Summertime Blues

Root Camp: Something old, something new, something borrowed, all blue

Fernando Jones prepares siblings Gyasi and Jendayi Bonds before the Blues Camp performance at Maria Maria La Cantina
Fernando Jones prepares siblings Gyasi and Jendayi Bonds before the Blues Camp performance at Maria Maria La Cantina (Photo by John Anderson)

The three guitarists draped across the dais doubling as a stage inside the King Seabrook Chapel at Austin's historic and predominantly black Huston-Tillotson University have met only once before – during auditions for this very opportunity the previous week. Of the three youngsters, one traveled from Galveston and the other two are from Austin and Bastrop.

Two bassists, two drummers, and four horn players round out the rest of the band. A vocalist hopeful waits down in the seats where the congregation sits. Nine in the group are boys; three are girls. Two are cousins, and within the other 10 are two sets of siblings. Four kids attended the year before. Another doesn't know anyone here.

On this remarkably temperate mid-June Wednesday morning, these dozen aspiring musicians face a challenge that unites them all. They have less than 48 hours to turn themselves into the 2012 performing band of Fernando Jones' Blues Camp.

Say Your Name

Fernando Jones strolls across the softened wood floor, handsome and composed, neatly dressed in a white shirt, checked trousers, and shined black shoes – an ensemble that is topped with a hat. A native of Chicago, he's convinced that teaching kids to play the blues is American to the core, so he formed his Blues Camp there, quite successfully. Now, Jones spreads the gospel south to Texas.

He's accomplished as a musician and won't hesitate to fill in on drums or guitar or wherever he's needed to pull in the beat when it comes to teaching kids the ins and outs of performing. That's what he's focused on for the next two days: bringing the beat to the 12 disciples assembled in the chapel. Along the way, he instills nuggets of wisdom to make their lives onstage easier – if they listen.

One of the horn players is busy on his cellphone; the other three are demonstrating various levels of attention as Jones speaks.

"We're going to sing 'The Star Spangled Banner,'" he announces.

Unfazed, the kids shuffle to their feet automatically and face the flag at stage right, unlike a couple of the adults observing in the congregation who remain seated during the waving rendition of the national anthem. Jones then addresses the group: "Say your name. Say it loud and proud, long and strong."

He starts with the guitarists and when one mumbles, Jones is on it.

"Say your name. Someone might need to write you a check sometime."

The names are repeated, more clearly. And Jones is offering more advice.

"Wrap the strap behind the guitar and set it face out against your amp. It's ready when you need it. That's the way Eric Clapton does it. Always protect your instrument. What if someone took Michael Jordan's shoes before a game?"

Jones passes out cards for the musicians to read aloud, each with brief information about a classic bluesman or blueswoman. The choices are exacting. Where Jones might have emphasized Etta James, he chooses instead the gutsy Ida Cox.

The kids nod gamely and shift restlessly during the readings. It's nearly an hour into the first day of camp and no blues yet.

While hardly the hip genre that peaked in the late Sixties and on into the Seventies and Eighties, blues forever remains the foundation of rock & roll. Take "Smoking Gun," for example, one of the songs chosen at the camp for performance. When the searing murder ballad hit in 1986, its deeply soulful author/performer Robert Cray was accused of making blues for yuppies. It became one of the best-selling blues songs ever and more than 25 years later holds up as a classic. Yet if its audience was perceived as white then, and presumably diluted Cray's authenticity, where are they now? Been to a B.B. King or Buddy Guy show lately?

Austin already boasts arguably the most diverse selection of music camps and schools concentrated on the under-18 crowd in the country. What distinguishes Jones' Austin Blues Camp is its ethnic makeup. At least half of the kids here are black; the rest are white and Latino. That's notable in a city whose African-American population is pointedly in the minority, even though Austin music has worshipped at the church of blues for over half a century.

Though they must audition, the camp is free for kids 12-18, and some may qualify for transportation and lodging. Jones runs the Blues Camp as a nonprofit charitable organization preserving and promoting blues through youth education. The dozen who made it this year, Jones hopes, will turn into two dozen next year, until the Austin camp mirrors the throngs of students found at the week-long Chicago camp in July. A camp in California happens in-between.

Blues isn't roots music, says Jones. "It's America's root music."

Night Train

Some siblings finish each other sentences. Glenn Peterson Jr. and his younger brother Alex finish each other's guitar licks. At 15 and 13, the brothers qualify as semiprofessionals, with a resume that took off when Susan Antone booked them at Antone's 2009 anniversary with the late Pinetop Perkins and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. They've got style like Gary Clark Jr. and work on Black Joe Lewis showmanship.

Along the way, Glenn trimmed down and Alex grew taller. As the senior vets attending Blues Camp, Glenn plays guitar and drums and Alex helps keep the horns in line with his bass. As such, maiden effort "Night Train" chugs along slowly. It's the first song tackled by the students, the beloved and soulful groove a signature of James Brown's incendiary shows. The song is also a litmus test for the varied levels of expertise within the group. Like many camps, this one does not focus on instrument instruction.

The Petersons aren't the only semipros at Huston-Tillotson. Jendayi and Gyasi Bonds are a sister/brother act known as Charlie Belle. They're experienced camp kids and South by Southwest showcasers who received a career boost last year when USA Today mentioned the duo's cover of the Magnetic Fields' "Strange Powers" in its Pop Candy column. Jendayi, 14, sings and plays guitar in tandem with drummer Gyasi, 11. She is willowy and lean. He is strikingly attractive with light eyes.

Like the Petersons, their expertise with music and performing will pay off, since the camp kids have only one more day to get it together for the gig the next night. They don't have to read music, but they do have to know B flat. That comes in handy when Jendayi leads off "Smoking Gun" with a twang and the Chapel is filled with righteous and joyful noise.

Out in the lobby, the noon sun brightens the gorgeous view of Austin from atop the University's manicured hilltop location. Glenn Peterson Sr. is on his cellphone as Deanna Peterson fusses over sandwiches and snacks for lunch. The Bastrop couple were instrumental in bringing Jones to Austin in 2011 after their boys attended the Chicago Blues Camp in 2009.

"This," exclaims Deanna Peterson with awe, "is just incredible to see."

Pitch a Wang Dang Doodle

Thursday evening, and there's not a seat to be had inside the bar of Maria Maria La Cantina Downtown. Jones arranges the 12-strong band into the compact confines.

With only two days work, "Night Train," "Wang Dang Doodle," and "Smoking Gun" represent something old, something new, something borrowed, all blue. The set is further augmented with songs by the Petersons and the Bonds, plus Jones, but the camp songs are what the crowd came for.

The group sounds like kids who have played for only two days: a little off-key, slow to the beat, missing vocal cues, and totally, happily, enthusiastically in the moment. The roar of applause from parents, relatives, and envious younger siblings is bolstered by cheers from the simply curious. Who can resist the sight of kids pitching a wang dang doodle?

Fernando Jones beams at the raucous scene. Some of these kids won't follow music for the rest of their lives, but it's something to do for the summer. Others have musical aspirations that may not necessarily follow the blues. A few of these kids will be doing this for the rest of their lives.

As Deanna Peterson enthuses, "Where else could this happen?"

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