Chicago camp teaches kids Blues 101

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"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.

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