"I knew about B.B. King, but we were seeing and hearing about people I didn't know anything about, like Muddy Waters. All these old people who were where the blues started from," says 15-year-old Charles Burchell, a drummer. Since he and the others in the program were far better versed in jazz than blues -- one of the highlights for many of the students was seeing Herbie Hancock and the new Headhunters on the way home -- Bill Taylor, director of Tipitina's Foundation, provided a steady diet of blues music and videos on the bus.
For the interns, the trip was their first attempt to come to grips with the question Leroi Jones -- now Amiri Baraka -- tried to answer in 1963's Blues People: What are the blues? Not surprisingly, it was hard concept for the students to grasp, though they tried gamely. Fifteen-year-old piano player Conun Pappas approached the question through instruments. When the interns met young blues musicians from Clarksdale, Pappas became fascinated by the harmonica and its players: "I was checking it out, listening to how they interpreted the music, checking out where they were coming from." By the end of the trip, he recognized the importance of feel in music, putting it at least on par with technique.
They got some appreciation for the blues visiting longtime bluesman Sam Carr in Clarksdale at his house on the edge of a cotton field. "He said it wasn't hot yet, and we were burning up," Burchell says. He also connected to the blues through the thing he understood: chops. "[Carr] said he also had a few tricks as a drummer in case anybody tried to challenge him."
While in Memphis, the interns attended a service at Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle, and they met Willie Mitchell, who produced Green's biggest hits for Hi Records. Mitchell talked about the importance of the vibe in a session, then showed them the 30-to-40-year-old equipment he still records with, including the microphone that only Green could use.
Meeting guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts, though, taught the interns a slightly different message, one echoed in Chicago by Jody Williams and Billy Boy Arnold. Pitts, who played the signature "wocka-wocka" guitar riff on Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft," told them to take care of their business. "He said be business first and music second," Burchell recalls. Pitts told them that if they contributed ideas or licks, they should demand writing credit.
The students and parents who gathered to talk about the trip wade into this subject gingerly, as if Pitts had said the unspeakable. The contemporary myth is that money taints art, but the experiences of countless blues and R&B musicians is that a lack of money meant they had to work another job -- often the sort of hard, physical work that sapped their energy and creativity. Others were so burned by being ripped off that they lost the heart or will to create. Though money is often an awkward subject to talk about, the bluesmen sharing financial advice with young, idealistic musicians taught them more about blues than they realized.
Earlier this year, the documentary Playing for Change focused on buskers and street music in New York City, Los Angeles and New Orleans. The Sundance Channel will broadcast the movie in New Orleans on July 29, giving locals a chance to see footage shot in the French Quarter. The Goat Dirt Road Band, Roberto Luti of Washboard Chaz Blues Trio, and the Royal Rounders are featured, the latter performing Tom Waits' "Tom Traubert's Blues." The film also includes an appearance by "performance painter" Frenchy, painting in Jackson Square.
Shiloh has done a lot with the DJ concept, having had drunken DJ contests -- asking DJs to scratch and mix while loaded -- and democratized the dance floor by letting everybody be a DJ for 15 minutes on iPod night. Friday night, the club hosts the DJ equivalent of art rock in DJ Haul & Mason. The Los Angeles duo creates the sort of density and complexity of sound you might expect from with their "2x4" set-up: two DJs, each working a pair of turntables. Unlike art rock, though, there is no scratching-for-scratching's sake; everything is about building cool, satisfying grooves and moving crowds.
For reviews of Duran Duran in concert and new CDs by the White Stripes, Fountains of Wayne and James Blood Ulmer, click here.