Episode 16

full
Published on:

6th Jan 2021

Episode 16: Henry Robinett - Jazz in the Joint

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 older. You have to add to that. So, I'm five, six, (hours) and we have to rehearse together, and we have to rehearse separately." And it blew their minds.

BC:  I'm recounting this as a way to segue into the fact that not only have you been, a main stage gigging artist all across the world, but you have, also dedicated yourself quite a long time to working, with people who don't normally get access to these kinds of things. Could you talk about how you came to that and what that means in terms of your practice? your practice? You started at Folsom Prison, right?

HR:  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.

I loved the, contact with these guys. I love trying to help. I loved, I love the fact that I could, change whatever dynamic that there was either in my mind, or in theirs, or in the expectations that other people had on the outside about prisoners. And I think the biggest deal for me has been seeing some of those guys, there's some who were never getting out. And some of those guys have become real valuable friends of mine, within the scope of the institution, of course. 

The six or seven guys I'm thinking of, they have made a tremendous change in their lives. And even without knowing them before they are each of them very wise about life, and one of the things that I, that I can really distinguish between them, and most of the people like us on the outside is that they have seen the bottom and somehow, they climb themselves up. 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.” 

One guy was leaving. He was going to another institution. We were practicing, he was telling me how much he really got from me. And it just hit me right then I said, "Oh my God, some of you guys have a floor that hits way further than our floor." He said, "What do you mean floor?" I said, "Your basement goes way down. Most of us, our basement goes as low as a divorce." He said, “yeah, no, our floor goes really down." And I said, "Some of you guys have a floor that I can imagine, and you've pulled yourselves way up on top. And I just really admire that." And he was practically in tears because I was speaking the truth. I wasn't getting him a load of BS. and so I learned an awful lot, from association with these guys. And sometimes they trust me enough to tell me a bit of their story. I don't encourage it. But I think the fact that I treat them like human beings, I think this is significant to them.

BC: Most people who are listening to this have never been inside a correctional institution and probably, know very little about what it feels like. Could you describe your class, and what you're teaching, and what it was like in there?

HR: Yeah. Yeah. I don't want to get into too much trouble, but obviously it's an a, it's a very repressive environment. and that's the first thing you have to get over. You have correctional officers who are really watching things and making sure that everything's under lock and key, and certain prisoners have to check in. Most of the classes I've had are attended fairly well. Many of the students are just interested in eating it up. Some they've always been like troubled students and that's not going to change, but a lot of them really, really want to turn their life around and I try to embrace all of them.

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.

At Old Folsom, I was running a band program and there was a jazz band, R&B band, rock and roll band, and stuff. And we had one trumpet. And there was a, a guy in the R&B band who was a really good trumpet player, and the guy in one of the white bands who was a really good trumpet player. And one of the guys came to me, not the trumpet player, but someone said, "I just have to tell you Henry, there's a problem." "What's the problem?" "There's one trumpet and there's a white guy and a black guy. We can't have that." I said, “What do you mean you can't have that?  We can't have a black guy touching the lips, the trumpet players, white trumpet players playing." I said, "Look, I know you have yard rules, I don't do yard rules. So, I don't play that. So, I'm not going to say one guy can't play the trumpet. I'm just not going to do that. Okay. you have to do whatever you, but I'm not going to be a support for any of that stuff." And yeah. The black guy dropped out of the program.

BC: Wow.

HR: So that's not the way I wanted it to go, that’s just the way it is. I just can't change things. And sometimes we're teaching in an environment that isn't my environment, and I have to be able to draw the line where I have to draw the line.

BC: So, you mentioned a number of guys who you have known for quite a long time who have, journeyed from, from when they entered the institution and, by hook and crook decided that they were gonna change their lives. What role do you think the work that you bring into the class for them has had in that journey of personal transformation that they've undertaken?

HR:  I can say what I've been told by some of them, and it's a great compliment. I don't know if they're blowing smoke up my butt or not. I just don't know, but I did have one guy, who had, just as an aside, he looks like a Viking, he's one of these guys. I think he was a motorcycle dude, huge beard that came down to his chest and. real tough guy. And he took my class and, he'd been there for a couple years. And finally, he told just as an aside, he said, "I haven't had one write-up I haven't been in one fight. I haven't had one drink of alcohol since I took your class." And I said, "Okay," not really that impressed.

