Jailhouse rock

Billy Bragg's charity takes an unusual approach to prisoner rehabilitation

Prisoner rehabilitation is not the most fashionable of causes for pop stars to espouse. Which is why you have to admire singer Billy Bragg's efforts to recruit his colleagues on to a project offering hope to those locked up in Britain's jails.

Bragg has persuaded the likes of the Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, the Clash co-founder Mick Jones and Dirty Pretty Things to stage a number of low-key concerts for inmates, a world away from the backslapping of most charity events. These have now been captured in Breaking Rocks, a new documentary about the charity Jail Guitar Doors, set up by Bragg to supply prisoners with guitars and the skills to use them, in order to help them on the outside.

In the film/ Jones and Bragg perform a version of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" at Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons in London. After one visit Jones says: "The guys were telling us how much this scheme had helped them move on from their previous lives before prison. It was really touching to think we've helped, even if it's in a small way."

The initiative is attracting a growing number of performers. Shiflett has led a guitar class at Brixton, while the indie band Hard-Fi hope to perform inside Feltham Young Offender Institution in west London -- the setting of "Feltham Is Singing Out", their song about the suicide of a petty thief on remand. Dirty Pretty Things held a workshop inside Brixton, and the Lincoln band Eastroad played at HMP Stocken, in Rutland.

But the principal aim of Bragg's charity is not to stage star-studded concerts, but to raise money for instruments. Guitars have already been donated to HMP Styal -- Britain's largest women's prison -- as well as Guys Marsh in Dorset, Pentonville, Wandsworth, the Verne on the Isle of Portland, Wormwood Scrubs and Reading Young Offender Institution.

Bragg believes that mastering a guitar can offer a way out of the reoffending cycle into which so many prisoners fall. "I support punishment," he says, "but I also believe in rehabilitation. Prison has to be about much more than just locking people up. We want people to move on from their situation and reconnect with the outside world. Learning to play and write gives them self-confidence, which is very important in cutting reoffending. We're preparing them to deal with what life throws at them in a non-confrontational way."

Bragg and the film's director, Alan Miles, plan to screen the documentary -- whose title is taken from the opening words of the Bobby Fuller Four's classic "outlaw" song "I Fought the Law" -- at a number of jails next year. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Bragg introduces a former prisoner on to the stage at the Glastonbury Festival. The man, recently paroled from nearby HMP Shepton Mallet, soon has the crowd cheering as he performs a song he composed behind bars.

"The lifers at Shepton Mallet Prison over the hill hear the festival at night," Bragg tells them. "There are guys there who play guitar, and as musicians they know, as I know, that a guitar will help you transcend your surroundings and find a release."

"Breaking Rocks" is being screened at the Shortwave Cinema in Bermondsey, south-east London, on Sunday 22 November, then at venues nationwide in February.


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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State