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SRQ MAGAZINE | OCTOBER 2018 BY ANDREW FABIAN IN PERFORMANCE

From the dark, furtive backrooms of early juke joints, the blues became an essential thread in the American tapestry. Sarasota keeps the muddy water flowing with these three blues jams.

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The blues is a culture. From its origins in the furtive backrooms of early juke joints, the blues went on to influence country, bluegrass, folk and everything in between. And within the broad blues genre, few things have come to characterize the music more than the jam. Sometimes a jam is little more than an excuse for friends to get together and drink a couple beers, slosh through old songs and laugh about it. Other times, a jam gathers virtuosos for an improvised musical spectacle so cohesive it seems scripted. Whatever the level of skill, the jam offers a forum for free expression that binds players together beneath a roving spotlight of solos and accompaniments. In Sarasota, these blues jams carry on that unadulterated spirit like a steady freight train, connecting people with its celebration of love, faith and music, sometimes all at once.

On the outskirts of Sarasota, aging hippies pour in through an unpaved driveway of dirt, sand and crushed shell into a time warp where ancient, gnarled trees stand guard against the encroaching built environment. Backlit by the orange and purple glow of twilight, the silhouette of trees forms a continuous ink-spill like a Rorschach test, the buzz of cicadas and a faint rustle of leaves the only evidence that this is not a Bob Ross painting. They have come wielding worn and cherished instruments to create new moments together, moments of spontaneity and a bit of harmony. They have come for a Wednesday night jam session at the home of Jean Hewitt.

The jam sessions occur weekly in a revolving door of living rooms, lanais and porches, and tonight Hewitt plays hostess in the full-round log cabin built by her late husband in the mid-80s. “It took him about a year to build,” she says, “and people who come to jam seem to get a lot out of the house itself.” At 90 years young, she now sits on the board of Friends of Florida Folk, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and promote folk arts, dance, crafts and music, with chapters as far south as Miami and as far north as Apalachicola in Florida’s panhandle. Tucked away on the back porch of her cozy home, shrouded by a wild, native landscape, the rag-tag assemblage of retirees, artisans, musicians and nomads prepares for an evening of covers ranging from Woody Guthrie and John Prine to The Beatles and Van Morrison. “Tom Paxton is one of my personal favorites,” says Hewitt, “but I’m not musical at all, I’m just an appreciator and I like being able to have everyone here.”

Around 8 o’clock, folks have started to settle into weathered chairs. The music fades in with the dissonant tuning of stringed instruments—6- and 12-string guitars, violins, cellos, a mandolin and a bass guitar, the evening’s only electric instrument. Out of the disjointed chaos, the round-robin session emerges with a patchwork rendition of The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.” The lone guitarist strums the chord progression and sings the first verse on his own as others search their fretboards for the right accompaniment of notes. When the chorus hits, everyone chimes in with “what that woman, she been doin’ to me.” 

Some find the right notes, some don’t. One woman with a pennywhistle, unable to find her place in the song, resorts to a barefoot shimmy across the wooden planks of the porch. “It’s a very free and open thing,” says Hewitt, “people can do whatever they want.” The song fades into laughter about forgotten lyrics and a couple stray notes. “It’s a moment,” says Thom Worthington, longtime attendee. “Everyone is just here to have fun, man.”

Across town at Bee Ridge Park, proud, church-going men and women gather to recapture and celebrate a heritage that is a little bit blue collar, a little bit Southern and unmistakably bluesy. The men, shirts tucked into blue jeans, and women, some in floral print blouses and cotton shorts, are the kind of folks from generations past who used to say “sir” and “ma’am.” Their practiced decorum makes the Thursday night bluegrass jams a more formal, family-friendly occasion that hearkens back to the early spirituals of blues’ infancy, before a fine line was drawn between worship and music.

It all started 20 years ago when Charlie Holbrook, retired machinist and lifelong musician, first decided to gather his music brethren at Bee Ridge Park. “We used to drive down to Venice for a bluegrass jam,” he says, “until I says ‘we’re gonna start us something closer.” Nowadays, “us” refers to Holbrook, wife Ginger, longtime sidekick Don Campbell, and a long list of regulars that have helped make the Bee Ridge jam a Sarasota institution—so much so that Sarasota County administrators made provisions for the gatherings to take place without a permit. 

Not too shabby for Holbrook, a native of Kentucky who grew up as a bit of a music prodigy. By fifth grade he had joined the high school concert band and “would’ve joined the marching band too, but I was too little,” he adds between chuckles. His trained ear and deep respect for the gospel roots of blues and bluegrass compel him to assemble a group capable of reproducing bluegrass, country and gospel standards faithfully and with enough skill to warrant such a devoted following. This demands a certain caliber of musicianship, though Holbrook assures that anyone with an instrument can join in for a couple tunesand work their way into the regular rotation.

