Boston Woodard

The Prison Press: Power Players Visit San Quentin

By Boston Woodard

On a quiet night in San Quentin, you can hear the sounds of rehabilitation in progress coming from the small arts room on the upper yard. And, from time to time, you will meet professional musicians volunteering to instruct prisoners’ workshops or perform live concerts.

Whether attending a concert or participating in a workshop behind prison walls sponsored by the Bread & Roses organization, it is an experience to remember.

Professional musicians and artists volunteer their time and experience to give back in a big way. By participating in Bread & Roses–sponsored programs, the prisoners, volunteers and community all benefit on many different levels.

Based in Marin County, Bread & Roses has been providing live entertainment to the sick, downtrodden and incarcerated for 40 years. The late great Mimi Fariña started the nonprofit organization in 1974 utilizing the help and services of professional musicians, dancers and other artists.

Bread & Roses Program Director Carolyn Gaughier and Assistant Director Lisa Starbird have made many trips to San Quentin. They bring in a plethora of live entertainment and instruction that prisoners are always eager to participate in.

The purpose of Bread & Roses is to alleviate the sense of isolation experienced by people confined in institutions by providing quality entertainment and give performing artists an opportunity for community service.

According to Gaughier, Bread & Roses produces more than 600 shows a year in hospitals, juvenile halls, convalescent homes, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, psychiatric facilities, centers for the developmentally disabled, AIDS wards, homeless shelters, county jails and prisons.

San Quentin state prison has been the recipient of countless Bread & Roses concerts and workshops over the past four decades. Recently, San Quentin hosted two music workshops for prisoners interested in learning the art of drum and harmonica playing.

This past February, Dave Getz, drummer for the legendary psychedelic 1960s blues-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company that made Janis Joplin famous, held a much-anticipated drum workshop inside San Quentin.

In March, Bread & Roses sponsored another workshop bringing in the incredibly talented harmonica player and vocalist Mark Hummel, leader of the Blues Survivors.

A Grammy nominee and two-time winner of the prestigious Blues Music Award, Hummel is the face and sound of the northern California blues experience based in Oakland. Adding inspiration from the Chicago blues scene, Hummel has been a major force in shaping the exciting new style of West Coast blues.

Prisoner/harmonica player Gary Harrel said, “I was touched deeply meeting and having an opportunity to jam a little with Mark Hummel.” Several harmonica players had an opportunity to jam along with Hummel as he instructed them.

Hummel was inspired by Chicago-based harp players such as Little Walter, James Cotton and Sonny Boy Williamson before settling in Berkeley. Other inspirations were “John Mayall and Paul Butterfield,” said Hummel.

Both Getz and Hummel are as eager to teach as they are ready for their next concert. “It was an absolute thrill to meet both Getz and Hummel,” said musician/songwriter Lanny “Dex” Poindexter, who attended both workshops. “I truly enjoyed what they had to offer and really enjoyed their demonstrations.”

While Hummel played a melodic blues swing, everyone in the room was clapping, tapping their feet and shaking their heads. Wearing a black-banned white derby, round John Lennon–style sunglasses, in a Little Walter tribute T-shirt, Hummel was truly in his element; he looked the part. As his infectious foot tapping picked up, so did the excitement of the students.

During Getz’s workshop, he sat within a large semi-circle of convicts around the drum set and thrilled the students with a series of drum demonstrations ranging from mellow swing beats, to complicated multi-riff rock standards such as the one in “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon. Getz made it look easy.

“Getz was incredible,” said Perry. “I remember Big Brother and the Holding Co. when they backed Janis Joplin back in the day. It was great not only to meet a member of that band; to be instructed by him was the icing on the cake for me.” Several students remembered Getz from the work he did with the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish, two other legendary rock ’n’ roll bands.

Getz stressed the importance of “the connection” between musicians. “When I play the drums, I watch and look for that connection with not only the bass player, but all the musicians in the band. I can’t tell you how important this is,” he said.

Big Brother and the Holding Company’s 1968 blockbuster album Cheap Thrills, featuring Joplin’s “belting, groovy style,” as cited in New York’s Village Voice, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.

During Hummel’s second round of demonstration, after a short discussion with the students, he played Little Walter’s “Juke,” the only blues instrumental song to ever make it to No. 1 on the charts. Hummel’s version was amazing.

