AWESOME PROJECT: Professional musicians helping Rikers Prison inmates sing out

Folks, think fast, yes or no – do you:

A)   Love music and believe it can be healing?

B)   Believe our criminal justice system is due for reform?

If yes to both, then you’ll want to keep an eye on Music on the Inside, an exciting young nonprofit organization co-founded by Alina Bloomgarden and legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The two are old pals from back in the 80s, when Bloomgarden was the originating producer of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Marsalis still directs. Today, they’re teaming up again, along with other professional musicians, to foster harmony and hope in the criminal justice system.

“I was at a retirement party for a jazz musician,” says Bloomgarden, “and Wynton said Alina, ‘Give us an idea, we need you!’ I said ‘I have an idea right now. I want to bring music into incarceration facilities for youth in the name of Louis Armstrong.’ Wynton said, “That’s what I want to do! Call me Monday!’”  

Not even a year into the endeavor, Music on the Inside, or MOTI, is already working in one of Rikers Island facilities for youth, and is raising money via ioby to expand into a second facility to bring its music program to young men who are serving up to a year. They’re also working with the New Jersey Training School for Boys, and The Fortune Society’s “Alternatives to Incarceration” is awaiting MOTI programming for the young people they serve.

“There’s a lot of potential, is all I can tell you,” says Bloomgarden, who still participates in every Rikers session, “and all the musicians I talk to really want to help, and care about these kids. Famed Jazz songstress and MOTI mentor Dee Dee Bridgewater said, “How we treat our kids says a lot about us! We’ve got to help our young people.“ MOTI’s Artistic Advisors include Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Randy Weston, Wycliffe Gordon, Jimmy Owens, David Murray, Lewis Nash, Michael Zsoldos, members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and many other jazz greats share this sentiment and want to help this forgotten population. Many speak about how music and the mentorship they received when they were young helped turn their lives around.  

Most importantly, the kids in the early pilot programs are responding, warming up to it, taking creative risks, telling their truths. “One of the things that was noticeable to me,” says Bloomgarden, “is how encouraging they were to each other. For example, last week when we were there, one kid stood up and he had so many songs, and the other guys in the group were just egging him on and so proud of him. And then because he had the courage to do it, another young man got up and sang his own original song. Our musicians added beats and melody and you could feel that a bond was forming.”


[Co-founder Alina Bloomgarden with MOTI mentor and great sax player David Murray]


Let the rhythm set us free

“We didn’t know what to expect,” she explains. Bloomgarden and the mentor-musicians she enlisted early on – guitarist Ron Jackson and singer Scott Albertson (one S in Scot) weren’t sure how open the kids would be to making music with them. “Everyone’s been very excited to see how the kids really want to express themselves through music. The young men started out really quiet and we didn’t know whether we’d be able to crack the ice, but then they all got involved with creating rhythms, and suddenly the whole thing shifted and those who had seemed resistant or shy suddenly had a lot to share and were full of their own creativity. By the end they were singing their own lyrics and their own songs and then we put music to their writing.”

What do they write about? Anything, everything. Narrative medicine and expressive therapies are powerful tools. “They write about their own experience,” says Bloomgarden. “We don’t edit them out of their own experience. So some of it’s tough. We don’t take out any of what they have to express.” What a relief that must be, for kids who’ve been told by society that their voices are dangerous, aren’t wanted, aren’t good.

Music on the Inside NYC

An unconventional journey to jazz

It’s a kind of healing Bloomgarden knows firsthand. She remembers the early years of her enduring relationship with the great American art form. “I used to meet an old boyfriend at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater,” she recounts. “There were black people, white people together, no alcohol and soul food in the back. I would feel my energy completely shift from that music, and I said, ‘there’s something very healing in this jazz music.’ Barry would go on and on about ‘if someone doesn’t do something, the youth aren’t going to know this music. It’s just gonna die out.’ I never anticipated then that I would have a role to play.”

It deeply impressed her and when in 1983 as Director of Visitor Services for Lincoln Center, she  got wind of the fact that the cultural mecca was looking for some new programming ideas, she stepped up loud and clear and said: JAZZ! “’It’s a great American art form,” she told her colleagues. “Lincoln Center can present jazz with the kind of dignity that we show other art forms, and really show respect for it in its own country of origin.”

Decades later, she’s never stopped fighting to put jazz on the national stage, and to bring it to young people. “There’s a certain way in which jazz speaks to me about what it is to be a human being, beyond what words could ever say, and that’s what moved me in the beginning,” she says. “I was not an expert but because I could feel it and I knew that I needed it. I figured that if I needed it, then everyone else did, too.”

“Initiating jazz at Lincoln Center and being connected to all these wonderful jazz musicians has been a great blessing in my life. I’m truly grateful that so many great musicians want to play it forward and bring the music they love to give new hope and support to incarcerated youth.”

To learn more, or to donate, visit Music on the Inside’s ioby campaign page.


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Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Never heard of the Mississippi River Basin Model? Neither have most people, which is CRAZY, because it’s one of the most impressive engineering feats tackled in American history! Click here to learn about this massive replica of a swath of land that represents a full 40% of our country’s territory, built in the 60s, and to find out how a group of engineers is working with local volunteers to give it a new lease on life.