If one were to look up a definition, the results alone could be highly off-putting. “A style of music that often expresses feelings of sadness,” or “melancholic music.”
Not the peppiest of descriptions, eh?
But here in Louisiana, the blues is much more than an outlet for singing about an unrequited love or a terrible day. The blues is layer upon layer of multitonal truisms that, when put together, create one hell of a party.
One such party began 30 years ago at Phil Brady’s Bar & Grill, a Government Street staple that is the oldest remaining bar in Baton Rouge. What better place to see talent get a shot at the big stage?
The weekly Blues Jam started out in a small corner of the darkened bar and has grown into something much larger than the originators ever dreamed. Now, the jam night is a gathering of musicians, all with one thing on their minds: to get lost in the blues.
On Thursday, the Blues Jam celebrates its 30th Anniversary. Thirty years is a long time for local talent to have tried their hand on Phil Brady’s stage. Many who have played have become household names. Tabby Thomas, Tab Benoit, Luther Kent, Oscar Davis and Chris LeBlanc are just a few of those revered musicians who have graced the Phil Brady’s stage on numerous Thursday nights. They’ve jammed together or played alone, all while mixing, mingling and mentoring.
Joe Hall, who has owned Phil Brady’s for 14 years, feels a deep responsibility when talking about the Blues Jam. He doesn’t want to be the guy to let local talent down.
“I look back at the Blues Jam that I first came in on, and I compare it to now,” said Hall. “Sometimes it’s a little sad, as over the course of many years we’ve lost some incredibly talented musicians. But then I remember its importance. A lot of people got their start here; they cut their teeth here, and a lot of up-and-coming musicians need to know that they still can. For that reason, the Thursday night Blues Jam will always be around.”
Up-and-coming artists are the lifeblood of the new blues scene, according to Hall, and he’s pleased to see the roots still growing.
“I think anyone who’s ever been to Blues Jam here will agree that it’s pretty incredible to watch,” said Hall. “Men, women, black, white, local or from as far away as China — there are always people up there playing their hearts out. Seeing new kids getting up there and having a talent for what they’re creating sort of reaffirms that the blues will never die. I’m proud that we get to be a part of continuing that for people.”
Three decades ago, local musician and now Nashville resident, Shannon Williford, began the Blues Jam with three friends: Jim George, Troy Turner and Joe Hunter. The four men wanted a way to collaborate with other artists but not necessarily have to form bands in order to do so. Forming a band can be a commitment, so a way to play with different musicians while they sort of shopped around seemed to make more sense.
“The blues scene was definitely there, definitely in Baton Rouge, but it was small,” said Williford. “Don’t get me wrong; there were some cool people doing some cool things, but they didn’t really have an avenue to promote it. That need for promotion is how the Blues Jam was born.”
The small start soon gave way for much growth. What started as a simple idea of fellowship through music soon turned into weekly nights looked forward to by a number of local talents.
“So many of us playing back then had grown up watching blues musicians at Tabby’s Blues Box,” Williford said. “Man, there were some fantastic musicians jamming back then, some really cool cats. It was great to go there and see established artists, but those of us starting out needed somewhere to go and hone our crafts.”
That place became Phil Brady’s, and the Blues Jam was formed. It’s a place Williford is looking forward to seeing again for the anniversary celebration.
“It’s going to be like coming home for me. I love it, and out of all the things I’ve done musically, it’s a favorite. It’s a great feeling to get up on the stage at Phil Brady’s and play,” he reminisced. “You never know who’s going to be there, so there are endless possibilities with what can happen when all those different sounds collide.”
The 30th Anniversary party won’t be any different from any other Blues Jam, in theory. But in the hearts of those who have come to appreciate the opportunity to showcase themselves, or those simply going to listen to a musical genre that speaks to them, the anniversary means a great deal.
“We’re not changing our cover price, and there’s no confirmed lineup for our anniversary,” said Hall. “Thirty years is a long time, and we want to make sure that anyone wanting to be a part gets their shot. If someone wants to play, they’re welcome to play. That’s one of the things that makes our Blues Jams so special. We open it up to everyone. And this particular night means a lot to a lot of people. Everyone has a story about Phil Brady’s Blues Jam nights. I’m sure they’ll be a lot of storytelling and memory making happening.”
One definite, though, will be Blues Jam originator Williford. He’ll be packing up in Nashville and making his way to Phil Brady’s, or a second home, as he calls it.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Williford. “I’m honored that Joe called me to come back in town and play. It’s nice to be remembered for doing something that’s left an impression on not just musicians but on people who just love the blues. I’ll be there, jamming with whoever wants to be on the stage with me.
“I’ll be there because I just can’t wait to be.”