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Chicago Fun Times: a young black repayes the blues

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Most musicians acknowledge their influences by performing their mentors' material, or maybe writing a new song in an old master's style and dedicating it to him. Fernando Jones goes farther: he puts together a day-long blues festival and hires his teachers to play there.

Jones is a multiinstrumentalist (guitar, drums, harmonica) who says it was almost inevitable that he become a musician; he's been surrounded by music all his life. His older brother Greg Jones was a local celebrity, leading bands and playing neighborhood gigs around the Washington Park community while Jones was growing up; another brother, Foree Montgomery, is vocalist "Foree Superstar," a longtime 43rd Street blues fixture. He's been a regular at the Checkerboard Lounge for years, and also performed at the legendary Theresa's Lounge at 48th and Indiana.

Big brother Foree used to take Jones down to Theresa's, and the boy's eyes were widened by the exhilarating music and exotically smoky atmosphere. His horizons were widened as well; at Theresa's he came into contact with whites and others from outside the neighborhood. Jones says that meeting these musical pilgrims led him to understand the richness of his own cultural heritage. "We weren't raised in a racist kind of family," Jones remembers, "but I guess that's the first time I saw white people; at a young age, I was [made] aware that that was a black area."

Many of Jones's contemporaries became enamored of other, more mainstream sounds. Although he went on to the University of Illinois at Chicago and majored in commercial and industrial design, Jones remained committed to the music he'd learned to love at a young age.

By the time he graduated in 1987, Jones had already organized several on-campus blues shows featuring artists like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. He had also cultivated a commitment to black education: he tried, but failed, to launch a campus newsletter to be titled the Student News Service, and he succeeded in organizing Black Art Students for Success, funding and publicizing its efforts through concerts, dances, and bake sales.

Jones currently has his own design business, and he's a teacher in the Chicago public school system. He's completing a book ("I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot") on his lifelong infatuation with the blues, and he's involved with his alma mater's Black Alumni Association in its ongoing efforts to recruit and retain minority students. This Saturday, Jones and the BAA will present the BAA-UIC Blues and Heritage Festival '89, featuring many of the blues artists who initially infused Jones's lifelong passion. Jones hopes this event will spread interest among young blacks in music that many of them now ignore. It's also his way of honoring some of the people he credits for starting him on the path to success in his various endeavors.

The show will feature Junior Wells (whom Jones calls "my godfather"), Foree Superstar, James "Muddy Waters, Jr." Williams, Lefty Dizz (another of Jones's musical relatives), and Bill Warren. Among the other blues and blues-related artists will be Jones's own group, "My Band!" Special guest will be the Black Lone Ranger, a flamboyant performer in the eccentric mold of Maxwell Street's legendary Muck Muck Man. The Lone Ranger will be performing with J.W. Williams and the Chi-Town Hustlers. Ralph Metcalfe and Manuel Arrington will serve as emcees.

Some of the featured artists are young musicians, whose styles range from straight Chicago blues to funked-up variations on traditional themes. Jones says this contemporary sound is fine if it gets young blacks interested in the music. To pull them in, he says, he almost has to bait-and-switch them:

"The blues is a pretty funny type of word; it's taboo," says Jones, who explains that it "implies the separatism of black folks. You say 'blues' and that reminds them of a slavery that they have no idea about. These same blacks, they will read Malcolm X all day and all night, but they have no culture.

"Young black folks do not know what blues is; we as a people have our tastes dictated to us. It's kind of sad; once black folks see white people enjoying something, young black folks, they say, 'Oh, well this is OK; if it's cool for them, I'm going to go check it out; I know white folks wouldn't support nothing unless it's cool.' It's sickening!

"If you get people out to see Lefty Dizz hold his guitar with one hand, they love it! If they [young blacks] come out and see Lefty Dizz and Junior Wells, these guys are characters! And they're not only characters, they're excellent bluesmen, and they're blues masters. When they come to see them, they'll be like, 'Where has this music been all my life?' Once they come, they will be there!"

Where they'll be Saturday is in the grassy area south of the Chicago Circle Center at 750 S. Halsted, from noon to 7 PM; in case of inclement weather, the event will be moved indoors to the Illinois Room of the Chicago Circle Center. It's free; for further information call Booker Suggs at 413-5184.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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