You don’t have to get too far inside a conversation with Chicago bluesman Fernando Jones to figure out that he would undoubtedly be a success in any field that he chose to pursue.
The term ‘Renaissance man’ may be overused to the point of cliché these days, but in Jones’ case, that description couldn’t be any more spot-on.
Jones is a singer, song-writer, guitarist and bass player.
He’s an educator.
He’s a historian.
He’s an author, he’s in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, he’s received a Blues Music Award in the ‘Keeping the Blues Alive’ category and he’s also extremely invested in what kind of world and environment the youth of today have to grow up in.
Jones – who was born on Feb. 7, 1964; the day the Beatles invaded America – is on faculty at Chicago’s Columbia College and specializes in music pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching). He currently instructs four courses dealing with the blues: The Chicago Blues Scene: From the Past to Preservation; Blues Ensemble: Styles; Blues Ensemble: Performance; and The Blues: Chicago to the Mississippi Delta. In addition, Jones also gives private guitar and bass lessons at Columbia College.
“In early August of 2005, Chuck Webb – who is a master jazz player and is also on faculty – called me and said that the chair of the department was going to reach out to me, because they were adding a blues component. I said, ‘Cool.’ So I went and had the interview and the rest is history,” Jones said. “A month or two before that, Roosevelt University had contacted me about doing the same type of program. That just had to be a big coincidence that I got two offers to teach at two major institutes within a couple of months of each other. I’m thankful every day to be at Columbia; I know that nothing’s promised and if programs get cut, I’m sure I’ll be the first to go … with the blues, that’s just how society has done it. Every year, I hold my breath and wait to get that ‘Availability to Teach’ form for the next year.”
Teaching what is basically the only accredited courses on blues music at a major university has no doubt raised the profile of Jones. The way he sees it, that’s kind of a double-edged sword.
“Everything I do is on the radar. It’s like a tight-rope. You get a lot of accolades, but you also try and downplay that so you don’t upset the apple cart,” he said. “If you have a situation with a student, it’s magnified 10-times brighter than a teacher that just comes to school and does his or her job and then splits. It’s a really interesting situation.”
With the immense pull that Jones has in the blues community, his students have gotten rare opportunities that even some of the world’s biggest blues fans have not been able to obtain – up close and personal meetings with some of the legends of the genre.
“I would do little things that wouldn’t cost the school anything, but were monumental in the scheme of the academic development of my students. I would have Buddy Guy come to my classroom and he wouldn’t charge me a dime to do a lecture. Every semester from 2005 until she passed away in 2009, Koko Taylor and her daughter Cookie, would make a visit to one of my classes,” he said. “Bruce Iglauer made visits to my class. It’s almost like building a brand. You have these heavy-weight people who love the blues and support the blues and were giving of their time.”
Helping to create a blues curriculum from the ground-floor up at Columbia – along with the ultimate success he had in doing so – also sparked another idea that Jones had; his Blues Kids Foundation’s Blues Camp. Instead of limiting his target to just the college-aged, Jones’ reach goes all the way down to today’s youngsters and tomorrow’s budding blues musicians.
Every summer Jones stages free Blues Camps for kids – designed in part to help provide them with the basic skills (musically, socially, emotionally and linguistically) to survive and play proficiently and effectively in the global blues community.
“Out on the road playing music, I would have these parents come up to me at the show and say, ‘My kids can play, can they have a chance to get on stage and play?’ I thought of that in a funny way, like, ‘Hell, why don’t they pick on someone their own size?’ So I started the Blues Camp so they could be with other musicians their own age and that has taken off. And it really couldn’t have taken off without the support of Columbia College,” Jones said. “It was like all the stars lined up – ideal location, ideal setting, ideal faculty. I’m very fortunate in that regard, but I work hard at it, too. I work at this every day of my life at the sacrifice of my family and the sacrifice of my own self, but it’s the right thing to do and it has to be done. If not I, who?”
As important as the musical part of his Blues Camps are, Jones also wants the week-long sessions to help instill a sense of belonging and self-appreciation in his young students.
