This week the Blues Kids Foundation, coming at you direct from the south side of Chicago, has been holding is first ever course outside the US. The course finishes today at the Premises Studios in Hoxton. It was aimed at teenagers, who all participated in the course for free. Blues Kids Foundation, and the camps it organizes, are the creation of singer and guitarist Fernando Jones. Buddy Guy has described him as “one in a million that’s trying to get to the bottom of the barrel on the Blues.” We talked to him before a day of teaching at the camp on Wednesday:
What started him? “I wanted to be just like my two older brothers who were playing the blues. The sound of the blues gave me a familiar feeling – that’s what hooked me. Fast forwarding – when I was at university I produced a few landmark blues festivals at my college – University of Illinois at Chicago.
“When I got out of university I had a conversation with a blues artist and it sparked the book, “ I was there when the Blues was Red Hot.” I started teaching in 1988. In 1989 I established the Blues Kids of America programme. And from that I would go around to different school and social organisations and teach and demonstrate the blues.”
In 2009 Fernando Jones came up with the idea for Blues Camp.”I came up with that idea because I would run into different student musicians throughout the country who wanted to play, but had no place to go and to play. “The cool thing about blues camp when I created it was that I said it would have to be free. Because I did not want to have any from of discrimination whether a kid was rich or whether a kid may have a financial challenge I wanted to have it as a place where kids who wanted to play the blues could be.” The Foundation is philanthropically supported by a range of sponsors who include Chicago’s Donnelley family. This support enables all children to attend without paying tuition fees.
“And the original concept was to pretty much target intermediate or advanced players, but instead we ended up getting entry level players, intermediate players as well as advanced players. So it has worked out for the best that way.” The policy is normally to have mixed ability groups.
The concept has grown, and week-long courses now take place at various locations in the US. “As the camp grows we are looking at doing things in the spring or maybe even doing a weekend blues camp in certain places with definitely bigger markets, Chicago, LA, Miami, London -definitely a full week experience.”
Jones describes Blues Kids as very much his baby, and he takes the lead at every camp: “I am always on site. Because when I started it, I was fine doing it at Columbia College (where he has a teaching post) because it was Chicago, but it took off, and the way it grew to other places was by invitation – such as I want to do a camp here – how do I do it? Most of those invitations came from the suggestions of parents who love their kids and wanted to have something in the town where they live so their kids can form bands.”
I was able to eavesdrop on a session. The whole camp assembled for the daily notices and information. The day began formally with a ‘blues pledge’, recited by heart by one of the younger participants. The students also were asked to reflect on having witnessed blues in an authentic London setting, Dove Jones’ Tuesday blues night at the Spice of Life, an outing all fixed and carefully/caringly supervised by the staff of the Premises Studios. The children all seemed to have enjoyed their outing, a lot.
Once they had been broken down into combos, they were asked to think about what they liked about the Blues Camp context, in particular comparing it with the school context. One said he found it “unpressured”, another that he had “more freedom”, another that she had “more chance to make mistakes than at school.” I left them as a group of teenagers dug deep into the grooves of Hello Stranger, the Barbara Lewis hit from 1963.
(With thanks to Michael Underwood for interview transcription)