Phil Brady’s Bar and Grill marks a milestone in Baton Rouge music history next week. The long-running Government Street business and dozens of musicians will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the internationally known Phil Brady’s blues jam Thursday, Aug 4.
Singer-harmonica player Shannon Williford founded the Thursday night blues jam in 1986. He acted as the event’s host and coordinator until his move to Nashville in 1995.
A veteran of the early ‘80s Wednesday night jams at Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall on North Boulevard, Williford led his first jam at Byronz restaurant in downtown’s Catfish Town, present site of the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino atrium.
When Byronz closed a few months after the jam began, Williford surveyed other potential locations and picked Phil Brady’s. The bar’s owner agreed to let Brady’s be the jam’s new home. It’s been there ever since.
Williford launched the Byronz and Brady’s jams as an alternative to the Tabby’s Blues Box jam.
“I wanted to play somewhere where we could control it just a little more,” Williford said from Nashville. “I wanted the cats to play in tune and I wanted to let everybody play, no matter what level they were at. Because, at that time, I was just past the blowing-air-through-a-harmonica stage myself.”
Early Brady’s jam musicians included Williford, bassist Joe Hunter, drummer Jim George, bassist Jim Honeycutt, the already exceptional singer-songwriter-guitarist Larry Garner, singer-songwriter Mike “Two Tone” Malone and such younger participants as singer-guitarists Troy Turner and Kevin Ellerbee, aka Elvin Killerbee.
Business was slow at first. There was also the challenge of enticing musicians to play. Williford asked then Phil Brady’s owner Richard Haywood if the bar could give musicians something in return for their participation.
“I said, ?Richard, if you’ll let me offer the musicians a free beer after they play, that will really help,’ “ Williford recalled. “And he did. After a couple of years the cats, the players, were coming 40 or 50 every Thursday night.”
“It used to be you’d come to Phil Brady’s on a Thursday night,” Larry Garner remembered, “and if you got to play two songs, you did good. Because every working musician in town was usually there.”
For younger and older musicians alike, the jam was a learning experience, Garner added. “Yeah, I learned stuff from everybody I played with,” he said. “And still, like right now, if I hear a lick, I’m not too bashful to walk up to a guy and ask him to show it to me.”
Baton Rouge Blues Society founder Phil Brady, the New York City native who opened Phil Brady’s in 1979 and sold it in 1982, compares the jams to the highly competitive schoolyard basketball games that take place in urban communities throughout the nation.
“Just like the basketball games in the cities, where the best players come,” Brady said. “These musicians wanna play and get better. They play off each other, they learn.”
By the jam’s second year, Williford said, musicianship at the Brady’s jams had improved enormously.
“A lot of times when I’d be up on stage, I’d go, ?Oh, yeah! This is just so happening,’ “ he recalled. “Everybody was looking around with big eyes, going, ?Wow, this is good!’ “
Joe Hunter, another Baton Rouge expatriate in Nashville, credits Williford with helping make the jam exciting.
“Shannon had a way of sticking people who might have been feuding here and there together,” Hunter said. “They’d go at it on stage. That was super fun for the musicians and obviously entertaining for the audience.”
During his tenure as blues jam host, Williford also made a point of including African-American musicians in the night’s house band.
“I believed that the blues came from black people,” he said. “I understood that this is not originally my music. Although my generation of white kids and the generation before picked it up and carried it forward, the blues came from Silas Hogan and Guitar Kelly and Henry Gray and Clarence Edwards and Slim Harpo and the Neals.”
The bar’s ownership in the ‘80s also believed that the jam was socially and culturally important, Williford said.
“Richard wasn’t selling a lot of whiskey,” Williford recalled, “but when things were bad, he would say, ?Don’t worry. Don’t think I don’t understand the significance of what we’re doing here on Thursday night. This is the only place in Baton Rouge where you have middle-aged people of all socioeconomic levels, black and white, hanging out together.’ “
Current jam stage manager Johnny Rossetti said the chance to hear and even share the stage with Baton Rouge’s legacy blues artists was a big draw for musicians. Through the years the latter artists included the late Raful Neal, Kenny Neal and, occasionally, Henry Gray and Rockin’ Tabby Thomas.
“Larry Garner and Luther Kent and Rudy Richard and James Johnson, they’re what we call legends,” Rossetti said. “If they come in and they wanna play, we let them play.”
When Garner showed up at the jam a few weeks ago, Rossetti moved the globe-circling Baton Rouge blues artist to the front of the line.
“He’s really good and people love him,” Rossetti said. “If I was a Yankee club owner it would cost me a few grand to get him on stage and do what he did last night.”
Of course, 25 years is a remarkably long time for a weekly music event to continuously exist at a single venue that’s passed through multiple owners.
Joe Hall, Phil Brady’s owner for the past eight years, said keeping the blues jam was an easy decision.
“The great tradition we have here at Phil Brady’s and in Baton Rouge made it easy to keep it,” he said. “We’ve changed the music a little bit on the weekends but, the Thursday night blues jam, I don’t think it’ll ever go away.”
“At Brady’s,” Rossetti said, “you never know who you’re gonna see. Just let the jam roll.”