Chicago camp teaches kids Blues 101

They're ostensibly trying to learn Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do," but they can't even agree on where "A" is.

"When you come here, you make sure your guitar is tuned and your shoes are tied," Jackson tells them, in a refrain he will be repeating — to his despair — throughout the week.

"This first tune is what we call a shuffle," he continues, referring to a loose, forward-pressing beat. "This is an E shuffle — when people ask what key you're in, you're in the people's key: E."

Jackson may be in the people's key, but the people in the room are not in Jackson's key, or any key, for that matter. The young drummer has put on headphones to protect his ears, but they're working a tad too well, and he can't lock in with his peers.

If this is the future of the blues, the future sounds scary.

"You're supposed to be the funnest guy here, you gotta be the loosest guy here," Jackson tells his bassist, Peyton McDowell, of Homewood, who will be turning 9 in a few days.

Peyton surprises everyone by quickly finding the bounce in the beat — "Nobody can't play the blues," he says later, beaming. But Peyton and his impromptu bandmates clearly aren't speaking the same language.

In coming days, Jackson will scold and beg and command his kids to focus, to realize the gravity of what they're undertaking.

"Discipline — it means you do it every day, even when you don't feel like it," he'll say, when it's obvious the students haven't practiced the night before.

But Jackson's words routinely are overwhelmed by high-decibel noise.

Just down the hall in Room 411, however, the advanced kids clearly are taking flight. Two precocious artists, 15-year-old Steen Schmidt, from Queens, N.Y., and 18-year-old Dave Banks, from southwest suburban Elwood, are wailing feverishly on electric guitars, while 17-year-old singer Lara Antonello, of Skokie, offers luscious — if tentative — tones at all tempos. Not bad, considering she never has sung the blues in front of anyone before this day.

The students' ideas may not be original, but they inarguably know the music, how to transform it, where the sweet notes are.

No one, however, rattles the place like 11-year-old Ray Goren, from the Los Angeles area. He plays electric guitar — and sings — with a fluency, ease and depth of expression that defy easy explanation. When he jams with other kids (most older and significantly taller than him), he usually becomes de facto leader, cueing solos and directing the proceedings by dint of his prowess on guitar.

Whether prodigies or beginners, however, all the kids have been drawn to the same source: a music more than a century old that appears almost nowhere else in their lives. Not on TV or radio (except on the most obscure outlets), not at parties or malls, certainly not in school. Like the characters in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," who move relentlessly toward an unseen monolith despite overwhelming odds, these youngsters are bucking considerable obstacles to come to the mysteries of the blues.

But why?

A blues compulsion

Ray Goren remembers exactly how it happened: Three years ago, at age 8, he was smitten with jazz and typed trombonist J.J. Johnson's name on YouTube — or at least he meant to. By mistake, he struck "B.B." instead of "J.J." and landed on B.B. King, the slip of the fingers unexpectedly rerouting his young life.

That day, though he "knew nothing" of the blues — not even the term, he says — he became entranced. He spent the next several hours at the computer, the music of King leading him to namesake bluesmen Albert King and Freddie King, then Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan and on and on.

"It was the feel of the music," says Ray, between sessions at Blues Camp, in describing how the blues dug into him. "It got me in the heart."

For six months, Ray begged his parents for a guitar, and when he finally got one — plugging it into the tiny speakers of his computer — he became a voracious student. YouTube clips served as his classroom, its grainy clips his teacher. Apparently blessed with perfect pitch, Ray tuned his instrument by himself and picked up everything he heard.

CHICAGO

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