposed to hang with all the men." I go, "I'm hanging with the greatest musician right now. Why would I want to hang with those guys when I can to hang with you?""

How does a jazz guitar virtuoso and composer end up working at Folsom Prison?

"So, Bill Peterson, who was the artist facilitator at old Folsom, called me. I hadn't been thinking about teaching prisoners at all. and my first thought was nervous. " Oh man, these guys are pretty tough hombre’s, this is interesting." And I went there, and it was an experience. And when you, you experienced an experience like that, where all of your, worst expectations don't take place in what you're really coming in contact with are human beings who aren't any different than I am, except there's a dark past that you are aware of must've happened with these guys or they wouldn't be here. But, you don't think about any of that stuff because I'm just in contact with a human being who is in need of something I have and so, I loved it."

What role can artmaking play in the positive transformation of people who are Often characterized as "hardened criminals?"

One guy said to me, “Look, Henry, I'm never getting out of here. I'm just never getting out, and I had to really change. So, the person I am now is not the person who was out there. I don’t do anything that I used to do. I don't smoke, I don't cuss, I don't do drugs, I don't drink, none of it, and I didn't change my life because I wanted to impress the parole board. I changed my life because I needed to change my life.”

How can an open to all music program work in a place as racially segregated as a prison?

"You have a lot of people who, are very gang related, and the music department is one of the areas where that breaks down. Because, on the yard you have yard rules where the Aryan Brotherhood, they don't mix with the Mexican gangs and the black gangs, and you have to fall in line. You have to do what they say. But behind the walls of the music room, you don't see the yard. So, you have white guys playing with black guys and Mexican guys, and that was things that would never happen on the yard, and that's really nice."

Is there turning point for people trying to learn and master an instrument?

"So, I try to get them to get this idea. If you feel like, "Oh my God, I can't do this anymore. I just can't do it." I go, "Okay. I understand. ..."Just continue. "Boredom? Oh yeah. Boredom that'll happen. You just need to get past the boredom part."

And then it becomes self-motivating. He starts getting creative and that's the point. if you can take the tools and get to the point where, "Oh my God, I can be creative with this. I can use this as self-expression, or I'm winning there." There's a loss point, and there's a win point. And the catch point is when you actually have a win point. And "Oh, I finally get what he's saying.” Then it becomes really exciting. and a lot of times it's when someone starts writing music."

Transcript

Music.... ( Change, by The Henry Robinett Group)

Bill Cleveland: That’s the Henry Robinett Group. So needless to say, its jazz time on Change the Story / Change the World. My guest, musician, composer, educator Henry Robinett is cool. Not just old -school hip cat, vernacular cool, but truly low in temperature. That’s because Henry moves through the jingly, messy stuff of life with a focused persistence -- the kind of calm, purposeful trajectory that allows him to ignore the detritus, and collect the sublime and the quirk, all in service to making and recording extraordinary award-winning music and helping heal heads and hearts in the largest prison system in the world. We talked as the truly terrible summer of 2020 was closing up shop. As usual, we started with our guest’s backstory.

This is Change the Story, Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. I’m Bill Cleveland.

Before we join Henry. I would like to share something I’m really excited about. As some of you know, the Center has been providing in-depth professional development opportunities for creative community leaders across the country for the past two decades. Last year we joined up with the University of Massachusetts’ Arts Extension Service to create a new 13-week online course called Creative Community Leadership.

So, starting on February 4th, Kathi Bentley and I will be offering a rigorous, engaging learning opportunity for anyone interested in exploring how art centered strategies and tools can help us rebuild and reform in these turbulent times. And, when we say anyone, we mean it. Artists, arts administrators for sure, but also folks involved in social service, community development, philanthropy, education, city hall--- we think the time is ripe for creative community change agents of all stripes to roll up their sleeves and get to work. So, if your interest is piqued do a google search for Arts Extension Service – that’s Arts Extension Service or click on the Arts Extension Service link in our show notes. And If you want to know more about Kathi and myself go to our Episodes 1 and 5. Now on with the show.

Part 1: Practice

Bill Cleveland: The nice thing about these conversations is that the people I'm talking to know their story.

