By Mark Thompson
Over the last four decades, there have been numerous alarms sounded in the blues community expressing grave concerns about the lack of young artists playing the music, and continued viability of the art form without the support of younger generations of musicians. And yet somehow the music has endured. One unmistakable sign that the music remains vibrant occurred with the announcement of the nominees for the 2020 Grammy Award in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. It was no surprise to see the names of Bobby Rush, Jimmie Vaughan, and the award recipient, Delbert McClinton. The excitement came from the inclusion of the other two nominees, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Jontavious Willis, for his album Spectacular Class.
Willis certainly was surprised as anyone when the news came. “I was on tour with Jerron Paxton, another talented younger musician. We had been up to 5 a.m. listening to music. My phone started ringing at 9 a.m.. It was Kingfish, letting me know that we both got nominated for a Grammy. I was like, what! Are you for real? I had told Kingfish when he was doing his album that he was going to be nominated. Then I called my folks with the good news. But I didn’t stay in that space very long, because I am always thinking ahead. There were shows to do, driving to do, thinking about how in the world I was going to get out of New York in rush hour to head for Maine.
“The Awards show was a fun experience. Me and Kingfish sat together. I’m not sure, but I think that might have been the first time that two young black musicians were nominated in the Traditional Blues category, that were that young. Kingfish might be the youngest ever! Two of us from the south…..just that alone was enough for me. We didn’t have to win. That means people will hear us, people will see us young guys. People keep saying over and over that there aren’t any young black guys doin’ the blues no more. Well, that’s gone now. I felt real good being nominated along with my brother. It was a real pleasure.
“Those ripple effects is how it all starts. I hope that it perks somebody up, let’s them know that there is space out here for everybody. But you have to stay determined. If I find some young folks that are truly into the history and the culture of blues music, I make it my business to support them. If you are playing music to pass the time, that’s good. But if you are really trying to uphold the music, I am 100% behind you, and will do what I can to help you. We need more people that are deep into it. It’s a serious thing”.
Willis was born in Greenville, Georgia in 1996. His start in music followed a familiar path. “I was singing in the church at the age of three. I’m not the best singer now, but I was a bad singer then. My grandfather, Simon Reeves, was singing all the time, so I wanted to do what he was doing. I was a part of the youth choir, but too little to sing, so I would sit on the side of the stage or stand up on a chair. I would captivate the crowd. Then my Dad was always playing music around the house, different genres of music going on all the time. I was no stranger to different styles of music”.
As far as instruments go, Willis began piano lessons at the age of eight years old. He stuck with it until his piano teacher got ill. Later, he tried several other instruments, including trombone. “I was the first seat in the school band for one week. Then the instructor found out I couldn’t read music. Then I was second to last seat the rest of the year. I started playing guitar at the end of 2010, started playing harmonica at seventeen. I picked up the banjo the next year, but didn’t really learn much on it. But I have picked it back up, and now I understand it. I think I want to go back and try the piano again”.
Not everyone can remember the exact date that their love affair with a particular instrument began. For Willis and the guitar, the date is emblazoned in his memory. “It was Christmas Eve, 2010. My family always celebrates on Christmas Eve, and then we chill out on Christmas day. My father is retired, but he was an electronic technician. He would take lots of pictures and shooting videos. There is a photo with a time and date stamp of me taking the guitar out of box that year. But I wouldn’t forget that moment anyway”.
“It was an electric guitar. I started out playing alternate tunings, like Hawaiian or square neck. I played it the way I wanted to play it. By February of 2011, I could play a little tune. There is a video of that, too! But I went to yard sale and bought an acoustic guitar. It was a Old Kraftsman by Kay. The guy wanted $150 for it but I managed to talk him down to $100. I didn’t buy it for nostalgia purposes, not realizing that people were collecting old Kay guitars. The acoustic resonated with me more than the electric one did”…
Read more of this fascinating interview – CLICK HERE