“I want students that leave the Blues Camp knowing that they are OK with who they are. They don’t have to be the best keyboard player or the best vocalist in America. Who they are is good enough. However, we give them a roadmap to follow in how to improve. We want them to know that it’s good to be you and there’s always room for you,” he said. “Some of the top bands that are playing the blues have come out of my camps. They stretch all the way from Oregon and California to Chicago and Virginia … all over.”
So just what does it take to get a youngster interested in – not necessarily playing, but even just listening to – the blues in these days and times? Popular music heard on the radio seems to still rule the day for pre-teens, just as it has for many years previous.
“Well, pop songs are cool and they have their place, but I think we sell ourselves short on people liking the blues. I just came out of an elementary school here recently where my band did a little concert before some kids that may not have been exposed to music. The advantage that the blues has, is when people are exposed to the live element of it, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “When kids see that and hear it, they’re like, ‘Wow. What is that?’ They don’t know if it’s the blues or not the blues. They like it because of the power of the live experience. Then you tell them it’s the blues and they go, ‘Oh, man. I love the blues!’ So I think we sell ourselves short on kids not liking the blues. They may just have not been exposed to it. But you know they may not call it the blues, but the stuff that Adelle has been doing that you hear on the radio is the blues. That song by Selena Gomez – “Same Old Love,” that’s the blues. Even a song like “Purple Rain,” that’s the blues, so it’s on the radio. But the days of hearing the blues guy from Mississippi howling about a dog on the radio, those days are dead.”
With all that he has going on, it might seem like Jones would have a bit of an identity crisis. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because at the end of the day, Jones knows exactly who he is and first and foremost, he’s a bluesman.
“I’m definitely a musician first. And pretty much, that’s really all that I am. But I’ve been fortunate in my life with different situations that have put me in an academic arena where I’ve been able to master that subject matter and have been successful. The duality of the two worlds is that some people know me just as a guitar player and I’m like, ‘Hey, I teach, too.’ And then some people know me just as a teacher and I go, ‘Hey, I play guitar, too.’ So I spend my life trying to balance the two,” he said. “We live in a society where people are comfortable labeling someone as being one-dimensional. But I came up being exposed to people like Prince or Stevie Wonder … guys that could do it all. Or reading books on Michael Angelo, a cat who was an artist, but also knew anatomy better than a doctor. So I really don’t set any limits to what I try to do.”
Given his intimate knowledge of the history of the blues -through all the work that he’s done writing about it, lecturing on it, tutoring students on it … and just plain growing up with the music … Jones is a virtual walking encyclopedia of blues music, from the forefathers to the current generation. The interesting thing about the way that Jones approaches his own music, however, is by tipping his hat to the tunes of the past, while at the same time creating his own art to help further the blues. You could almost think of it as preservation of the past, while also looking forward down the road.
“Back in the ’80s, I would have hated to have been singing an Albert King song when he was in the audience, then have him come up after the gig and say, ‘Man, you messed up my song.’ That would be devastating. All of my adult career, I’ve done my own material. I think as a form of reverence to people that have put songs out and have passed away, I think I owe them the respect to not damage their songs. There’s such a thing as tradition, but there’s always an open season on new ideas. Your audience is a lot sharper than you may give them credit for, too. Your audience is always in the market for something new. For example, they (someone in the audience) may wash their car, fill it up with gas and go out to see you play. And if they had also gone out the night before – or the week previous – and saw a blues band, you’re kind of cheating them to being doing the same thing as your contemporaries,” he said. “It’s really insulting to the intelligence of the listener (to play cover songs instead of your own tunes). A number of my contemporaries will put out phenomenal records – with sometimes as many as 13 tracks on the record. But then you go to one of their shows and it’s like they’re doing the ‘cover band special’ or playing the straight Chess songbook. It’s like, ‘Damn, you put out some good stuff, why don’t you play that?’ And they go, ‘Oh, no, they don’t want to hear that, they want to hear something they know.’ Well, they will never know anything until you present it to them. Every great song that we listen to – whether it’s The Rolling Stones or Madonna or Chic or anybody – the day before we heard that song, we didn’t know it. Then we heard it and had the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I dig this … or, I don’t like it.'”
Originally, Jones began writing songs in the hope that other artists would decide to play them.
