Seeking a much-needed youth infusion, the Sacramento Blues Society looks to local schools for inspiration. The group’s 15-year-old Blues in the Schools program helps keep an aging local blues scene alive with a youthful and passionate presence, assisting young artists while they gain a foothold in the industry.
Founded in 1979, the Sacramento Blues Society, now led by Cari Chenkins, is one of the oldest blues societies in California. “Some people are into sewing; we’re into the blues,” says Lisa Phenix, co-chair of the Blues in Schools program and secretary of the Blues Society. At 54 years old, she says she is “one of the young ones” in the group, and she stresses the need to pass on the history and culture of the blues to its younger members.
“Our highest priority is to keep the blues alive,” Phenix says, adding that they’re encouraging new members to join as a family and are having more events in places other than bars. “We have an older generation of fans. We’re running programs with kids but not getting an influx of younger members.”
While membership in the Sacramento Blues Society has remained constant the past decade at just under 500 members, Chenkins says, it’s not growing and hasn’t significantly reached the younger demographics needed to sustain long-term growth.
Blues in the Schools is one of the Sacramento Blues Society’s signature programs to help counter that trend with events and programs across the region. The Society has a regular presence at venues such as the Crest Theatre, Momo Sacramento, 24th Street Theatre, The Torch Club, Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub and Powerhouse Pub in Folsom.
The BITS program aims to educate students beginning in elementary school and give them real-world experiences in performing arts, while developing skills that will benefit them into adulthood, says Phenix, who has coordinated the program for the last three years. Through its after-school band program, workshops and performance lecture series — BITS puts on about 30 assemblies annually at all grade levels — BITS is bolstered by a team of volunteers, including school teachers, and local and national artists such as Jackie Greene, Joe Bonamassa and Mick Martin.
Bands at three local high schools — Rosemont and West Campus in Sacramento and Woodcreek in Roseville — have been practicing since early March for this year’s showcase benefit event in the Artist in Residence After School Program, where BITS partners with schools by showing students how to build a blues-based band.
Each band is required to write and perform one song in a traditional blues style, with the rest of the five- or six-song sets filled by other tunes — not necessarily just blues. The 2019 showcase concert is May 2 at Stoney’s Rockin Rodeo.
“The enthusiasm and camaraderie that students develop after they have been involved in Blues in the Schools last much longer than the six weeks that the students are in the program,” says Rosemont High School’s Steve Boettner, a music teacher with the Sacramento Unified School District for more than 30 years and active with the Artist in Residence After School program since its inception in 2004.
Jacquez Cosby, 16, who grew up in Detroit and brings an R&B groove to Rosemont’s fledgling band, says he joined at Boettner’s urging. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of rock influences, so the diversity of this program is a lot different,” Cosby says. “This is a chance to expand myself if I want to grow musically.”
Zach Waters, 19, is a recent product of BITS after spending three years in the program at Woodcreek High. He says BITS inspired him to continue with his own three-piece power blues group, the Zach Waters Band, which has been performing continuously since he formed it while still in high school. He credits BITS advisers Steve Boutte and Lew Fratis and his Woodcreek teacher John Harmon with giving him the confidence to “get out there and do it.”
Waters began playing local clubs at age 16, and he says it was comforting in the rough-and-tumble world of the music business to see his mentors at the same clubs where he was working. “It was great having friendly faces at the clubs, which aren’t always so friendly to newcomers,” says Waters, who maintains a heavy tour schedule and will be a full-time instructor at the School of Rock in Roseville when it opens later this month.
The BITS assembly program wrapped up the school year earlier this month before about 250 students at Sacramento’s Sierra Enterprise Elementary School, where students heard standards such as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Not Fade Away” and an original, “Back to School Winter Blues,” performed and explained by BITS volunteers.
“Blues are feelings into music,” Phenix tells the students before beginning the Billie Holiday classic, ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ “Blues are instruments playing together, including your built-in instrument, your voice, and the blues are about rhyming and timing using your built-in drum, your heart beat.”
“How old are you?” a student asks the cello and violin-playing Ilene McHolland during the assembly’s Q&A portion.
“I’m old enough to play the blues,” McHolland, 61, answers. “Music is ageless.”