Over the last four decades, there have been numerous alarms sounded in the blues community expressing grave concerns about the lack of young artists playing the music, and continued viability of the art form without the support of younger generations of musicians. And yet somehow the music has endured. One unmistakable sign that the music remains vibrant occurred with the announcement of the nominees for the 2020 Grammy Award in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. It was no surprise to see the names of Bobby Rush, Jimmie Vaughan, and the award recipient, Delbert McClinton. The excitement came from the inclusion of the other two nominees, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Jontavious Willis, for his album Spectacular Class.
Willis certainly was surprised as anyone when the news came. “I was on tour with Jerron Paxton, another talented younger musician. We had been up to 5 a.m. listening to music. My phone started ringing at 9 a.m.. It was Kingfish, letting me know that we both got nominated for a Grammy. I was like, what! Are you for real? I had told Kingfish when he was doing his album that he was going to be nominated. Then I called my folks with the good news. But I didn’t stay in that space very long, because I am always thinking ahead. There were shows to do, driving to do, thinking about how in the world I was going to get out of New York in rush hour to head for Maine.
“The Awards show was a fun experience. Me and Kingfish sat together. I’m not sure, but I think that might have been the first time that two young black musicians were nominated in the Traditional Blues category, that were that young. Kingfish might be the youngest ever! Two of us from the south…..just that alone was enough for me. We didn’t have to win. That means people will hear us, people will see us young guys. People keep saying over and over that there aren’t any young black guys doin’ the blues no more. Well, that’s gone now. I felt real good being nominated along with my brother. It was a real pleasure.
“Those ripple effects is how it all starts. I hope that it perks somebody up, let’s them know that there is space out here for everybody. But you have to stay determined. If I find some young folks that are truly into the history and the culture of blues music, I make it my business to support them. If you are playing music to pass the time, that’s good. But if you are really trying to uphold the music, I am 100% behind you, and will do what I can to help you. We need more people that are deep into it. It’s a serious thing”.
Willis was born in Greenville, Georgia in 1996. His start in music followed a familiar path.
“I was singing in the church at the age of three. I’m not the best singer now, but I was a bad singer then. My grandfather, Simon Reeves, was singing all the time, so I wanted to do what he was doing. I was a part of the youth choir, but too little to sing, so I would sit on the side of the stage or stand up on a chair. I would captivate the crowd. Then my Dad was always playing music around the house, different genres of music going on all the time. I was no stranger to different styles of music”.
As far as instruments go, Willis began piano lessons at the age of eight years old. He stuck with it until his piano teacher got ill. Later, he tried several other instruments, including trombone.
“I was the first seat in the school band for one week. Then the instructor found out I couldn’t read music. Then I was second to last seat the rest of the year. I started playing guitar at the end of 2010, started playing harmonica at seventeen. I picked up the banjo the next year, but didn’t really learn much on it. But I have picked it back up, and now I understand it. I think I want to go back and try the piano again”.
Not everyone can remember the exact date that their love affair with a particular instrument began. For Willis and the guitar, the date is emblazoned in his memory.
“It was Christmas Eve, 2010. My family always celebrates on Christmas Eve, and then we chill out on Christmas day. My father is retired, but he was an electronic technician. He would take lots of pictures and shooting videos. There is a photo with a time and date stamp of me taking the guitar out of box that year. But I wouldn’t forget that moment anyway”.
“It was an electric guitar. I started out playing alternate tunings, like Hawaiian or square neck. I played it the way I wanted to play it. By February of 2011, I could play a little tune. There is a video of that, too! But I went to yard sale and bought an acoustic guitar. It was a Old Kraftsman by Kay. The guy wanted $150 for it but I managed to talk him down to $100. I didn’t buy it for nostalgia purposes, not realizing that people were collecting old Kay guitars. The acoustic resonated with me more than the electric one did”.
“I hadn’t been playing any instruments for a period before that. My Dad had a guitar that he would not let me play, In fact, he still won’t let me play it! My Mom bought him that guitar about two years before he got the one for me. I had been sneaking in and hitting his guitar when he was off at work. So I finally asked him for a guitar. It was the cheapest one he could find, because he didn’t know if I was really going to stick with it. But it worked. It was a Fender Squier with a sunburst finish that came with a tuner, a little amp, and an instruction CD guide on how to play it. He got me what I asked for”.
