Front Porch

J. Otis Williams and the Wednesday Night Blues ReDux

J. Otis Williams, host of Jazz 88's Blues Jam at Proud Mary's

J. Otis Williams, host of Jazz 88’s Blues Jam at Proud Mary’s

Jammin' on a Wednesday night.

Jammin’ on a Wednesday night.

Sue Palmer in da house!

Sue Palmer in da house!

Wednesday has always been known as hump day, even before those camels started talking. It’s the heart of the work week where you take a deep breath, put your head down and aim straight for the weekend. In order to give you a clearer shot and pinpoint your target, J. Otis Williams and KSDS Radio – Jazz 88.3 created a mid-week blues party to get you primed. Just prior to the start of a Wednesday evening’s festivities, I sat down with J. Otis to talk about how the party started.

“We started with the 88.3 Jazz Jam” Williams told me, “and then we had a brainstorm by one of our promotional directors, Natasha Collins along with at the time, manager Mark DeBoskey about a Blues Jam. They came to Janine Harty and me about hosting. Janine was going to do it, but something came up and I ended up with the whole package, which I didn’t mind…and it just took off from there. We’re going into our second year now.”

Having lived in San Diego since 1980, J. Otis has the perfect ‘personality’ to host the Wednesday blues festivities. He says, “I’ve been at Jazz 88 now for fifteen years and have been hosting the blues down there, oh wow, I’m going to say…I’ve been playing blues about eleven years along with a little jazz.”

His knowledge in both genres is deeply engrained. “I’m from Chicago and that is the blues capital. This is nothing that I learned; this is something I grew up with. I grew up listening to the blues and jazz and R&B and all that good stuff. So music is in my system.” Williams isn’t just an observer, he’s a participant, “I also play myself, I’m a percussionist and I just love music. I love hosting and it’s just in me.”

What makes this type of blues gathering so special? “Well, the most surprising thing to me,” Williams says, “I’ve known about the talent here. But to actually see the people who come out that really know blues, and love blues and play it…that is really a surprise to me. The following, the people that really love the blues, they really come out and support it. I was surprised by that. Everybody just started coming out and the place is always packed. We have great players from right here in San Diego, great players. And I tell you, this thing has caught on so well, till we now feature guest blues jammers.”

In just the past few weeks, the Wednesday night jam has featured some of southern California’s best. Vocalists like, Mercedes Moore and Lady Star, guitarist Bill Magee, the sensational pianist, Sue Palmer, and even more recently Grammy winner, Fuzzy Rankins. Support for the blues and for those who play them has never been more vibrant. “It could be the fact that they feel it.” J. Otis reiterates, “You know, you feel blues. Someone has a sad story and then again, you have happy blues. I think it’s a music that you really, really feel. The people come out and appreciate the artists that are performing because there are no phony people up on that stage. They’re real with their blues.”

The Wednesday night blues jam has very few restrictions and or limitations, either in age or style of play and the atmosphere during the show reflects that. J. Otis laughs and agrees, “There are so many great players and I know sometimes…we have too many great players. They don’t bump heads though, I’ve got to give them credit for that; they are professionals. There are no more than two guitar players up there at a time so they don’t bump heads, but there’s a lot of great talent and they really respect one another.”

Respect combined with a healthy dose of inspiration occasionally reaches beyond the artists performing on stage. J. Otis says, “Jocko Marcellino who was one of the original members of Sha-Na-Na, is down here all the time.” It turns out the Wednesday night blues experience inspired Jocko to get back into the studio. “That’s right,” J. Otis says, “We turned him on.” (laughing) “We turned him on.”

Speaking of inspirational, just the enthusiasm of some of the younger performers can be spellbinding. One young lady specifically, slapping the strings of a standup bass that was taller than she was. “She’s from Mission Bay and just fifteen years old.” Williams shakes his head, “Angelica is fifteen years old from Mission Bay High and plays in the high school band. We encourage it, and even announce it on the radio, that we are family-friendly and all ages.” To further the point that music has no age boundaries, Williams adds, “And we have a yearly jazz festival that we do for middle school and high school students.”