So, Henry, you and I go way back, with a quarter of a century in-between. Over that time, my experiences set me on a path to what has become the name of this podcast, which is Change the Story Change the World. That's my change theory, which is artists creators can help address critical community issues with seriousness and the power of our work--If we're smart and we're patient--can actually change things significantly. So that's why I'm talking to you because, you’re one of those folks, and one of the things we'll explore is how in the world you got down that road. But let me begin by asking you, how do you, describe what you do in the world? What is your work?

Henry Robinett: I've always been inspired by art, and I've always been inspired by the idea of being an artist. And I want to say I probably grokked that in my early childhood because my mother loved the arts. She loved literature, she loved painting, she loved music, classical music. And so, she would take me to museums. And there was a time when I was interested in painting and I wanted to do paint, oil. Even as a little kid, I was inspired by the Impressionists van Gogh and Monet and Degas. We went to Paris and saw all these great artists, and I wanted to emulate that. So, I took classes and oil painting, and at my elementary school, they hung a bunch of paintings up, and that was very exciting, and I think the idea was, even before I understood it was self-creation self-expression and as I got older, it seemed to me that the artists are the ones who really create the world. They're the ones who inhabit the creativity. They're the ones who design the chairs, they design the houses, they designed, the roads that we use. But, more than that, they actually create an aesthetic that every age can be identified with.

So, if you're studying the twenties, you really have to go back and read the literature, the twenties, you have to listen to the music of the twenties. You have to look at the paintings of the twenties. It's just not, it's just not a dry historical thing. So, I think in a very cheap way, the people who make the world are the politicians, but, in a very real way, the people who make the world or the artists. They define the world that we live in. And that's what always inspired me.

BC: Okay so let’s say you're in a conversation with relatives that are distant, or people that you meet for the first time. What do you say to them when they say, 'Oh, Henry, what do you do? what's your thing? "

HR: That's always funny. Cause I tell them, “I'm a musician " and they chuckle and go, "Yeah, that's great. But what do you do?" Oh, I know that your passion is, but how do you make a living? What do you do in life?" I say, "I play guitar, I'm a musician." And, and I've lived various places in the world and the West Coast, my life here, I've always had a problem with that. when I lived in New York in the seventies, I never had that issue. I would just, people say, what do you do? I'm a musician. Wow. That's great. Never what do you do for a living? similar. [When] I lived in Germany and people just accepted, Yeah, they're a musician.

BC: So, you mentioned earlier about your home, your family, and that making, creating, and enjoying and experiencing those things, were a regular part of your everyday life. What set you on the journey to actually become a serious, maker/creator, with intention to be a professional in that arena?

HR: I just think there's a picture. Somewhere in the back of my mind a guy, which would be me sitting in a little grotto or an attic with the little beanie on and a goatee, maybe smoking a cigarette and having a, coffee or a glass of wine, and he is an artist. That is what they do. So, it's the person who is painting or the poet who's writing or the musician who's playing. But for me, the musician who's playing really meant someone who practices every day. I somehow got this notion that you're not defined by the last gig you did. You're defined by the last practice session you did.

In a couple of different places, I was in middle school and there was a vocal music teacher and I always wanted to be musician. I just always wanted to be a musician. And I felt at this point I was probably 12 or 13 years old, that time was passing me. I had this idea that great musicians really started by the time they were six, and look, I've blown it. I've really blown it. So, my vocal music teacher was someone that most people really did not like, but she loved me, and I loved her. They didn't like her because she would get off on these huge tangents. This was during the Vietnam war and something would happen, and then she would give a lecture about Nixon and about Vietnam and they would go, "Oh my God." But she loved me. She just absolutely loved me, and I told her one day, think I want to pick up an instrument. I finally decided I want to be a guitar player, and she got so excited about it. She says, first let me tell you, let me give you a tip right now. “I practice every single day” and I looked at her. She was old. She was an old person. She was probably in her forties. I said, “you practice every day?” And she goes “If I don't have time, I still do a half hour just scales”. And she showed me the muscle by her pinkie on both sides and they were big and fat. They look like Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles, and I just got the idea. this is what you do.

