A Blues Camp Rite of Summer


Educator Fernando Jones has taught young musicians in both virtual and in-person settings.

(Photo: Courtesy Fernando Jones)

Unlike jazz camps, camps that focus on the blues are a rarity. In 2010, when Fernando Jones decided to start one at Columbia College Chicago—where he is on faculty—the veteran bluesman and educator wasn’t quite sure it would work.

It did, and since then Jones’ blues camps have become an annual rite of summer. By 2019, the camps had welcomed hundreds of kids at sites in eight states, as well as the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan and Cuba. Last year’s program was shaping up as a major event, as well, until the pandemic hit in March.

“I was like, ‘Wow, what could we do?’” Jones recalled in a January Zoom conversation. The challenges of mounting a credible weeklong camp under quarantine orders were obvious. Yet, his dedication to the kids overcame his doubt. “I owed them a place to come.”

Calling on an array of donors, Jones—who traces his facility for teaching the blues to a late-1980s stint as a guitar-playing substitute teacher in Chicago—found the support to accommodate some 45 students in an online camp. That is about half the number who typically attend his in-person camp, but a significant size for distance learning.

He quickly enlisted Ja’ami Dawan, a technical expert who had helped devise an online introductory piece used in the 2018 and ’19 in-person camps. In assembling that piece, Dawan witnessed Jones’ energy and imagination, now applied to transforming the 2020 program into an online course.

“Fernando works around the clock,” Dawan said. “He’s a creative genius, based on all the things he’s done.”

With Dawan’s aid, the students were trained in software like Blackboard and BandLab, programs that allowed for an ample exchange of information and ideas, musical and otherwise. Meanwhile, in a nod to the pre-digital age, participants were required to read Jones’ 1989 book, I Was There When The Blues Was Red Hot, which was published the year he created Blues Kids of America, the precursor to today’s Fernando Jones’ Blues Camp, an international organization.

To be admitted to the camp, kids age 12 to 18 auditioned through YouTube videos. Once accepted, they were placed in virtual groups based on their age and skill levels. They had a song and a project to work on, and they built tracks together with BandLab. Ultimately, they created a collaborative video.

Jones’ students must demonstrate knowledge of traditional blues. But he urges them to consider adopting the part of his aesthetic that calls for stretching the blues form. “I never wanted to be a master imitator or a mediocre copy of another man’s genius,” he explained. “So, I’m always pushing the theory of there being open season on new ideas—encouraging students to write new blues that don’t necessarily have to be the 12-bar blues following the I-IV-V chord progression.”

Such expansiveness reflects his views of the music as an aural form of self-expression—views conveyed in his online series of master classes, The Art of Playing and Singing the Blues by Ear. As he put it: “It’s not about the story you’re telling but about selling the story you’re telling.”

This summer, two camps are scheduled: one at Columbia College Chicago’s Music Center July 4–9, the other at Winston-Salem University’s Delta Arts Center Aug. 1–6. Audition videos are due, respectively, by May 15 and June 1. At press time, the Chicago camp was expected to be virtual, the Winston-Salem camp in-person. But Jones said he was prepared to pivot to either format, depending on the pandemic protocols.

Online or not, the work will be rigorous: Students are graded on their assignments. But the camps also will be entertaining: In a segment called “All About the Hang,” well-known players appear for lively sessions Jones likened to a TV show. The guests have included jazz trombonist and shell-player Steve Turre; drummer and producer Steve Jordan, who has worked with Eric Clapton; and Morris Hayes, Prince’s keyboardist.

As the week unfolds, the kids start to value mastery of craft for its own sake.. That makes for an enriching experience—one that engenders loyalty to Jones and his systems. Among the instructors are one musician who attended the camp as a child and two of Jones’ former students at Columbia College Chicago.

Describing himself as “the first blues kid,” Jones recalled that, as a youngster on Chicago’s South Side, it was difficult to find other budding blues artists. A desire to spare others that fate might help explain why his Blues Kids Foundation has brought workshops into Chicago public schools—and why he is adamant about keeping the camps free of charge.

“We want to serve more than we want to get rich,” he said. DB

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