He said, "You don't know. I make moonshine, my family is from Arkansas, and we make moonshine. I make the best pruno, I make the best. And that was always my problem because I was always drunk. And then I’d get belligerent, I’d get into fights and that's just what I do, but I haven't done it once in the two and a half years since I've been in your class."

And that really surprised me because he wasn't a particularly great student, he wasn't a guy who just took to the guitar like a fish takes a water, but I really liked him. And I think there's something to that. Like I was talking about my middle school teacher that no one really liked, but she loved me. She just loved me. And I think that's one of the things that really comes through. That if you can show affinity, true affinity for your students, you can't buy that, and I think that's one of the things that a lot of guys value in me because they realize I'm not judging them. I don't come into class with this unspoken attitude. "Oh, you're a criminal." " I that's just not, that's just not in me. I don't do that. And they sense that in me that I'm not intimidated by them or the environment.

It's just, "Hey, how you doing? Pull up a seat." And I think, one of the guys I was referring to, I met him at, Old Folsom when I first started back in 92, and I've seen him at three different institutions. It seems like I keep following this guy around, and when I first met him, he was a mess. And I didn't think anything of him in the beginning. I liked him, but he wasn't a particularly talented musician. He was another guitar player who played finger-picking guitar. Now he is a Renaissance artist. He really is…

When I was at, Sonora, Jamestown, he became my assistant because he been around me so long. He knew how I taught, and he was the guitar player on the yard. He was the guy. And he had told me on several occasions that when he first met me, he was suicidal. He knew he was never getting out, and this is not what he wanted to be doing with his life. I think I've touched some lives. I know that they certainly have touched mine,

 I had a student of mine, at a community college I used to teach at and she says, "Oh my God, Henry, this is your life's work." "No,” I said, “this is not my life's work." I did not want to hear that; I’ve done albums and CD’s.  But I said, "I can do a lot worse than this. this is a big part of my life." This definitely can be my life's work.

BC: So, here's a question. You started off talking about, practice as a part of your regimen. and I’m assuming that, being in your class means, like the gentleman you're describing who, was a mess and ultimately ended up being pretty good, that, in addition to coming to class, he put in a lot of hours, and, that kind of discipline and dedication isn't a, let's just say, a regular part of prison life. Or the lives that some prisoners brought with them. So, I guess I'm asking about the really hard work of becoming masterful with an instrument, and where that fits you think in this bizarre ecosystem that we call prison?

 HR: I hope that I can inspire guys into doing this. That, depending upon what their living conditions are, they may not have the opportunity to practice. You have, a cellmate and he's not going to want to hear you practice scales all the time. But, I also know that when anyone dedicates themselves to something, whether that's being a student reading all day long, doing calculus, studying law, being a musician, that impresses other people. At first, it can be intimidating and then they go, "maybe I could do that, maybe I can do that." and I want to say, "Look, if I was stuck in prison, I'd be practicing the guitar all the freaking time, because I do that on the outside. I would be writing music." I would, this is just what I would do.

So, I think there are lifestyle changes, that I can hope inspires these guys with just the method of learning. I think there's a way of learning and a way not to learn. Most of us get frustrated and we think we can't do something. We hit a ceiling. We can't seem to get beyond that. And I try to teach them that's just a process. "You're going to hit a frustration point. Continue, just continue."

And I talk about, being, toddlers learning how to walk. They didn't call walking, practicing. They would get up. They try to pull themselves up on their two feet and they'd fall down. They pull them, they'd fall down. They hit their chin. They'd cry, they bleed. But you know what, every single day they try to do it and you could see they’re really thinking about putting that left leg in front of the right and then, they trip and then they fall, but every day they do it until they're a teenager and they never think about walking It’s the same exact thing whether you're learning how to drive, we learn how to read, it's the same thing you do it daily until you get these tools together to the point where it's just natural.

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 like that's on the scale of accomplishment. "Just continue. "Boredom? Oh yeah. Boredom that'll happen. You just need to get past the boredom part."

BC: Yeah. So, a couple of things, one thing is I've been looking at neuroscience a lot because I'm interested in what happens when these things happen, and one of the things that evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists are now coming to, is that the thing we call boredom is actually an adaptive neurological response to the fact that humans need to continue to work, and be stimulated, in order to survive. That it is painful for the brain not to be working on stuff. That's a kind of lay person's way of talking about boredom, not being, "bored", but actually a neurological state.

