Mighty, Mighty Blue

Last fall, the Senate passed Resolution 316, declaring 2003 the “Year of the Blues.” The sponsoring senators cited the art form’s influence and cultural importance and revealed an impressive agenda, including a Martin Scorsese-produced PBS series of seven blues-based films and a February 7 concert at Radio City Music Hall starring a stunning mix of genre masters (B.B. King, Buddy Guy), young guns (Shemekia Copeland) and wild cards (Chuck D, Aerosmith, Macy Gray). The decree dictates that 2003 doesn’t officially become the Year of the Blues until February 1, but in Kansas City, the celebration started early.

When Little Hatch died on January 14, the listeners, club owners and musicians whom he had touched, thrilled and influenced over the past five decades reflected on a life lived in blues. After his wake on January 25, a crowd gathered at the Grand Emporium to celebrate this mighty, mighty man by playing the music he loved.

Memorial ceremonies for blues artists almost always feel life-affirming rather than somber, perhaps because these musicians devoted their careers to turning their own tragedies into songs that could absorb strangers’ sorrows as well as their own.

Hatch ranks among the most important figures in Kansas City blues history. His remarkable harmonica skills alone earned him that distinction, but his work as a delegate for the art form — mentoring young blues harp players, serving as the honorary chair of the Blues Society, playing for free at blues-benefiting fund-raisers — made him an active asset rather than merely a master to be admired.

The equally outgoing Sonny Kenner died nearly two years to the day earlier, and that loss is still fresh in blues fans’ minds. In fact, they might be starting to count on one hand who’s left to reach out to young ears, to guide the still-fumbling fingers of eager novices.

Millage Gilbert, whose weekly Royal Blue Matinee showcase at the Grand Emporium on Saturday afternoons recalls Hatch’s ten-year Friday night residency at the venue, has become the scene’s most esteemed elder statesman. Eugene Smiley, the gifted soul singer who helped Brody Buster find his voice, and D.C. Bellamy, the Chicago-born showman who has welcomed budding diva Danielle Schneblin and Stevie Ray Vaughan-channeling guitarist Walker into his fold, both have a knack for teaching technically talented, fresh-faced upstarts how to make their notes express feelings and experiences they haven’t had. The Year of the Blues presents a perfect opportunity to thank these invaluable blues professors, who, like most instructors, are underappreciated and underpaid.

However, the area’s blues scene needs an infusion of younger blood. Buster’s move to California significantly upped the average age of area practitioners. Though Blues Society battles of the bands draw sizable crowds, many of the players belong to a demographic that radio host Bill O’Connor describes as “baldheads and up.”

“Younger people need to be turned on to the blues,” says the voice behind KKFI 90.1’s increasingly popular Morning Buzz program. “It’s our obligation to keep this international treasure going.” O’Connor cites Copeland, crossover couple Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, and local leading light Bobby Carson as effective wranglers of casual listeners.

One way to attract new audiences is to fuse the blues with rock, jam jazz or adult contemporary balladry. Another is to keep the blues traditional while radically altering the stage placement — as in tossing it into the ocean. Grand Emporium guru Roger Naber‘s Blues Cruise means that even though the Year of the Blues will likely fail to produce a Kansas City blues festival, the area can claim a connection to the genre’s biggest sea-ready extravaganza.

The cruise, which Naber describes as “an intimate, floating festival where everyone on board has a backstage pass,” sets sail February 4. Scheduled before Year of the Blues festivities were announced, the cruise figures to get plenty of extra attention. That’s good news for Sagebrush Productions, the documentary team that will be videotaping the proceedings in hopes of finding a cable outlet. (BET will likely air this special in late spring.) There are two voyages, February 4-8 and February 8-15. The latter docks February 11 in St. Croix, where a government-sanctioned festival featuring Tyrone Davis, Taj Mahal and Saffire will ensue.

Both cruises star special guests who will interact with cruisers through workshops and jam sessions. As of press time, Around Hear was prohibited from letting these cats out of the bag, though we can reveal that Naber failed to book Kathie Lee Gifford and her Carnival Cruise showtunes, thereby averting rampant seasickness. The safe-to-announce headline attractions include Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor, Rod Piazza, Bernard Allison and Lawrence’s Kelley Hunt.

The cruise books passengers from 48 states and nine foreign countries, so even though its local connection is undeniable, it speaks more to the strength of blues as a whole than to the city’s scene.

Similarly, though dozens of blues bands gig regularly in town, there’s not a distinct, recognizable Kansas City flavor that distinguishes local acts from their contemporary peers.

“Blues rock is the big thing now, and that doesn’t have a patented KC sound,” Naber says. In the ’60s, he adds, Kansas City had a “big organ groove thing,” a naughty-sounding description for what happened when gospel-and-jazz-informed Hammond B3 organ players ruled the roost.

The intensified focus on nationwide blues artists, starting with the Radio City revue, could help Kansas City get its groove back.

“Any exposure that these blues artists get on a national level helps our scene and the programs we’re instituting,” says Blues Society President Stan Koron, who will be on hand to watch Blues Battle winners the Hipnotics compete at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis on Friday, January 31. “We want to continue to encourage our local musicians to stay here, hone their craft and develop their careers.”

If such efforts are successful, Kansas City can remember 2003 not only as the year Little Hatch traded his blues harp for the angelic variety, but also as the date a new generation of players was born.

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