Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls open for MC50 Tonight in Los Angeles-Concert Benefits JGD USA
By DONNA BALANCIA
Wayne Kramer is busy with the 50th anniversary tour of his band MC5, but what many people don’t know about this rebellious rocker is the great success he’s achieving with his charity Jail Guitar Doors.
It’s a team that carries on the work of Jail Guitar Doors which brings music programs to men and women in prisons across the United States. And for those involved, like musician Jason Heath of Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls, there is great satisfaction.
Heath is One of the more active musicians teaching in the program. He recently let observers sit in on his weekly songwriting class that’s conducted with the prisoners at Norco Rehabilitation Center located in North Corona.
‘It’s Saving My Life Too’ Says Jason Heath
“I feel blessed to do this work,” Heath said. “Yesterday I was rushing to get to Norco. There was traffic and I was running late. But all the stress goes away when I get in there and work with these guys. The connection isn’t just for them, it’s saving my life too.”
Heath spends about two hours with the inmates once a week. The group separates into two and creates a song by first putting down a beat and then writing some poetic words. By using the guitars, the inmates sketch out a melody and a beat. Just as there are different types of people, there are different tastes in music. It’s no different in the prison music class, so in addition to working out feelings, the inmates learn to cooperate.
Norco Has One of the ‘Best’ Music Programs Says Kramer
Jail Guitar Doors has brought the tools to inmates who often struggle with ways to control anger. Working on music together also helps break down racial and class barriers and builds bridges on the inside, a place that, Heath said, has fewer divisions and social barriers than on the outside. Heath is one of many musicians across the country who help out in the prisons that Jail Guitar Doors is in. Co-founder Kramer and crew go into the jail, help set up the music programs and then they come back to teach — and learn.
“The program at the California state prison at Norco is one of our best,” Kramer said. “We have people whose lives were transformed for the better through the transformative power of music. This is the true definition of rehabilitation.”
Jail Guitar Doors in More than 120 Prisons
Kramer knows how beneficial the program is first hand. He spent a couple of years in prison years ago as a result of a drug bust. While he was in there, he discovered that playing the guitar and making music had incredible rehabilitative benefits. So after serving his time, he got out and co-founded Jail Guitar Doors US. The name comes from a song by The Clash based on Kramer being incarcerated for drug charges.
Jail Guitar Doors is in more than 120 prisons now, having grown over the last five years because of positive results. But while the inmates in prisons where his music program is in effect receive value, little did Kramer realize how much value the program’s teachers would also get.
A Few Mistakes Led Heath to Jail Guitar Doors
Heath is not a teacher by nature. In fact, he said his life was on a troubling path that included alcohol abuse and a bad attitude in general. If it were not for music, he would have been even worse off. His life took a turn for the better when he missed an opportunity to play with his music idol Kramer several years ago because he got too drunk. After that, he got himself into a counselor’s office and with a phone call and connection, Heath found himself face to face with Kramer and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Kramer told Heath his own story and the two struck up a friendship. Heath got on the straight and quit the alcohol. He took Kramer up on his offer to help out with Jail Guitar Doors and now Heath is an integral part of the Southern California region of the program. Once a week Heath drops what he’s doing, bucks the traffic, and makes the long trek up the hill to the prison. He enters through the electronic gates, he’s escorted to the makeshift classroom. Then he sits down with a room full of prisoners to help create work that cuts through the barriers. This is no kindergarten sing-song detail.
Some People Have Been ‘Habilitated’ Let Alone ‘Re-Habilitated’
But Heath’s “students” aren’t lifers either. Most of the prisoners in the music and arts programs at prisons like Norco have only a few years or less to go before they’re released. The expression “Music soothes the savage beast,” may actually have some truth as results of the Jail Guitar Doors program are real, those involved say. The prisoners look look forward to Heath’s visit, and through songwriting, work out a lot of the issues and frustrations they deal with every day behind the wall.
“A big part of what we’re doing is connecting,” Heath said. “A good percentage of these men have never been habilitated let alone ‘re’-habilitated. They’ve never been told their value or that they’re loved. When you begin to do this you see the light bulb go off.”
Music Helps Create Cooperative Environment
“We had a little rocky start today,” Heath said. “We were getting on a country-music style groove and that didn’t go over with everyone in the group. When we first started that might have resulted in a fight. Instead now we work it out and compromise, and the song went from country to funky blues. It worked for everyone, even the kid who wrote the rap words. The whole process of give and take to make the song work best. and they did it quickly without incident.”
“Even if they have a disagreement, when they work through it when they see what they produced is better than what they thought,” Heath said. “They have to listen to someone else. To listen to someone else is not a weakness.”
On this particular Thursday, Heath is working with a bearded biker, Martinez, a father of two, the shy Marcel and a handful of others with varying degrees of musical ability. There’s strumming and laughter. Others are writing poetic lyrics in their composition notebooks. The group decides to go with some lyrics they all agree sums up their anxiety: “Grown man being told what do to.”
Personal Feelings Come Out in the Music
“They’re writing about things that are really personal,” Heath said. “When they do that they get support from other guys. I’ve never been in places where there’s more support from man to man and across racial lines than in prison. They’re not hung up on the stuff people are hung up on on the outside. They’re real tough guys, they’ve tried it and it got them where they’re at. When you give them an environment where they can open up they really take to it.”
Heath and his group also work with kids in rehabilitative youth programs. He’s of the belief that creating the need to create music in someone at an early age can head off a life of crime and cut recitivism. At all ages, it’s about being given some ways to manage the anger and frustration, he said.
“One time, this kid came in and he was really pissed off,” Heath said. “He told me and I said, ‘What you have is called the blues, why don’t we write a song about it?’ The song was called ‘Fuck My Parole Officer.’ That was the lyric. He started writing about the situation and all of a sudden he started smiling and laughing. He said to me, ‘That’s the first time in my life I’ve expressed my anger without trying to hurt someone.’ That’s the beginning of giving the tools they need in the kit when they get out. It can mean the difference between going back in or life or death. I see it on a daily basis.”
‘Remember The People Who are Incarcerated’
The Jail Guitar Doors program receives a good deal of support from instrument manufacturers, private organizations and private funding sources. It takes a great deal of fundraising and outreach, so the organization knocks on other kinds of doors when it comes to getting money.
“The positive work we’re doing has been getting a lot of interest,” Heath said. “Inmates and volunteers find out about us and they want to start a music program and there’s no funding so they contact us. The funding for starting programs where we’re not teaching comes from private donations and fundraising. These guys have bands down there and they’re using amps that don’t work and hand me downs. We give them 20 guitars and whatever they need we’ll get to them. “
“The most important message is we need to reevaluate our idea of the criminal justice system and incarceration,” Heath said. “In America we incarcerate more people than anywhere. Either Americans and Californians are worse than anyone in the world or we have a problem with over incarceration,” he said. ” We’re working with people who are coming back into society. When these people have paid their debt we need to restore them or it’s a vicious cycle. That’s a tax on us socially, economically and morally. We need to remember the people who are incarcerated, they have a family. They’re someone’s brother, sister or mother or father. We need to not be afraid of the people on the other side of the bars.”
Check out the latest album by Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls, But There’s Nowhere to Go.