“I knew once I got a guitar that I was going to play blues. Around the time I started on guitar, a lot of stuff was easily accessible on Youtube, videos that were new, no one had seen before. I was looking at stuff starting in 2007 or 2008. There was one of Muddy Waters playing live in 1976 that really grabbed me, because when Muddy was singing and playing, it was like he was doing it to a congregation. That was the way I was brought up around, the way folks talked. It reminded me of churching, and had me wondering if I could get those same kind of feelings from playing and singing. Try to get back to the way it felt when I was singing and trying to captivate people when I was younger. I did, and it was great”.
The youthful musician went through an intense period of learning, particularly about the roots of the music.
“I have always been interested in where things come from, who came before who. Things started to open up, like a huge book with hundreds of artists. This one recorded this song before this one, this one taught this person. I was studying blues history and how it paralleled with the culture I am from and the area I live in. There are a lot of people that are from a sixty mile radius of where I’m from that recorded blues, people like Tommy Dorsey. So I started diving in to get the best understanding that I could get out of it. Then I moved on from there”.
Willis spent some time playing guitar around the house and in church. One day, he decided to take a chance.
“I had been playing since 2010. In 2012, I called this festival in Eutaw, Alabama, the Black Belt Folk Roots Festival, and asked if I could play there. The response was that I could come and play, but it would be for exposure. It was a five hour drive to get there. I hadn’t played in a setting like that, so me and my cousin drove down there. I did two songs. Then Miss Carol said, come on back here. She paid me a couple hundred dollars for playing two songs! I was like, whoa, I never got any money for playing. To this day, I still do that festival for the same two hundred dollars in appreciation of them giving me my start. My Dad got that on video. By the way, my Dad is my biggest fan. I don’t care what anyone says, my Dad is first, and my Mom is second”.
“I kept on playing until October, 2015 when I moved to Columbus, Ga. for college That is when I started playing in standard tuning. A friend of my cousin Tony showed me a blues in G, then I took a lesson from a guy named Gary, which taught me another song in G as well. That lesson cost me $35 or $40 dollars. That is a lot for a college student, so I knew that I was only going to take one lesson. So I would go to school, then come home and bang away on the guitar for a bit. Eventually, I started getting more interested in other artists. So I went out searching for older artists. I started buying records. That not only got to the roots of the music, but also the roots of my pocket! Those records are expensive. I can’t get all of the good stuff. It is way different listening to a record than listening on your phone. I got a new Victrola, a nice electric one. I have records that go back to 1916, one of the Tuskegee Singers”.
Willis graduated college with a degree in Sociology. He was following in the footsteps of his cousin, who was the first person that Willis knew who graduated high school and college.
“I saw her growth. She studied Sociology, so that was what I did, with the intent of getting into Human Resources. Half way through, I could have dropped out. That was in 2015, when I first met up with Taj Mahal. That was when my career really took off. I started making money, and 2016 was pretty lucrative. I ended doing an extra year more than I had planned. But I did finish”.
Willis played gigs while in college, but was pretty selective on the ones that he would accept. Since his room and board at college was paid for, money was not the primary factor in his booking strategy.
“If it was a quality gig, I would take it. But I wanted to be in an intimate setting where people really wanted to listen to the music. I gigged a lot in college, especially 2017 and 2018. In 2017, I opened up about fifty shows on the TajMo tour, which was Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. We did shows at the Ryman Theater in Nashville and Austin City Limits. As soon as Taj gave me a quote in an article in Living Blues Magazine, written by Frank Matheis, that was it. As soon as that came out, I had thousands of calls coming in. The game had changed. I still talk to Taj and tell him how much I appreciate that”.
“B.B. King had passed in 2015. I had wanted to meet B.B., and a few other people just so I could hear their stories. I didn’t meet him, but I made it my mission to go meet other older people that play this music. I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I would just call people up, tell them I play blues and like to meet people. They would say ok, then hang up the phone. I finally got in touch with the folks at the Musicmaker Relief Foundation. They said they had some older musicians I could meet. So in August of 2015, I made the six hour drive to Hillsboro, NC with my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt. I met Mr. John Dee Holeman and Mr. Boo Hanks, got to hang out with them. I also recorded five songs while I was there. One was “Lucy Mae Blues,” which the head of Musicmaker, Tim Duffy, posted. Taj saw the video and very impressed. He knew I wasn’t playing in standard tuning We talked, and he said, “I’ve been waitin’ for ya!”.
Two weeks later, Willis was playing two shows opening for Taj and John Hiatt in Atlanta.
