Friday, March 21, 2003

I decided to go out tonight. The 20 channels of the same news was sending me into a depressing whirlpool. It's one thing to watch the news. It's another when you're watching and you KNOW you've watched the same information a million times already, but you keep watching just in case of "late breaking news."

I picked up the local free paper here. Chose between a pool hall, a couple of open mics, and a blues place. I chose the blues place. Blues is the kind of music you play when you don't have words for your sadness. Blues lets you wail, tells you tears are fine fine things. PLUS, it was down the street from my hotel.

JJ's Blues has been a venue for 20 years of Blues. If you're ever in San Jose area, this is the place to go. They don't call this the house of blues, they call it the HOME of blues. Who needs to go to Chicago? For a $5 cover or a couple of drinks, you get 4-5 hrs of music, and free munchies (popcorn, hotdog, nachos). The stage sits right in front as you enter the place. It's long and narrow, with the walls lined with photos of all the Blues players who have come through the doors. To the left is a mural with images of BB King, John Lee Hooker, and other Blues greats to bless the place with a couple of abstract paintings that look like the house muses. The place feels like 70s Bistro in Quezon City (Philippines). It's a dive! It's put together like a well lived home where things are drafty and don't quite fit together perfectly but you know love and music fill the cracks and hold the place together.

Thursday nights is a jam night at 6pm. There's a house band and folks can come in, sign up and jam. It's like an open mic for musicians. Tonight's house band was with vocalist Laura Johnson who did a bit of everything from Tracey Chapman to a rhumba of Elvis' Hound Dog. Most of the jammers (folks just stopping by to play) are just local folks looking for a place to play music.

One fellow was Robert, a computer techie by day, a fan of musicals (both movie and stage) and a blues guitar and piano player by night. He's a regular at the jam sessions and introduced me to some of the locals. June is the owner and operator of JJ's. She does all the bookings and does a dandy job keeping every night filled. An old woman sat down the bar from us was named Vicky. She comes by often. Robert says she's one of the homeless folks around here. I asked Robert where the homeless people here go. He said, well, she comes here. I had seen her enter when I was hanging out outside. She told me before entering, "don't tell my daughter, I'm going in here." She sat there drinking a cola. Vicky thought the music was too loud and just awful. I would simply return her comment with a smile and reply, "yes, it's just awfully loud." She seemed sweet with these bright blue eyes. I wondered about her life and what brought her here. She left after finishing her second cola drink. She didn't look like the homeless people that I encounter every day in Berkeley, but no one should ever presume who may or may not be homeless.

After the session, I chatted with Larry, the bass player for the house band. He plays bass because his stepbrother was WAY better than him on guitar. He spent 4 years travelling throughout Asia, mostly based in Hong Kong playing music. Actually two of the years he spent in prison (he lost his passport and visa), but he said the police were really nice. I asked Larry, so which place he loved the most? He replied, China. I asked why. Then he described his first day into Communist China.

He had just come from Mexico and was wearing a poncho, which wasn't warm enough for the weather in China. He was freezing. One of the soldiers noted he was cold, took his jacket off and put it on his shoulders. The soldier told him to keep it. When they reached customs and immigration, the immigration official spoke perfect California English. The official had gone to University of Southern California. He told Larry the soldier who had given him the jacket was a 3-star general based on the jacket's decore and said if he wants they'll send him a matching hat. He saw their instruments and asked if they were musicians. They replied that they were. The official asked for a song. So they obliged to roaring applause throughout customs. The official stamps their passports and welcomes them to Beijing. Larry concluded by saying, "when you're in a country where the police give you the clothes of their backs, well...what a country!"

Larry too had travelled to the Philippines: Manila and Cebu. In Manila he played for former president Cory Aquino in Malacanyang. Apparently, Cory's daughter Chris was a fan of Menudo and he was brought in to play with that band. He said the presidential palace was incredible. Though he didn't understand why everyone was in such a hurry. Cebu he liked better. His roommate there, Carlo, said the American musicians were better than Filipino musicians. But Larry couldn't believe that. From what he saw the Filipino musicans were way more skilled. Everywhere he went in Asia, Filipinos were the musicians. Everyone sings, or dances, or plays an instrument. He felt a kindred spirit of Filipinos with Black folk in that way.

Next band up was Bay City Bands. They were filling in for the scheduled band who all got the flu. Bay City Bands had a father/son combo, dad Jim on drums, son Jake on guitar. Speaking for the group was Pete. I watched Pete's videocam for him and pressed the record button. I forget how we got to this topic. He had won $50 singing Helen Reddy's "I am Woman" at a karaoke contest. He had never sung karaoke before and walked in with some friends stinking drunk. His friends said, hey if you sing that song we'll buy your drinks. So he sings it and the women go nuts when he hits the chorus, "I am woman, hear me roar!" So he won first prize, which pissed off the folks who actually practiced for it. oh well.

Ah yes, I remember how we got to "I am woman," Barbara and Earl. Barbara and Earl were both slightly deaf and yelled a bit, but hey, it was a loud music venue, who could tell. Barbara was trying to find the name of the singer who sounds like Tracy Chapman but is not. We couldn't figure out the song, then Pete offered "I am woman." JJ's has the tiniest dance floor which the musicans use to stack the cases, making it even smaller, but Barbara and Earl made space anyway. When the music moves you, you make room.

If I make it to this end of the bay again, JJ's will definitely be a place to stop by again. Sad to say that the last of San Francisco's Jazz places, Pearl's, will be closing soon. But at least the Blues will live on in San Jose.

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