And the other story that helps define this for me is, I had a very famous cousin of mine, a jazz musician by the name of Charles Mingus. He died of Lou Gehrig's disease; I think 1979. Well in 1977, I lived with him in New York. And I was on a practice tear. I was practicing six hours a day, and there was a magical time when he would get up at three o'clock in the afternoon, and he was sitting there, he was in a wheelchair and watching television. He was watching this movie with Sammy Davis Jr. Called A Man Called Adam, which was real interesting because Sammy Davis Jr. played a Miles Davis, character playing trumpet, So I'm sitting there watching this movie with Mingus, he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm watching the movie with you." He paused, " Musicians, practice." Cause he was being my mentor. I say, "I practiced six hours today." He paused and said, "Musicians practice". So, I went, "Oh, okay." That hit me, that, okay. If I want to be a musician, If I dream about being a musician on that caliber, that's what I got. Those are the kinds of things that I have to listen to. Yeah. Yeah.

BC: Did he, ever get to the point, or did you ever get to the point where he was, mentoring you in your, in your musical journey as a musician, directly.

HR: Little bits. He would have me get some music that he had written and, he would have me read it. And that was a real challenge because it was written for piano, two staves, and look like Chopin. I wasn't the best reader, so, I struggled along, and he was saying, "Take your time, do what you can do." And he would give me tips. He would say, "Get your guitar" and would show me how to do things.

We lived in these condos, it was a condo full of artists called Manhattan Plaza and it was subsidized housing for artists. It was great, cause you had some very famous musicians who lived there, and once a week, twice a week or something, they used to have a big band, like in the basement of the people who live there. And so, I'd go down there and play. He came down to watch and listen. And that was a big deal because he was the greatest of all the musicians who lived there. So even these famous musicians would go off. And so right afterwards, he came up to his place on the 43rd floor. And there I was it, so he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Rehearsal and stuff", he said, "You're supposed to hang. You're "supposed to hang with all the men." I go, "I'm hanging with the greatest musician right now. Why would I want to hang with those guys when I can to hang with you?"

BC: So, one thing when I listened to your solos and of course I could be projecting on you is that I hear a horn influence. And yeah, listening to it, to those lines and, and voicing your guitar that way. Am I hearing the right thing?

HR: I was just talking to someone about this recently. Had I had the courage to change, I probably would have changed to the tenor saxophone. But I was already well enough along on my way of playing the guitar I started playing the guitar just because I fell in love with Jimmy Hendrix, but I really listened to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Yusef, Lateef, Cannibal Adderley and the piano players, Chick Corea, Herbie, Hancock, Oscar Peterson. The, these are the guys that I really listened to, and the language of the music was what was, most important to me as opposed to the tambour of the sound of the guitar.

So, I could listen to the music and just imagined I saw the fingers on the fret board, John Coltrane was playing, I didn't see a tenor player. I saw a guitar player, in my mind. So, I just translated all that stuff. And I said, it might help me come up with a style that's more of my own, that doesn't really sound like anyone else. And, once again, Mingus used to say, “Play your own shit, even if it stinks." So, I thought that"

BC: You're stuck with it.

HR: Yeah. Yeah.

Part 2: Basements

BC: So, when you talk about, rehearsal, I recall one of the first encounters I had inside, the Department of Corrections and we had, an interesting, gig. It was the Kronos String Quartet. They were based in San Francisco. Their persona, their character was, "Yeah, we're a string quartet, but we're not like any string quartet you ever heard." And they typically wore motorcycle jackets. So, they came into the California Medical Facility at the time, it's Solono now, and, and they did a concert. Instead of wearing their motorcycle jackets, they wore tuxedos, which was great, and they played in the gym on top of lunch tables, literally, and they played a lot of music that these guys had never heard. And then, at a certain point they, they segued into Purple Haze.

HR: I was going to say Purple Haze that's one of the big hits

BC: And everybody, jumped up and yelled, just like you do it, all those string quartet, experiences, but then afterwards, and this was really probably the most important part of bringing artists in this is that not only that people got to hear what they did, but they got to ask questions

HR: yes.

BC: And, and I'll never forget this guy that said. “wow. you guys are really good and, and you probably been doing this for a long time, and they all shook their head. Yeah. and he says, so when was it that you got to stop, all that, practicing He assumed that if you make it, you coast?”

And as far as they were concerned that the current on a string quartet had made it, so they must have reached the, the downhill part of their career. And I'll never forget. Joan, Jeanrenaud, who was the, cello. she said, “when I was young, I practiced two, three hours a day and everybody went, "Oh, wow, that's a lot." And she says, “You get

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