For all its charms, Webster Groves isn't exactly known as a cradle of blues music. But several nights a week, the Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen serves up live, local blues music alongside spare ribs and shrimp po' boys. On Tuesdays, guitarist and singer Alvin Jett hosts a weekly jam session, inviting students and disciples of the genre to step onstage and take a swing at blues and rock standards.
Of course, Jett does more than serve as the mentor and emcee for these sessions. The tall, thickly built gentleman leads Alvin Jett & the Phat noiZ Blues Band, a quartet whose latest CD, Honey Bowl, has a global release on May 12. While jam-session participants worked through a spirited version of the Meters' "Cissy Strut," Jett sat down with B-Sides to talk about his band's new disc, his role as a blues mentor and St. Louis' musical heritage.
B-Sides: What can your fans expect from Honey Bowl?
Alvin Jett: It has fourteen original songs on it. All of our CDs have original material, so you can look forward to that. We never do any copies — we do covers in our shows, but as far as recording them, we feel like it's a waste of time since somebody's already done it, unless you can improve on it.
Is that hard coming out of the blues tradition, where so much of the music is taking an established form and renovating it in some way?
That's what the blues has always been about, though. It's always been about a building block from someone to build from. The blues built from something. It's gonna move on, it's gonna change.
How did you get into playing music?
My dad was a drummer, but he had thirteen kids so he had to work, too. We always had instruments around the house, and he used to record himself. I used to get up late and night and hear him messing around in the kitchen on the guitar. I never played the guitar as a kid, but when I was twenty years old and was out of the Navy, [I] thought, "What do I want to do now?" So I bought a guitar and started playing and running around trying to get lessons from folks.
Is that something similar to what you have here, having people come and sit in with your band for the jam session?
Sure — why not? In return, I learn something too. People come in and sit in and I listen, and I'll go home and try to pick out what they did. It gives me great joy to hear somebody else play and hear different styles. It keeps it fresh for me. It's always a learning experience. On Tuesday nights, it's for anybody who wants to sing, anybody who wants to play. I don't care if you only had lessons one time — it doesn't matter. Have a good time, have a stroke at it.
How is making a record different than doing a live show? There's always so much energy at a live blues show, and that has to be hard to translate to disc.
Basically, you're trying to get radio play so people can know who you are, so you want to cut the songs down to three-and-a-half to four minutes, or else you won't get the radio time. So I might just have one pass at a solo in a song, and so will my horn player. But live, we can take a few passes at it and stretch it out at the end or vamp on something — just play with it and make it our own. Anybody who plays wants to vamp on something that everyone is grooving to, and you're riding it because you don't have the time restrictions.
Where do you see Phat noiZ fitting in within the spectrum of St. Louis blues music?
I just hope to continue the musical legacy that St. Louis has already — I hope I'll be a part of that, to continue the legacy that moves on forward for decades to come. You got people like Oliver Sain, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Milton, Chuck Berry. There's a whole array of people from different genres that came from here. But St. Louis doesn't get its props like New Orleans or Memphis or Chicago.
But I like being in a position where we're not recognized as much, because it lets you be surprised at the talent here in this town. There's so much talent here — I don't want to start naming people, because I'll leave somebody out. So many people are greatly talented, and this town needs its recognition as far as that is concerned. We know the Cardinals and we know the Blues, but do you know the blues?
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