“I used to call Junior Wells and Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz and my own brother – Foree Superstar – when I was in college -once or twice a month – and beg them to do one of my songs. In some cases it never happened, but I would keep on writing and keep on writing and keep on writing,” said Jones. “My brother ended up doing a couple of my songs shortly before he passed away and he thought that was the greatest thing in the world and wished he had done them earlier. I met one of my best friends – Jackie Scott – through a song I wrote for Nellie Travis called “Oil and Water.” My songs have been very, very good to me.”
Another segment of the reason that he shies away from playing material written and performed by other artists turns out to be, well … just for the simple fact that Jones didn’t realize that covering other people’s songs was par for the course that he decided to travel.
“With my voice, I really didn’t have the type of voice that was suitable for copying, because I started playing so young. I didn’t even know you were supposed to pattern yourself after somebody, because I started playing so early on in life. I just wanted to be in the same mix with my big brothers, who were playing music,” he said. “I mean, you fall in love with the horsepower of an electric guitar and you run a lot of stoplights because of all that power. When I started playing at four years old, I just wanted to play a lot. Then 10 years later, you want to sing just a little so you can play a lot. Then you learn that every song doesn’t have to have a solo in it and there’s such a thing as chords. Then you develop your confidence as a singer. You listen to someone like Bob Dylan – someone that may not have a voice like Luther Vandross – and you think, ‘Wow. Bob Dylan has an interesting voice. If he can do it, how bad can my voice be?’ And that’s not knocking Bob Dylan; he’s carved a niche out for himself and obviously, he’s done something right, because I’m talking about him now and he’s not talking about me. But I figured that I would develop my confidence as a singer and then put my little songs out.”
The bottom line is, Jones is one heck of a song-writer and the world of the blues is much better off because of his compositions.
“I do think I have a talent for song-writing and that’s a big part of the reason that I do it,” he said. “I have much more to offer than just playing other artist’s songs. I write a ton of songs and then I’ve also been inspired by other song-writers to write my own songs. You hear people like Prince or Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell … people that were crafting songs and you say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ When I die, or when I reach the end of my career, I know that I’ll have gotten there by being myself. I do teach my students cover songs, because they have to have a roadmap to learn. But as for Fernando Jones, the brand, he’s his own guy. That’s not an arrogance thing; that’s the only way I know to survive. I always tell my students that the greatest song has yet to be written.”
With the way that he insists on crafting his own songs, it should come as no great shock that Jones marches to his own beat when it comes to playing the guitar, as well. And once again, the style and manner in which he plays the guitar today dates back almost 50 years, to when he was a strapping four years old on the south side of Chicago.
“When I started playing in 1968, I don’t know if it was because I was attracted to the physics of striking an instrument and the sound coming out of an amplifier, or because I was being disobedient because my older brothers told me not to bother their stuff. I didn’t get into it (playing music) like most of my contemporaries did, you know, from seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix or somebody like that and saying, ‘Wow. That’s what I want to do.’ My primary influences in my formative years was my brother Greg and my brother Foree,” Jones said. “I watched them and then would mess with their stuff and of course, get beat up because of that. But I never looked back. I was 14 or 15 years old before I realized you were supposed to pattern yourself after somebody. I think my sound – whether it’s unorthodox or terrible or interesting – is really all me. It would have been easy had I known that you could have made a living sounding like B.B. King or Albert King, but I didn’t know. I just identified this within the last three or four years, but I really, really liked Rudy (Davis) from Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids (TV cartoon from the ’70s and early ’80s), because he was clean and the only cat that played a real instrument (a guitar with an ‘R’ on it. The rest of the kids on the show played instruments made up of parts and pieces found in the junkyard where they hung out). I was as enamored with him as someone else might be looking at George Benson. That was amazing. So I really came into this business screwed up. I don’t have any story where I saw X, Y or Z person playing and it blew my mind. I didn’t have that experience. I started playing just because I wanted to be accepted by my brothers. All that credit would have to go to Greg and Foree.”
Being the baby of the family – one of his brothers is eight years older and another, about 23 years older – meant that Jones often times tagged along where his siblings went.
“My brother Foree would take me to Theresa’s Lounge and I didn’t go in there in a baby carriage. I was five years old and Theresa told me to sit in the back booth and watch. And they (his brothers) weren’t grooming me to be a blues guy; I was just their little brother,” he said. “But slowly, I was falling in love with what my brothers did. That’s how that all came about.”
