Fernando Jones’ Blues Camp strikes a chord with musical youth

By The Columbia Chronicle

The darkened Columbia auditorium is filled with the sounds of the blues. On a stage crowded with musicians and instruments, the lead singer laments his misfortunes in love while expertly strumming his electric guitar. As he belts out the final note, the audience breaks into enthusiastic applause. It’s like any blues concert in the world, except for one significant difference.

The broken-hearted, world-weary singer is 11 years old.

Such was the norm at the 2nd annual Fernando Jones’ Blues Camp, where kids came to learn and play America’s root music. The camp which just concluded on July 16 after a week’s run, was held at Columbia’s Music Center, 1014 S. Michigan Ave.

Jones, a local blues figure and the blues ensemble director at Columbia, said he started the camp to give kids who want to study music the opportunity that is sometimes unavailable at home.

Raised on Chicago’s South Side, Jones remembers a childhood filled with music that came not only from the radio and television, but also from his two older brothers, who were both musicians. He first experienced making music with their instruments.

“It was natural to pick up the guitar and try to play it, to try to sing, make up songs, the whole bit,” Jones said. “That’s how I got into it as a kid. It’s my earliest memory.”

Jones, clad in his signature fedora, pleated zoot suit pants and black and white spectator shoes, said that while his parents were supportive of his musical talents from an early age, he was never really encouraged to turn it into a serious career.

“My parents’ area of scholarship wasn’t music. They were just regular blue-collar people from Mississippi,” Jones said. “Most times in an inner-city situation, no matter what your ethnic background is, a lot of times parents may not see the value in music unless they’re musicians. Your parents only know what they know.”

The camp, which is hosted by Columbia and taught by volunteers and music professionals, is open to all children under 18. Applicants audition for placement in ensembles that are assigned by skill level rather than age.

“They have to come every day, and they have to audition,” Jones said. “These are kids who want to be here. We’re not a babysitting service.”

Jones said over 70 children, including kindergartners and high school seniors from as far away as California and Kentucky, attended this year’s camp. The camp is free, and scholarships are available for those needing help with travel expenses and lodging.

“These kids really want to play, and they really want a place to go. Kids should not have to pay the price whether their parents or guardians can or cannot afford to send them,” Jones said.

The kids inside one of the beginner’s level rehearsal rooms were indeed excited about playing music. Their instructor, Fruteland Jackson, had trouble keeping his six young students from playing guitar riffs, or “doodling,” while he was speaking. The children’s guitars, already scaled down a size or two, were still nearly as tall as they are.

What his students lacked in size they made up for in talent, as Jackson was able to quickly move the class from “Big Boss Man” to the faster-paced “Bo Diddley.”

Jackson’s lessons didn’t just cover music, but life lessons as well.

“Opportunity doesn’t come around often, but when it does come around, when someone asks you to do something and you know that you can do it, then why not rise to the occasion?” Jackson asked. “Don’t sit back, because opportunity may not come back again.”

The room’s sole drummer, 8-year-old Ben Williamson of Canton, Ohio, seized his opportunity when he and his mother saw Jones perform in Washington D.C. less than a week before camp began. When the two approached Jones after the concert, he offered Ben a spot in Chicago.

Ben has been playing the drums since he was 5. His mother, Ronda Williamson, a singer, said she believes being raised in a musical family has helped develop his talent.

“We don’t push him. We don’t make him practice,” his mother said. “His advantage is that when his dad picks up his guitar, he jumps right in and plays with him. That’s a big, big plus for him.”

Ben would like to become a professional drummer, a move his mother supports, although she is quick to add, “I think he needs something to fall back on, but it can’t hurt to try.”

Blues Camp’s finale was a Friday showcase featuring all of the student ensembles performing at blues landmark Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash Ave. It will be bittersweet for some, as they had found a community based on a shared love of music that doesn’t exist back home for many of them.

“I became what I always was,” said Jones of when he learned to play the blues. It is an awakening he hopes to pass on to a new generation.

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