Inspired by hearing his older brothers play music in their apartment on the south side of Chicago, Fernando Jones picked up the guitar at just four years old and began teaching himself how to play.
“I think a lot of people can remember being a little kid and wanting to be a big kid and do what the big kids do,” said Jones in a recent interview with Fender.com. “In my case, the big kids played the guitar. It looked cool, and it was fascinating. They would let me pluck around but I found a way to watch and learn and pick stuff up. And when they would leave, I would go to work. I would try to time it so I could be finished before they came in, but sometimes I would get busted.”
A day before his sixth birthday, Jones’ uncle took him to a local department store to purchase his very own guitar.
“I picked out this Fender Stratocaster look-a-like because when I came up, the guys in my neighborhood that could really play and looked really cool all played Fender,” he says. “I always say I was branded early by Fender.”
Jones was also branded early-on by the blues.
“One of the reasons I love the blues so much is because I look at it as a musical form as well as a cultural form of expression —not racial, but cultural,” he said. “My parents were from Mississippi and so when I came up, the blues as a music form was something always in my house and something that was popular. As a cultural form, my parents came from Mississippi and the blues was something we were proud of, just like our Sunday rituals of eating greens, pork and beans and that stuff that people did in the South. It was rooted in tradition.”
Jones has dedicated his entire career to the blues, and has established himself both as an internationally celebrated musician and a music educator. He currently is the bandleader of cutting edge power trio Fernando Jones & My Band, while also serving as the Blues Ensemble director at Columbia College Chicago.
He has also earned humanitarian status for his efforts in passing along the blues baton.
In 1990, Jones established Blues Kids of America in Chicago, a multicultural, interdisciplinary artist-in-residence music program that has been implemented in schools. In 2009, he launched the non-profit Blues Kids Foundation, and held his first summer Blues Camp in 2010. The free blues program for musicians ages 10-18 first began in Chicago, but has since expanded to include camps in California, Minnesota, Virginia and Texas.
“As I was going around the country playing in schools and dance centers and community halls, I would meet kids who really wanted to play the blues but didn’t really have a place to go,” said Jones. “So I started thinking about what I could do to create a place for kids who really wanted to play the blues. There are kids who are in the basement playing the blues and people think they are weird because there is only a jazz band at school or a classical orchestra and the kid is tormented because no one understands what this kid is playing. The kid becomes almost a freak because he or she is different. I know what that is like because I was that freak; I was that weirdo. So with this camp, if everyone is strange, then everyone is normal, and that’s why I created the camps.”
Auditions are held in each program’s city to earn free scholarships to attend the camps, which typically last five or six days. More than 110 kids were accepted for the camp last summer in Chicago, with about 40 kids attending each of the other camps.
“I wanted it to be free and priceless because I didn’t want to discriminate against a kid either way, whether they are underprivileged or if they are kids whose parents millionaires,” said Jones. “In blues, there is no value placed on music literacy, because it’s the music of old traditions and created by people who were not necessarily academicians. What I’ve attempted to do is to bring some validity to the importance of blues in an academic situation. By keeping a price tag off of it, it gives an easier way to get traction and to not discriminate against kids of any backgrounds. This is a camp and an experience that money can’t buy, and it has really become a blessing to so many kids.”
The payoffs are far and many.
Jones easily fired off the successes of one student after the next.
Ray Goren, now 13, attended the camp a few years ago. He opened up for B.B. King earlier this year in Monterrey, Calif., and has appeared on the main stages of the nationally-acclaimed Doheny Blues Festival (2012) and the Detroit Jazz Festival (2011).
Detour 91 is a blues band featuring six kids who met at camp at the Fender Center in Corona, Calif. They are now booking gigs, and recently enjoyed an opening set for B.B. King at the House of Blues in Anaheim, Calif.
Savanna Coen, a 14-year-old former Blues Camp attendee from Oregon, won the 2010 Rooster Award Winner for Best Under 21 Blues performer and is currently recording her second studio album.
Blues Camp guitarist William “MoBetta” Leadbetter, age 17, won the US Air 2012 You’ve Got Talent Contest.
“It’s so rewarding to see these kids form relationships at camp and then stay in touch and share their music,” said Jones. “I receive emails from parents all the time about how camp gave their kids confidence to be themselves. It’s so important that we provide a nurturing place for them to come and play the blues.”
It’s clear that Jones’ life was changed by the blues at an early age, and his efforts with the Blues Kids Foundation and Blues Camp are ensuring that future generations will have the opportunity to keep that torch burning.
To help pledge your support to Blues Kids Foundation, visit here.
For a list of all Blues Camp dates, click here.