7:25 PM CDT, August 20, 2011
If you didn’t know better, you’d think Lady Gaga was in the house and the kids were piling in to catch a glance.
But these kids are different. Sure, they’ve got guitars strapped over their shoulders and anticipation in their eyes. They’re buzzing as they pour into the auditorium, but the star they’re seeking doesn’t exactly get recognized on the streets. Not even here at home, in Chicago.
He’s a tall and slender bluesman in a suit, no tie, a hat tipped back on his head. And the kids have traveled from New York and Los Angeles, Memphis and South Bend and points between for the privilege of spending a few days with him.
They fervently believe that he — and his colleagues — can teach them the one thing they hold most precious in their young musical lives: the blues. Not the music of Lady Gaga or Kanye West or Common but of B.B. King and Buddy Guy andDavid "Honeyboy" Edwards.
At 9 a.m. on a recent Monday, the bluesman who has drawn them here, Chicago singer-guitarist Fernando Jones, takes to the stage of the Music Center at Columbia College Chicago, and the room quickly pipes down.
"I'm Mr. Jones and welcome to Blues Camp," he says to 70 kids ages 7 to 18, plus parents, grandparents, teachers, teaching assistants, techies and hangers-on.
"This is not 'American Idol,' so at no point in time will any instructor hurt your feelings," continues Jones, 47. "We need new life and new blood in the blues. The blues will never die, because of you."
Or so Jones hopes. Having dedicated his life to the music, he fears it's quickly vanishing in a popular culture defined by rap, hip-hop, rock — everything but the blues. Rather than accept that demise, Jones designed a strategy to try to reverse it: Convene a free Blues Camp (underwritten by $70,000 in sponsorships) where kids can get a rare chance to study the music with the men and women who live it.
He tells the house that this morning — and each morning of Blues Camp — will begin with the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," "because nothing is more American than the blues," Jones says. After the room struggles through the national anthem, Jones starts reciting his self-styled "Blues Pledge," asking the kids to repeat each line after him.
Which they do — robustly.
I am somebody.
I am a musician.
A musician is a person that makes music.
A good musician listens.
And a musician that listens, learns.
And a musician that learns, earns.
With that, the kids scatter to a dozen classrooms throughout the building, to try to learn the blues — and rescue it.
The formidable Chicago singer-guitarist Fruteland Jackson, 58, grew up in Mississippi and has played Delta blues around the world, but he never faced quite the musical chaos that's erupting in Room 408 of Columbia College's Music Center. A group of kids — mostly beginners — has jammed into a space too small to accommodate them all comfortably, and everyone's riffing at once.
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.
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.
His friends at school scoffed then and still do now.
"They say it's lame," explains Ray. "Because all that's on now is hip-hop, rap. … I'm one of the weird kids. People make fun of me, because I like blues. … "At the beginning I cared, because they don't even want to listen to it. And they haven't even listened to it.
"But what if this is 5 million times better than rap and hip-hop and pop combined? Why don't you listen to it and then tell me it's b.s., rather than before?
"If you don't even want to listen to it, then I don't care."
At least Ray can take some comfort in knowing that he does not endure the ridicule alone. Virtually all of his newfound friends at Blues Camp say they experience the same reactions from friends: something between bemusement and contempt. Yet the young blues musicians persevere.
What moves them so? What enables them to withstand such pressure at an age when the approval of your peers is almost everything?
"I think it's just the raw feeling — some people say they can't describe it," says Steen, the 15-year-old from Queens. "I think it's how you can take something so simple and make it so elegant, so goose-bump feeling.
"You can make people so sad, they almost want to cry," adds Steen, who plays in "really bad, rusty, shady bars" on Staten Island, while his mom hangs nearby, to keep it legal.
"You can make them want to dance. You can make them feel."
There are other reasons, as well.
"Blues gives you freedom to play what you want," says 14-year-old bassist Savannah Joy Sanchez, from Los Angeles.
"It's courage and strength," says Antonello, the Skokie blues singer.
Adds 11-year-old guitarist Carlton McDowell, the older brother of bassist Peyton McDowell, "It helps me cool down if I'm mad."
Yet virtually none of these emerging musicians ever played with other kids before strolling into Blues Camp. You can blast away with B.B. King on YouTube in your bedroom all you want, but until you get in a rehearsal room with other young musicians laboring to master the same music, until you're in front of an audience, cutting loose, you're not really playing the blues, a cathartic music that must be shared to be fully lived.
That's what's happening at Blues Camp, as the young musicians wrestle with classic tunes in preparation for a culminating performance Friday afternoon at one of the world's great blues clubs, Buddy Guy's Legends on South Wabash Avenue. That's when they'll know if they're really reaching anyone with their music, if they're truly playing the blues.
