Blues music is still having something of another boom period, although today the main audience is White, as are most of the newer practitioners. The days of blues being solely a Black music made for a Black audience are slipping away. It is the Stevie Rays of the world, or the Erics who have initially pulled in the punters these days and not the Pattons or Jeffersons much less the Kings. On the other hand, we older folk tended to come to blues music by one of two routes: 50s R’n’B, or jazz. People like Mike Leadbitter or Simon Napier (co-founders of BLUES UNLIMITED) came via the first route, while Pete Welding or Sam Charters via the latter. My own entree was through the jazz door. I grew up hearing big bands… my father was a Benny Goodman fan… and Broadway musicals (which I generally disliked [my son feels the same!] as theatre, save for CAROUSEL [it was a B’way revival w. John Raitt in the lead… Bonnie’s dad] and WEST SIDE STORY). My parents had the radio tuned permanently to WNEW (AM; at 1130 on the dial) which seemed to specialize in bands and, later, singers. Martin Block’s “Make Believe Ballroom” was the late afternoon/early evening favorite for years – I only listened to the likes of Jack Benny or Ozzie & Harriet at my grandparents’ home after an early Sunday dinner! My father also had a small collection of 78s (yes, I still have them) that I listened to from time to time.
One of his business ventures in the late 50s was a packing plant in northern New Jersey – they packaged custom or trial heat-sealed packets of a variety of products. Peanut M&Ms were very popular at my boarding high school, creating a herd of “friends” while they lasted! They were packaged singly and inserted in large bags of regular M&Ms. One of the people running the small plant had once been in the first trumpet chair in either Harry James’ or Tommy Dorsey’s band (maybe both over time… I cannot remember at this distance). I cannot remember his name, either, although he had an Hispanic surname; he subscribed still to down beat, and there lies a tale! Knowing my amateur interest in the music, he passed on his copies after he was done with them – since the magazine was then bi-weekly, I had plenty of reading material to keep me occupied. This was around 1956 or 7.
Through db I discovered that there were “colored” bands as well as the White ones that I’d already been exposed to. Such names as Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Armstrong became familiar to me (as well as my then-and-still main deity, Edward Kennedy Ellington) as I bought their albums from reading the record reviews in the magazine. John S. Wilson was the reviewer who “agreed” with my tastes at the time, and my horizons were slowly expanded. In one issue was a review of an LP by a guy with a rather weird name… Big Bill Broonzy… on Columbia. (I later learned that it was material originally recorded by French Vogue [in Paris] and licensed for a special Columbia series – it is still in storage in the US, so I cannot pull it out to check.) The reviewer gave it *****, their highest rating, and it piqued my curiosity – so I ordered it from my “local”!
There was a store in Montclair, New Jersey (my “home town”) called Perdue Music, which sold radios, record players, and the then-new televisions as well as records and sheet music. They were willing to special order and after a lengthy wait, it arrived and they called my to let me know. I was very curious what a Big Bill Broonzy was and what this blues stuff sounded like. Not bad, as it turned out… acoustic guitar and voice. A later review of a Folkways album by the same guy created the same scenario, while a catalogue sheet within the LP jacket mentioned a release called “The Country Blues”. It seemed promising, since Broonzy was on it, so I took a chance and ordered it as well (and then found out about the book, that this LP went along with that tome)! Now this was something completely different* – I was especially taken with Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”, as well as Tommy McClennan’s “I’m a Guitar King”. That one LP is probably responsible for what I have finally become in my life today… one never know, do one** Thanks Sam… I think!
So my bi-weekly hit of db was educational, caused most of my pocket money to be squandered on records (my parents disapproved, which was the point, wasn’t it?!). Somewhere along the line I also discovered the existence of another magazine, a monthly called Jazz Review, edited by Nat Hentoff, whose name I knew from db. This magazine went beyond the bands and into more advanced forms of jazz, plus an occasional blues review or two. My ears were really opened up as I started buying LPs in earnest, still with a swing to Dixie focus, with a little blues on the side. Blues albums were quite uncommon in the late 50s/early 60s, especially in a White suburb in NJ. We had a Black maid, and a Black (Caribbean) gardener, but that was my total exposure to African Americans at that point (unless you count a viewing of “SONG OF THE SOUTH” from the Disney studios at a young age! From Hentoff’s magazine, though, another blues epiphany was soon to descend and life was truly never the same. Tune in next time!
* M. Python, Esq.
** Thomas A. Waller
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
Jazz continues to be on the top of my listening list in spite of my world-wide reputation (!) in blues to the contrary. I do NOT consider blues to be an appendix to jazz, but something that grew alongside of jazz, constantly cross-fertilizing each other as the century progressed. Each musical genre is an imperfect creolization of all its predecessors, as is any music from the “New World”. Today, nothing is “pure” in any way, shape, or form… not that it EVER was… as technology helps spread the musics from the world to the world. Alan Lomax was on the right track in attempting to create a “Global Jukebox”… just ask Roswell Rudd who worked on that stuff with him!