So, that's one. The other one is this; we have a, a pharmacy in or brains that gets triggered by various things. And one of the things that they're more and more, aware of is that when your students are practicing, there's the boredom part, which happens, and there are certain triggers that make people keep working or give up. But on the flip side, is that when you get in the groove, which, happens even when you're doing scales. If you do it right, ten times in a row, it's feels really neat. And there's more there than just calluses that are forming. There are endorphins, serotonin, and other, parts of our nervous system that are actually doing the same thing that Oxycontin and alcohol and caffeine do. And, a lot of these guys, know a lot about those feelings, and one of my observations over and over, during the time that I worked there, backed up by the fact that people would say, "Oh man, that's a high. That is a real high, and I didn't pay a cent for it and I’m not going to crash." And I'm just wondering if that's a thing you observed in your own interaction with these guys that they actually get can get addicted in a sense to the work.

HR: Oh, yeah. it's a lot harder to come by in the early stages. And that's why 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.

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.

BC: Yeah. So, you're basically in charge. You can generate your own thing.

HR: Exactly.

BC:  You don't have to buy a ticket to get on the train. You are the engineer.

HR: I think some places they call it the zone. Whether you're playing basketball, you can see some of these guys, the Michael Jordan’s of the world, they don't even know how they made that shot. They just do it. It's the same thing in music. And that's the thing that really inspired me to want to play music because I had this sensation of actually being out of my body when I'm playing. And boy, I wanted that. I wanted more of that and that kind of kept me going.

Part 3: Passing the Baton

BC: Which brings me to the fact that, as you mentioned before, working in prison is not your life. You have a robust and rich, professional life, as a musician. I've talked to a number of musicians as part of this, and of course, I'm sitting here myself, looking at guitars on the walls. and we're at a very unique point in life of anybody who's a creator, and particularly people who are creators, who make work for audiences, and perform together, and collaborate. So, I'm wondering what's happening, that you're excited about in your musical life, and how is it, translating in planet COVID?

 HR: Yeah. I'm actually really fortunate because year and a half ago, I built a recording studio in my home. And, we have a cottage in the backyard. We actually built this place. My mother was living with us. She really needed to live with us cause she was getting very old. And then she passed, and we decided to build a recording studio back here. I had already had the gear. So, by the time COVID came along, I reoriented my life. And I think the good thing about this thing is it makes you redefine what you do and how you do it. And if you can redefine yourself, more power to you.

So, all day I'm in my recording studio. I practiced for three hours and then I write music and my band rehearses here. We started rehearsing again a couple of months ago, and I record our rehearsals and I started videotaping our rehearsals and put them on YouTube sometimes, and it's all very exciting. I have a way of expressing myself still, and all without leaving the house.

I do gig once in a while. There's a place in Sacramento they call the Social Distance Theater. It's basically a theater of actors, but then they do the culminating performance is a band. And I think we were the first or second band that started doing this. And that's really good. They have tables, about 10 feet apart actually, and the stage up there. And it's really nice. So, there's that too.

But I think I for myself, I define myself as a creative musician. So, I have created an environment recording studio where I can write and produce and none of that is gone, and it's just enhanced. So, the gigs aren't there, that's okay. I just have to reroute the river.

BC: So, will some of this work translate into, new recordings? Do you have that as a goal?

HR: As a matter of fact, here's the other thing that makes it all, better for me. I just released right in the beginning of this COVID thing, an album of jazz standards and, it actually reached to number 20 on jazz radio. and it's still on the charts. it's down by 50 now. It's dropped quite a bit, went on the chart for, I think, 27 weeks or something like that.

BC: Congratulations

HR: So, I'm releasing, a series of four of these jazz standards. I recorded them a long time ago, so that also gives me something to do. And with my guys here, I'm gonna start rerecording some of those songs that I've written in the past, as well as writing new ones. So I think the thing is always to have multiple projects on your plate

BC: Yeah.

HR: And one, but if you have two or three, that's really good, you'd juggle, and it never gets old.

BC: So, is this moment in history influencing what you're writing your music?