With heads bopping and feet stomping, the 25 participants became one with the song. The old wooden floor in San Quentin’s cramped music room was shaking from the student’s rhythmic tapping to the beat of the song. The guys were very excited.

Hearing what probably sounded like a ruckus in the band room drew the attention of several guards. From their post outside the band room on San Quentin’s upper yard, one after another, the guards poked their heads in to have a listen. They too were smiling and tapping their feet. Everyone loves great music from great musicians.

At one point during his instruction, Getz took a seat with the students encouraging several student drummers to showcase their abilities.

One of those drummers volunteering to sit behind the “drum kit” (as it’s referred to in the trade) was Dwight Krizman, who wowed the workshop by playing a combination of drum beats ranging from rock, swing and Latin/salsa to jazz. Getz said he really enjoyed Krizman’s demonstration, adding, “This guy has what it takes and I was truly impressed.”

When asked what the Getz workshop meant to him, Krizman responded, “It seems that San Quentin provides moments when I can be a part of something bigger than myself. Meeting Dave Getz, then listening to him play, and then playing for him was one of those moments.”

Krizman added that professional volunteers like Getz and Hummel bring “tons of great music information for us. When Getz said, ‘all musicians need to learn to speak drums, the world would be a better place,’ this spoke volumes,” said Krizman.

Both Hummel and Getz explained many tricks of their trades. While Getz demonstrated various tempos and drumstick applications such as “rim-shots and cymbal riding,” Hummel explained the necessity of “tongue blocking and playing octaves” on both standard and chromatic harmonicas.

Guitarist Kurt Huget holds a guitar workshop at San Quentin every Thursday evening. Huget’s teaching philosophy is “to keep the frustration level down and the satisfaction up.”

Huget has volunteered to sponsor various workshops with Bread & Roses in the past. With an active playing, songwriting and teaching schedule, Huget is also involved with the William James Association (based in Santa Cruz), which assists prisoners by providing funds and assigning volunteers to facilitate countless prison arts projects throughout California since the 1970s.

Huget has been volunteering at San Quentin for six years. He also helps bring professional musicians inside to entertain the prisoners.

“For the guys in San Quentin, every day is about surviving in a challenging and restrictive environment, and doing it with a little bit of dignity intact,” said Huget. “A couple of my most pretty melodies came to me while I was noodling around on the guitar in the music room there, waiting for my students to arrive for class. It’s ironic that such a heavy, concrete and steel environment could inspire such things,” he said.

Earlier this year, Huget performed on San Quentin’s “lower yard” for the annual breast cancer walk. The band he sat in with consisted of Getz on drums, Tony Saunders (former bass player for Eric Clapton), Craig Bartock (guitar player for Heart) and lead singer Stephanie Keys, who had San Quentin’s lower yard rockin’ with her powerhouse vocals.

Over the years, Huget has performed, recorded and/or written songs with members of Bay Area bands such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, the Steve Miller Band, Sly and the Family Stone, Elvin Bishop and many others. According to Huget, “It’s been a dream come true.”

Before leaving San Quentin, Hummel expressed he was clearly moved by the enthusiastic reception he received. He told the group before leaving that, “You guys have been my best audience ever. I really mean that. Thank you so much.”

Both Hummel and Getz, two consummate musicians and humanitarians, said they would love to return for future workshops and to intermingle with musicians inside San Quentin.

Without the support of San Quentin’s administration, headed by Warden Kevin Chappell, who understands the rehabilitative benefits of the workshops, the aforementioned arts programs would not have taken place.

Individuals and organizations like Hummel, Getz, Huget, Bread & Roses and the Williams James Association epitomize selfless humanitarian giving through the performing arts with class and consistency.

San Quentin’s Community Resource Partnership Manager Steve Emrick said, “I think it’s important that inmates interact with the community via workshop instructions provided by both Bread & Roses and [the] William James Association. The workshops allow them to be instructed by professionals which is a great rehabilitative tool as well.”

For further information, visit these Web sites: www.breadandroses.com, www.williamjamesassociation.com, www.markhummel.com/bio.html, www.davegetz.com/bio.html and www.kurthuget.com.

*****

Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist/musician who writes for the Community Alliance. Boston is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System, which is available on www.amazon.com, www.fresnoalliance.com or www.humblepress.com. Contact him at Boston Woodard, 88207 H-unit 2-94 S.Q.S.P., San Quentin, CA 94974.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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