Reading, writing and singing the blues
When local music legends Mick Martin and Jackie Greene showed up at Sac High to carry the blues’ message, all hellhounds broke loose
There is a period at the end of the school year where summer overlaps with spring. It’s a moment that seems to last forever, with the warm sunlight just outside the doors of the classroom influencing teachers and students alike to dream of the coming summer.
Of course, any entrance of students into a classroom is going to be punctuated by conversation, laughter, gossip and occasional expletives spoken out of earshot of teachers, but at the end of the school year, that effect is amplified.
It was, perhaps, the reason there was a particular restlessness in the students as they streamed into their Sacramento High School music classroom last Tuesday. Students, some wearing requisite black T-shirts touting their favorite metal, punk and alternative-rock bands, chattered among themselves. Others sat front and center, staring in apparent awe and excitement at the afternoon’s guest performer, a young man who was, at least to some of the students, a famous musician.
But Jackie Greene’s presence in the classroom wasn’t just a random event. Instead, it was part of the Sacramento Blues Society’s ongoing “Blues in the Schools”—or “BITS”—program. BITS is a relatively new project for the organization, with the objective of bringing blues music into classrooms through education and performance. Greene’s presence last week was the second such BITS event; the first was a lecture and performance by local blues legend Mick Martin, who also would be featured as part of the day’s program, although he was running late.
“They’re having such trouble with music and arts programs in schools,” explained Gaye Wood, one of the leaders of the BITS program and a music teacher for the Sacramento City Unified School District. “As a teacher, I’ve fought for music in the schools all my life, and this program is a way to do that.”
Music and the arts are important facets of any educational system, but they also are a component that has been, at least by many concerned educators’ standards, historically under-funded, particularly in recent years. The BITS program circumvents school budget problems by injecting music education—in the form of the blues—directly into the schools themselves through the participation of local musicians who donate their time and skills.
“The idea of the entire Sacramento Blues Society is to promote blues music,” noted Nancy Blackburn, a member of the society and the BITS board. “In an effort to bring it to a younger audience, we’ve been trying to bring it into school programs in hopes that music will inspire kids to do great things. I mean, it doesn’t have to be the blues, but that’s what we do—so that’s what we’re bringing.”
From an outside perspective, the fact that the program is strictly bringing blues music to schools could be a potential problem. After all, how can a 17-year-old kid from Oak Park relate to that kind of music? Before the event began, Principal Allen Young, himself only in his early 30s, commented on a young man in a Misfits T-shirt. “This young man has come a long way,” Young said. “He came here a punk hooligan, and he’s going to leave a punk hooligan kid with finesse.” That might be true, but how is such a punk hooligan, with or without finesse, going to relate to the blues? Wouldn’t a hip-hop or punk or metal program be more effective at reaching kids?
Perhaps, but then again, blues music is ubiquitous in virtually all other musical forms—hip-hop, punk and metal included. It’s a point that Martin made when he finally did arrive at the school. “Blues is in everything,” he told the classroom audience. “If something moves you, if it makes you feel something, then it’s blues.” An expert harmonica player, bluesman, music educator, film critic and radio deejay, Martin was a dominating, albeit friendly, presence in the room. His loud voice and barrel-chested physique commanded the students’ attention, as did his singing and playing.
But what further got the students’ attention was the punk-hooligan-with-finesse kid in the Misfits shirt. Greene and Martin were accompanied by Marta Gee on guitar and Steve Salady on bass, but there was no drummer. And after some coaxing, the hooligan—his name was Daniel Espinoza—was convinced by his music teacher to take the drum stool, an event that was met with rapturous applause.
Espinoza was visibly nervous at first, peeking out from behind a veil of thick, long hair, but Greene, in particular, coached him, offering suggestions on the stage through hand signals and occasional spoken instructions. After two or three tunes, Espinoza settled into the rhythm of the blues, dropping occasional fills and cymbal crashes into the mix.
The show itself, for it was ultimately more show than lecture, was essentially Martin’s gig. He talked briefly about the blues as a musical force and then played a couple of songs with Greene and the others playing behind him. Some of the songs included provocative rhymes, which themselves served to keep the students interested—as when Martin sang, “The little red hen said to the big black duck / ‘You sure are ugly but man can you … come home with me.” Martin paused during the tittering laughter and then added, “Hey, what did you think I was gonna say?”
Martin asked at one point, “Does it sound old-timey to you?” The students, of course, shook their heads no; after all, Young and other teachers and administrators were strategically positioned throughout the room during the performance. Nonetheless, the music did sound fundamentally old-timey. Despite Martin’s statement that blues appears in all kinds of contemporary music, the blues Martin himself played was essentially a variety of the Chicago style, a form popularized in the 1940s and 1950s. What did sound more contemporary was when he turned the stage over (perhaps too briefly) to Greene, who then played a slow, tender ballad. It was not necessarily the blues, except by Martin’s sweeping definition of the genre, but it was a good, accessible pop ballad with a rootsy flavor, and it was one that the audience listened to carefully.
Nonetheless, the combination of Greene’s ballad and Martin’s hard-rocking blues numbers seemed to be a fruitful one, particularly in the context of that student population. For one, these were students at Sacramento High School, and, as such, they were part of the experimental charter-school program that saw the campus’s management adopted by St. Hope Corp., a nonprofit organization founded by basketball player Kevin Johnson. The result was a single high-school campus broken into six separate “schools.” The BITS visit fell under the auspices of the School of the Arts.
Because Sacramento High’s students are able to pick their specific learning tracks, there’s a sense of dedication there that is not always apparent among high-school populations. Of the students I spoke to, each had some connection to blues or jazz. Estevan Whitfield, for example, a young student from the School of Math, Science and Engineering, has jazz musicians in his family; he himself plays trumpet. Whitfield’s friend Diego Gonzalez is a Frank Sinatra fan. “I’ve tried listening to rap and other kinds of music, but it just doesn’t interest me that much,” Gonzalez noted. Similar stories came from many other students on campus, including Leslee Terrell, Jessie Storres and Madelyn Covey, all of whom took up Martin’s call for student participants and sang during the afternoon’s performance. Covey has even opened for Greene—“Twice!” she noted with enthusiasm—when Greene performed benefits for the school at the Guild Theater. (Covey also performed at the Jammies, the student performance showcase promoted by SN&R.)
On the whole, the event was a welcome respite from normal classroom routines—although one suspects that nothing is particularly “routine” on this campus—and a way to celebrate the coming end of the school year. The good news for local schools is that the BITS program will continue next year, and Martin will continue to be a part of it. The Sacramento Blues Society is hoping to bring the program to 10 middle schools and 10 high schools next year, and it will include lesson plans for preparing the students to get as much as possible from the events.
As for Martin, the BITS program is a welcome continuation of his life’s work. “For me, it’s the same mission I’ve been on since day one, really,” he said. “I want to see the music live on, and, frankly, I never really thought it would as well as it has.”
Martin paused a moment before continuing. “Their positive reaction is often amazing,” he added. “I mean, let’s face it: Here’s this guy who comes in who is 55 years old, but might as well be 105 years old as far as they are concerned, playing this music by a bunch of dead guys. But it moves them somehow. That’s what’s so amazing about it.”
More information about the BITS program can be found at the Sacramento Blues Society’s Web site, at www.sacblues.com.