Fighting to be heard
It's not just the kids who have been called to this music. Their parents and grandparents, many dropping in on rehearsal sessions throughout the week, are nearly as obsessive about the art form, or at least remarkably open-minded about it.
Some see a profound purpose in nurturing the blues.
"I want my grandkids to know that when times are hard, they're not as hard as what our ancestors faced," says Nancy Rice, grandmother of Peyton and Carlton McDowell, whom she chauffeurs to music lessons she pays for.
"I was really hurt when a lot of black people stopped liking the blues or listening to the blues. As we got education, we didn't want to hear about the hard times.
"When my grandmother and grandfather brought my mother up from Elberton, Ga., about 1920, (grandfather) brought his guitar and he played the blues. When the family would get together, we'd always play the blues.
"When I was a kid (in Chicago), all you heard was the blues. … I just want to pass that tradition on."
Like Rice, the other elders at Blues Camp know that these kids — called to a music practically discarded in 21st century America — have almost nowhere else to turn to develop their unlikely ardor for this music.
As Ray Goren's father, David, puts it, "Kids that love classical music, there's a whole infrastructure that supports them. Or for jazz — there's Juilliard. …
"Blues, where do you go? You've got to go to a bar. … And most kids don't hang out in bars."
Accomplished young players who do, such as Steen Schmidt and Ray Goren, often encounter "drunk clowns" there, says Steen's mother, Jacky Krogh.
Not that Blues Camp is turning out to be musical nirvana, any more than any other human endeavor. In one classroom, a kid from Los Angeles sits sour-faced, barely playing, clearly vexed that he's not getting the spotlight he believes he deserves.
"You got an issue?" the instructor asks. "If you're not happy, or you've got a problem, go see Mr. Jones. I don't need you ruining our vibe here."
Bassist Savannah Joy Sanchez notices that the boys are treating her exactly the way they do in every pop or rock band she has joined: with condescension.
"When you're playing with a group of guys, they'll challenge you and make fun of you, like 'this is a guy thing.' … But I'm going to do this whether they like it or not."
And in a somewhat more comical conflict, two adolescent boys in one classroom hit on a disarming way to decide who gets the solo: a round of rock, paper, scissors.
Moment of truth
By Friday — the day of the big show — Fruteland Jackson's beginners group in Room 408 still hasn't made it through a single song start to finish, with dwindling prospects they ever will. Guitars still aren't tuned. Shoes still are untied. There has been some musical progress, but it's incremental, at best.
"We're going to crash and burn on this one," Jackson says, as the band falls apart again on "Bo Diddley."
"I'm telling you," warns Jackson, "it's stage time. Stage time is coming."
The hotshots in Room 411, however, have gotten so sharp, so fast, as to startle even themselves. When singer Antonello snarls the lyrics to Etta James' hit "I'd Rather Go Blind" or starts and stops the band on a dime with a big swoosh of her hand in "Let the Good Times Roll," she clearly has traveled light-years since launching her blues career way back on Monday. The guitars of Steen Schmidt and Dave Banks have just gotten hotter, thanks to vigorous coaching from veteran Chicago blues bassist Chuck Webb.
All that really matters, though, is what happens under the spotlight at Buddy Guy's. So many parents, siblings and friends have crammed into the place, a passer-by might have guessed that Guy himself was headlining.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," says Fernando Jones, his voice undimmed, though the bags under his eyes look puffier than on Monday. "What you're looking at on the stage is the future of the blues."
The phrase may strike terror in teacher Fruteland Jackson's heart, but it seems to light up the faces of everyone in the crowd.
Then Jackson's beginners take their places onstage. In a gesture of either solidarity or desperation, Jackson also assumes his position on the bandstand, apparently unwilling to let his students go down in flames at such a pivotal moment in their blues lives.
He leads the vocals in "Bo Diddley" and drives the band in "Baby What You Want Me To Do," the kids getting louder and more confident — though not a lot more technically proficient — with each phrase. Jackson's huge, insinuating vocals hold everything together, and the music sounds rough and raw — just like the blues.
After rounds of applause, Jones returns to the microphone to introduce the kids from Room 411, who clearly are going to slay the audience, but also to give a little perspective on what the beginners just did.
"Before you can become a blues legend," says Jones, with camera lights flashing all around him, "you have to be a blues kid."
Which, for a few treasured days, Blues Camp made possible.
It's not going to rejuvenate the blues overnight, but it's at least a small step in the right direction.
The series so far
June 5: "21st century blues: Can an ancestral art form survive?"
Aug 21: "Blues 101: A new generation tries to learn the music, against daunting odds"
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