On any given Wednesday you readily see the more seasoned players encouraging this next generation. “Oh yeah,” says Williams. “They inspire them a lot. We’ve had quite a few youngsters that come down and sit in with us. And they keep coming.”

Stepping outside as the band changes personnel, a young guitarist is preparing to go on stage. He’s repeatedly running through riffs on his guitar. J. Otis looks at me and says, “That’s it, right there! That’s tomorrow, right there!”

The evening can always provide surprises and J. Otis remembers, “The craziest thing I ever experienced here was a man they call ‘Wolf.’ He came in and he said, ‘Man, you think I could get in with the group here and jam?’ So I’m looking at him,” Williams starts to smile and shakes his head, “oh, we’re really in for it now. We’re not going to turn anybody down, you know? Come on in and have a good time. But when he (Wolf) opened up those chops, he blew the roof off, he blew the roof off! That was the craziest thing I’d ever seen, because he doesn’t look the part. But when he opened up, it was mind-boggling.”

Another vocalist and one of the Wednesday night regulars, brought the crowd to its feet performing an incredible version of Willie Dixon’s ‘Hootchie, Cootchie Man.’ Williams told me, “His name is Conway Redding, and he’s in his 70’s.”

Making it a point to track him down after leaving the stage, Mr. Redding informed me he’s been a music fan since his early days in New York. He vividly recalled weekends in the early 60’s, “The big thing on Sunday afternoon was for musicians to gather in Washington Square Park and I used to go down there with my guitar. I was down there playing and Lightnin’ Hopkins sat near me. And after I played, he played and then I played and he played.” Shaking his head, “I said, ‘I’m outclassed here’ and after a bit I got up and moved away…And he came along with me.” (laughing)
The Wednesday night blues showcase has that same feel and is very similar in its approach, older musician’s side-by-side with younger players. Almost like on-the-job training. “That’s the way it used to be.” Conway says. “Lightnin’ apprenticed himself to Blind Lemon Jefferson and that’s the way they did it.”
Having a good time is paramount every Wednesday night but mentoring seems to be the underlying theme. Conway admits, “It gives me a chance to have some fun and hear some of my fellow musicians and make some contacts.” But then he adds, “I like to think I encourage and mentor. There’s a young girl who comes in and her name is Angelica Pruitt and she’s a standup bassist.” There is little doubt that sharing words of wisdom and a bit of musical knowledge with those next in line goes a long way in keeping the music alive, but the pragmatic and nearly 80 year old Redding just smiles. “How much longer do I have?”

KSDS Jazz 88.3 has such a great relationship with local blues and jazz musicians, but also with their listeners and J. Otis thinks the reason for that is simple. “We reach out to the community; we go out and perform in the community.” And it’s not just the Wednesday night Blues jam, Williams says, “We do concerts in churches (and the aforementioned youth in schools) we reach out and go to the people. By being member supported radio, we have to do that. We have to let the community know that we appreciate their support.”

Looking ahead, are there any special events in the planning? “The manager of WAR was here last week,” Williams confides. “And he was so impressed, he talked to the guys and the guys want to come out. The guys want to come out and participate in our blues jam. So we’re doing something right.”

The audiences every Wednesday are very receptive and interactive; they get on their feet and let the players know it. “They love it. They love it.” smiles J. Otis. “They really appreciate the artists, and they appreciate the art form.”

You have a few players that regularly make up your house band. “Oh yeah, and I appreciate our band, you’ve got (vocalist and trumpet player) Ray Brown there, I mean, he knows his blues. You’ve got (guitarist) Mark Augustin, the leader of the band who’s truly a jazz guy, but within the last two years he has gotten into it, he has studied and you never would know he was a straight-ahead jazz guy. That guy can play blues, now. He can really play. He’s got that feel now, and you have to feel it. To know blues you have to feel them.”

If you’d like to feel some blues, check out the weekly Jam every Wednesday night from 6:30 to 9:30pm at Proud Mary’s Southern Bar and Grill, 5550 Kearny Mesa Road.

One Comment

  1. Otis Williams
    Posted April, 2015 at 2:00 PM | Permalink

    All about the good times we have at the Jazz88.3 Blues Jam @ Proud Mary’s 5500Kearny Mesa at the Ramada

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