By the 7pm start time, an audience of about 15 has settled in for the show, though during peak snowbird season that number can creep into the triple digits. Between the audience, public venue, speakers and microphones, the jam has a performative vibe, as though listeners and passersby should feel free to expect something special. As the sunlight streaks in sideways under the roof of the pavilion, Holbrook and company begin an improvised set list that includes Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Alison Krauss, The Stanley Brothers and others. For an hour and a half, the friendly twang of a banjo accents the half-beats of the rhythm guitar’s chord progressions, several folks on fiddles find the root notes and croon their accompaniments, and an older gentleman with a lap steel glides his hands over the strings to make them whine and moan. Holbrook stands behind his upright bass. “My baby,” he says, “besides my wife.” By night’s end, as many as 20 musicians have strummed along with their accompaniments or contributed a humble harmony to the vocals.Around 8:30pm, those gathered are ready to call it quits and it’s time for this jam’s unofficial anthem: “Amazing Grace.” “We like to end with a gospel song,” says Holbrook, “but it’s usually kind of a sad song, so I picked it up a little bit.” Many in attendance stand to sing along. Some of the young men and women playing basketball and volleyball stop for a moment to appreciate the sound. From underneath the pavilion, the song rings out like a prayer.

Beneath the stage lighting and hefty sound equipment suspended from metal rafters, the tall, wiry man running cables to and fro looks like a Blue Rooster employee. He wears a plain black polo and blue jeans, with a pair of gray Converse chucks on his feet the only hint that perhaps this man has some musical or creative predilections—hardly the garish rock star one might expect on the stage of a bonafide music venue. And yet, this plain-clothed man will soon lead an ensemble of virtuosos into some rich renditions of blues and rock staples that will get a sizable crowd a little footloose.

The man: Al Fuller. And on this muggy Wednesday night, he sets up his gear for another one of his famous blues jams. But don’t blame the soft-spoken Fuller for the gaudy adjective. “If I had to credit the ‘famous’ part to anybody, it’d be George Generoso,” he says, “and the name kinda stuck.” Over the 15 years he’s piloted the jam, big names like Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Duane Betts, Freddie Cole (brother of Nat King) and the late Donald “Duck” Dunn have joined Fuller on stage, and it was Generoso, former owner of the 5 O’clock Club, who coined the phrase as a clever marketing ploy. But even without the big names, Fuller, a full-time musician, keeps a roster of highly skilled blues troubadours on speed dial to make sure his jams live up to the hype.

Between the experienced pros and the ambitious rookies, Fuller has his hands full with ego management. “A lot of people try to talk themselves up really big,” he says, “but I can usually tell whether they’re gonna be good or not.” And though this can sometimes detract from Fuller’s fun, the end result is a show with a strong following.The music starts at 7:30pm with Fuller on guitar, Moe Cates on bass and Rich MacDonald on drums. A slightly older happy hour crowd filters out, but a slow trickle of groupies filter in and take their place near the stage. He opens with some accessible blues standards—“Hide Away Blues” by Fats Domino, “T-Bone Shuffle” by T-Bone Walker. They perform the first few at coffee-shop volume, all three men easing their way into the pocket. Fuller’s baritone voice never takes over a song, but instead blends in like another instrument. By 8pm, a few musicians have popped in and placed their instruments next to the stage. Fuller gives them a knowing nod and, in between songs, exchanges a few words with them that will give a bit of order to the jam—What do you play? Do you have any songs in mind? 

Though Fuller prefers to keep the jam orbiting a pure blues sphere, the impact of
the British Invasion cannot be resisted. By the end of the night, a stylish man in his 50s grabs hold of a mic. His jeans are snug, his threadbare Pink Floyd shirt rolled up at the sleeves, a tambourine in his hand. A new drummer hammers out a simple beat on the kick drum and hi-hat. It only takes one line for the audience to voice their approving recognition of the song: The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” Though the current lineup seems haphazardly put together, an audible chemistry forms instantly. Two guitarists including Fuller, a bassist, drummer, violinist and pianist commit to grooving under the temporary command of this new singer, each awaiting their chance to solo. The album version of the song is only three and a half minutes long, but this live version, replete with guitar, violin and keyboard solos, pushes six. Fuller’s work as jam conductor has paid off. “When it’s good, it’s fantastic,” he says. Tonight, with bodies a-sway to the bedroom undertones of “Miss You,” is fantastic.