“It’s pretty busy around here,” said Barbara Newman as she discussed the upcoming International Blues Challenge. “My ongoing joke is that I’m juggling about eight or nine knives and I’m trying not to cut anybody right now.”
The IBC takes place in Memphis from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1. The Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation will be represented by Moose & The Bulletproof Blues Band (led by former Lou Reed collaborator Ellard-James “Moose” Boles) in the band category, as well as Fish Eyed Blues‘ Nothing Personal in the self-produced CD category. (see videos for both bands below)
“We’re going to have about 200 to 235 blues acts, which translates to between 800 and 900 blues musicians coming in from around the world for a shot at being named the Best New Band or the Best New Solo or Duo Act,” said Newman. “It’s very exciting. It’s our 36th edition of this: I’m in my fifth year now so this is my fifth rodeo of late nights, early mornings and a lot of really fabulous blues music.”
We all have interests and we’re all passionate about something in our lives. But most who listen to blues music take those things to a different level. Blues enthusiasts will travel the globe in support of a favorite artist or in search of a new one, and almost religiously seek the pleasure derived from this art form.
Newman — the current president and CEO of The Blues Foundation, which presents the IBC — seems destined to fill the role she now occupies.
“I’m a Memphis girl,” she said. “I grew up here in Memphis, Tenn., and Memphis is the home of the blues. It’s the jumping off point for blues going back long before I was even born. This is W.C. Handy’s town, B.B. King’s town, Furry Lewis’ town, Memphis Minnie. I grew up with blues around me. My uncle was a session musician at a lot of the local studios. I was an early student for a ‘Blues in the Schools’ program with, of all people, Furry Lewis, who actually came to our school when I was about 11 and taught us about the blues, the history, and what the music sounds like. And it just stayed with me ever since.
“I was supposed to be the child that was going to be the musician, but I really didn’t have that talent (laughs), so I’m just the administrator who is there to support the musicians. I took piano lessons and I was very proficient but I’m much better with spreadsheets and power points than I am with playing the music. But I appreciate it immensely. I love the music, I get it. I’ve learned a lot more about it since I’ve been in this role, even though I’ve been involved in music for many years through various vehicles. I have huge respect for people who have that kind of brain. It takes a certain type of brain chemistry to make and create music.”
For a band or artist interested in rising to the challenge of the International Blues Challenge, there are a series of steps that must be undertaken.
“They have to first win their local blues challenge sponsored by a blues society that’s affiliated with The Blues Foundation,” Newmansaid. “Then they get the ride to Memphis to compete on the big stage up and down Beale Street.
“In addition to all of the industry who are coming to see who the next greats are — who should maybe get a label deal or get booked at their festival or in their club — we get a lot of fans that come through because they are coming from their local blues societies to support their winning artist. So we will have thousands of people on Beale Street every day, and we try to coordinate a number of activities through the day and into the evening around the challenge performances, to give people more than just that 5 o’clock to 11 o’clock set of performances. We’ve got panels and master classes and workshops. We’re showing a film. We’ve got exhibits at the Blues Hall of Fame and book signings and networking events and … we’ll have late-night jams and showcases and daytime jams and showcases. So anybody can come to Memphis and for a hundred dollar pass, which gets you into everything, you’ll get your fill of blues that will last you for a while.”
This event holds true to its name as blues artists from all over the planet converge on Memphis, vying to be the top dog of their genre.
“We’ll have performers coming from as close as Canada and as far away as Australia, Korea, Israel and all across the Western European region,” said Newman.
“They’ve traveled really long distances, so we like to give them the opportunity to sort of shake off the jet lag and allow them one extra performance on Beale Street. It’s not judged; it’s just a chance for them to play. We have international showcases in four or five venues up and down Beale Street on Tuesday night with all of our international challengers performing. Wednesday and Thursday night are the semi-finals and we’ll have about 23 venues on Beale Street with 10 to 12 performances in each venue per night and then on Thursday night we’ll announce who makes it to the finals. On Friday night, we’ll have around 11 or 12 venues with, again, 10 or 12 performances per club, and that night we’ll announce the finalists, which will be eight solo/duos and eight bands. And they go to the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday which is our big, beautiful 1920s-style theater, which seats about 2200 people. We’ll fill the theater with fans and blues lovers and that’s when they get their shot in front of the finals judges.
“In addition to that, we’ll give out an award for the Best Harmonica Player and Best Solo/Duo Guitarist, Best Band Guitarist, and then we have another contest going on concurrently called the Best Self-Produced CD Contest, in which our blues societies also select a locally, self-produced CD. Those get judged by a panel of blues experts and we name all of the winners that night. The winners walk away with cash, studio time, a bunch of festival gigs and gear … A lot of the artists will also walk away with label deal.
“While that’s going on, we’ve just recently announced our nominees for the Blues Music Awards, which are basically the Grammys of the blues … They are the awards that we give out for the very best in blues recording, performance and songwriting from the prior year. There are 25 different categories; we have about 100 nominators who work through the summer over about five months listening to about 300 submissions. They call them down to the Top 5 in each of these categories and divide them into sub-genres such as Contemporary Blues, Traditional Blues, Blues Rock, Soul Blues and Acoustic Blues and instrumental awards, performer awards and best song, best album and things of that nature. We are gearing up for the big show in Memphis in May. We’ll have an evening with nominee performances through the night and an after-party with a buffet dinner, more performances and all sorts of fun. It’s a huge opportunity to celebrate the blues: The very best blues recording and performing artists will be here in Memphis.”
With two large events per year, it would be understandable if they kicked back a bit. But The Blues Foundation will have none of that as they are very active in support of music and musicians with multiple arms of the organization providing a helping hand to those less fortunate, and aspiring blues artists.
“Music is a hard business,” said Newman. “I have a lot of respect for people who choose to make a living that way. It’s not an easy life, but it’s obviously one filled with passion and love. We have a fund here called The Hart Fund and we accept donations to that fund which are used specifically to help blues musicians who are uninsured or underinsured get the healthcare that they need. We have free health screenings five or six times a year at different music conferences and events, including our own. And we provide direct resources for doctors, dental, vision and mental healthcare for musicians. We also pay for funerals for blues musicians whose families can’t afford that final goodbye. We’ve also got a program called Generation Blues and we provide scholarship funds to young blues musicians to send them to blues camps and workshops during the summer. We’ve had as many as 30 or 40 kids per summer get scholarships to eight to 10 blues camps around the U.S and Canada. We have a youth showcase during the IBC and we provide them special master classes and workshops and they get to play on Beale Street and we have mentors who evaluate them and give them feedback.”
For more about The Blues Foundation, the IBC and how you can become a member, visit blues.org.
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