“He told me to bring my guitar. They were the biggest crowds I had ever played for up to that point. Most of the audiences I was playing for were seventy-five, a hundred, maybe one hundred twenty-five people, at the most two hundred people. There was two thousand people there. Taj and his trio, then John Hiatt. I went out and did”Lucy Mae Blues,” then came back with “Key To The Highway”.
“At the end of the night, I told Taj that if I don’t ever see you again, I really appreciate this and you will be on my mind. Taj said, “Oh, you’re gonna see me!”
“He called me in January, 2017 to ask me to open three shows for him in March. He took such good care of me. He paid me and covered my room. They don’t normally pay for rooms for the opening act”.
“Later in the year, Taj called to tell me Keb’ Mo’ would be calling, and to make sure I answer his call. I was like, ok! So I get a call, hi, this is Keb’ Mo’. I was wondering if you would like to open two shows for me and Taj in New York. I said yes, of course. Two shows turned into one a week, which turned into a month, which turned into two months. And I am riding with them on the bus. I was kind of Taj’s responsibility. Once Keb’ found out who I was, and how cool I am, because I think I’m cool, so he wanted me to go on the road with them. So Taj was the one that made it happen. He is very influential in what I do. If you don’t know the stuff from the 1920 and 1930 eras, you won’t understand where Taj is pulling from. That is how it used to be. The elders always ushered in a new generation. Now there is a disconnect. My friends and I try to stay connected, help each other out, just like Big Bill Broonzy helped Muddy Waters, who then helped Chuck Berry. That is how it is supposed to work, the natural order”.
Willis released his first album, Blue Metamorphosis, in 2016 with eleven originals and one traditional tune. He had a lot of offers to record, but finally decided to release something on his own. He met a woman who had a listening that he used for the recording sessions. One of the other musicians, guitarist Tony Bryant, had a special connection.
“A song we recorded, “So So Blues,” was a play off a tune that Tony’s grandfather recorded in 1928, “No No Blues”. Barbecue Bob recorded the song in 1931 as “Yo Yo Blues”. Barbecue Bob’s brother would record “No No Blues #2” in 1934, and then Tony’s grandfather, Curley Weaver, would come back and do “No No Blues” in the same year. Tony plays guitar and I play harmonica. That was my nod to the Georgia blues legacy”.
The aptly titled follow-up recording, Spectacular Class, had Taj Mahal as the Executive Producer and Keb’ Mo’ as the producer. Willis explains the different roles.
“Taj would nod at the end of things, say this good, or that works. Keb’ was very hands on. Taj was more like the overseer, while Keb’ was very hands on. Keb’ was in it, and genuinely cared. He stayed with us for the three days of recording, which we did in the basement studio at his house. He plays electric guitar on five songs and plays mandolin on one track. I wanted him to have a lot of influence on the album because he has a great ear”.
When it comes to equipment, Willis confesses to not really having any favorites.
“Right now I am using a Gibson L-00 guitar, that I bought new in 2017. I use Hohner Special Twenty harmonicas, because the wood combs break my mouth out, so the plastic comb works for me. I don’t usually play through an amp, so whatever is there, I will make it work. At the end of the day, if you plug an acoustic guitar into an amp, it will sound like an electric guitar. Some people say that is not 100% acoustic blues music. I do it because I like the bottom end. I like to be able to control the volume on the guitar. I have quite a few guitars but that Gibson is my workhorse”.
When asked about his favorite blues artists, Willis defers with a claim that it is like a parent picking a favorite child.
“I listen to everybody, literally everybody. But I will give you five off the top of head just to show you how wide the range is. One is Blind Lemon Jefferson, another would be Snooks Eaglin, then Blind Willie McTell, and Pee Wee Crayton. Two others would be Sonny Boy Williamson #1 (John Lee Williamson) and the great piano player Little Brother Montgomery. I listen stuff from 1924 up to 1964, that range of stuff. When people tell me they don’t like the blues, I just figure they haven’t really explored the genre. Over the forty years that I like, with hundreds of artists, there has to be something you would like”.
“I just go with whatever is playing. I am trying not to overload myself. Of course, I also try to be better as a person. I have been kicking around an idea about putting together a band to play about twenty shows a year. That is just a thought right now. I am also the Artistic Director for the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop in Washington, so I am booking artists to be the instructors.
“I have been blessed in my life. It seems I have fallen in with fate and nothing seems to surprise me. It’s like I have hit the lottery from birth.”
Visit Jontavious’ website at:http://jontaviouswillis.com