HR: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. I wrote a song, an improvisational song called Voodoo in Times of Pandemic. I think the real artists, they create something out of what's happening, and this is what's happening. I've never seen a period in my life, and I've been through a few that I thought were pretty bad, but this seems to be the depths of some kind of cultural despair. And I don't know what's gonna come out of it artistically, if I look at microscopically, micro-cosmically.

For instance, when I've been in a relationship, and it's just falling apart is going to hell and I'm depressed. I can't get out of bed. Everything's…. Well, "I can't pick up a guitar." And then the last thing I want to do is write a song. But about a month or so later. Yeah. That's fertile material. that's what happens. So, I'm assuming that this is going to launch a whole period of real creative life for my, from myself and other people.

BC: Lots of other people, I think.

Part of it is, and this is just my own translation is, when we're making work, making art one way or the other, we're telling a story. And we are in, one of the most consequential story moments, certainly in my lifetime, and probably in us history. And, as you say, there's times we have to spend hanging out in the trenches, digging out, pondering, reflecting, but the creative process never stops, and one way or the other it's going to come out. And there's going be a literature, symphony, images that come from this moment. They're happening as we speak, and so I'm looking forward to hearing what's being hatched.

HR: Good.

BC: So last question A lot of people that listen to this podcast are, people who are not only involved in this kind of work but people who aspire to, mixing and matching their passion for creating and making, with their passion for making a difference in their community in the world.

If you were to just share a few things that you would pass on, to people who are, pointing in that direction, what would you tell them?

HR: Work sharing is love. And I don't want to sound like the Beatles in the sixties all over again, but we need a lot more care, and concern, and affection, affinity for other people in the world. And, what we do what art is really, the art is the buffer between our emotions, our thoughts, our dreams, and the outer world.

And if we can use that art as the communication baton to pass on to someone else, that's where the value comes in. Passing the Baton.

There's a lot of mystery to the non-artists. How does, where does that come from? How do you do that? And the best thing to do is to try to remove as much mystery as possible by sharing what you do as an artist. How you think about art, how you think about people and just sharing.

Because, I don't know why these guys ended up where they are, that has nothing to do with my job with them. I just am faced with a bunch of people who are in an unfortunate situation and I can help in any way I can. Just, as an artist. I don't have to change anything that I do, except just being an artist. I'm going in there to do what I do with them. And I think that's invaluable.

BC: Yeah, I think about, every one of those, gentlemen started out as a kid,

HR: Yeah.

BC: And, with the exact same set of desires, chief among them wanting to feel safe and I wanting to be loved. And even before we start to talk, we're making stuff that passes that baton. Right? Back and forth.

And I guess I would say, one of the things we learn is, sometimes it takes a long time. it's never too late though.

HR: Never too Never too late.

BC:  Henry, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your story

HR: Very exciting. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to yack about it.

Yeah. Yeah. Stay safe.

BC: Absolutely. There we go.

And here we come again to the end of another episode of Change the Story / Change the World which is a production of Center for the Study of Art & Community. Change the Story is written and hosted by your truly, Bill Cleveland. Our theme music and soundscape are composed by the alarmingly talented Judy Munsen. For those of you who are new to the show, you are not alone. We are now just 16 episodes into our inaugural season with a growing international audience. If you like what we are doing, please keep listening, and most importantly please subscribe. If this show or any other has piqued your curiosity please also avail yourself of our show notes, which contain links to many of the interesting people, places and events that are referenced in our conversations. And finally, if you are interested in hearing more from the Henry Robinett Group, please go to the easy to remember www.henryrobinett.com That Henry R o b I n e t t dot com. Take us out Henry.

Show artwork for Change the Story / Change the World

About the Podcast

Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation
Poets, dancers, and painters at war with white supremacy, COVID, criminal militias, and Milosevic? Muralists, musicians, and actors, making a difference in homeless shelters, planning departments, emergency rooms, and death row? Sound delusional? Yea, sure, but also true! And when creativity confronts destruction, and imagination faces fear, in places like Ferguson, Johannesburg, Belfast and San Quentin surprising things happen.

Our stories help shape and sustain our beliefs and actions. Bill Cleveland believes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors.

Change the Story/ Change the World is a chronicle of art and community transformation across the globe. In each episode, Bill will introduce listeners to creative change agents working to re-imagine and recreate the social, political, and cultural narratives that define their communities. Join us
Support This Show