Just as his brothers did, Jones’ parents played major roles in setting him about on the path that he’s traversed for all these years.
“My parents were always encouraging and part of that encouragement was the fact that I’m the baby, and you know, the baby gets all the attention. I always knew how important education was to my parents and I always wanted to make them proud. They gave me the platform to grow; they gave me the platform to fail and they gave me the courage to fly,” he said. “They gave me the opportunity to develop myself and to know that they would always be there as long as I was doing the right thing. A lot of credit goes to them, as well. My folks instilled discipline and laughter and love and all that kind of stuff. As perfect as an imperfect situation could be, I like to say I grew up in the perfect situation.”
When he was a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the spring of 1984, Jones produced the first blues festival at the school, featuring such heavy-hitters as Magic Slim and The Teardrops, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Buddy and Phil Guy, along with Jones’ brother, Foree.
“That came about when Foree was one of the last standing blues players out of Theresa’s Lounge. I came up seeing Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Dave Myers and Louis Myers … all those guys from Theresa’s Lounge and the Checkerboard. I had a mentor at school named Larry Cope, who was a couple of years older than me. Larry and a couple of his buddies would put on concerts there at school with acts like Shalamar and Roy Ayers. So I said, ‘Hell, maybe I could do something like this for the blues. I’ve always been an advocate for the blues and have always felt that the blues was mistreated, so what could I do?’ So I put together a proposal (to the college) and in the meantime, I also presented it to my brother. Junior Wells always used to call me his Godson, so I asked him, ‘Godfather, will you do this for me?’ And then he had me calling people like Bruce Iglauer and Marty Salzman. They told me how much money it would be to book the acts and then I got the money from the school and it just kept growing from there. I was just a fearless cat that loved the blues, man.”
The concert also gave Jones an opportunity to have his band play during intermission and the switch-out between acts. “It was just as simple as that; I had a dream and an idea. I think my strength – the reason that I’m able to execute projects successfully – is that I carry the idea all the way through. I don’t start something and then put it down for six months … I finish things,” he said. “If I sit down to eat a bowl of cereal, I eat the whole box, you know?”
It was a couple of years after that blues festival at the University of Illinois in Chicago that Jones penned his first book, I was There When The Blues Was Red Hot.
“I really didn’t do that for me; I wrote it because I had a conversation with Sugar Blue and he was happy that I was a young black man that was trying to learn how to play harmonica,” Jones said. ‘He thought that was amazing. That touched me that he even took time out to have some nice things to say about me. So I started writing an article that was meant for Ebony magazine. I sent it to Ebony and everybody else, but they all turned it down. But I couldn’t stop. By the time I got the rejection letters, I had five chapters done. So I went to the finish line and published it myself.”
As he mentioned before, the work that Jones has done over the past few decades has certainly been at the sacrifice of a lot of his own personal gain. He’s kept up a tireless pace – both in the classroom and on the bandstand over those years. Those years have certainly been filled with plenty of high points, but there had to have been numerous times when things didn’t go so well and the workload may have been overwhelming. But through it all, Jones says he’s never once questioned or even considered leaving the path he’s followed to get where he is today.
“I’ve never felt like giving up. Sometimes I’ve bitched and moaned like everyone else, because I didn’t get a chance. But it comes down to who are you to say you deserve a chance? You lick your wounds, you go back and you get better. You say, ‘Maybe I’m not good enough, or maybe I am good enough. Maybe I’m ahead of my time or maybe I’m just not ready.’ Then you learn from those lessons and you keep going,” he said. “I think it all goes back to me learning to play so early. I love to play the guitar. I just happen to be a guy that plays guitar and loves the blues and came up in a blues world, you know what I mean? I’m a bluesman, but my love and affinity for playing the guitar has no association with monetary gain, because I started playing so early. Playing guitar is just like a boy with his dog; it’s a relationship. Can you imagine any kid in the world that’s grown up to be 50-something years old and they still have a part of their four-year-old life with them? You know, their career is based off of something that they did when they were four-years-old? It’s almost like I can’t cut it off.”
Visit Fernando’s website at: www.fernandojones.com