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Pix brew hues of the blues

PBS docus, CD reissues put spotlight on genre

America is about to get a big case of the blues.

Though Congress declared 2003 the Year of the Blues, the first nine months have been about anticipation. But starting in September, a slew of media start celebrating the art form, which has influenced and affected virtually every American musical form in the 20th century. At the center of the long-gestating celebration is “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues,” a series of seven films directed by various biggies, including Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Wim Wenders and Scorsese himself.

The Venice Film Festival, which kicks off Aug. 27, will premiere Scorsese’s “Feel Like Going Home,” and will screen three other docs as a special event. PBS will air all seven pics Sept. 28-Oct. 4 (see chart).

All of the films will be surrounded by 20 related CD releases — including a five-CD boxed set — from Universal and Sony Legacy and a host of other releases. HarperCollins has the companion book and Public Radio Intl. is distributing a 13-part radio series from Experience Music Project; Volkswagen (which contributed production money and has helped support blues educational and charitable work) has shot an ad tied in with the package.

All of this hoopla will be “the biggest catalyst (for growth) the blues has ever gotten,” predicts Mike Kappus, who resurrected John Lee Hooker’s career and founded the Rosebud booking agency, which represents top blues musicians and other roots artists.

But few expect the series to help any new blues performers. This will boost catalog sales and public awareness of a genre that, when it comes down to it, is the ultimate “alternative” music.

As a business and an art form, the blues has had the blues for more than a decade. The top-selling blues disc in any given week is lucky if it sells 5,000 copies; it has been seven years since a blues disc that didn’t include Eric Clapton was certified gold. When the RIAA tracks record sales, it divides them into a dozen genres, jazz being one of them. Blues is not tallied as its own category.

But there’s a lot of promotional weight behind the seven films being presented under the aegis of “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues,” which stands to do for this music what Ken Burns’ “Jazz” did for its subject. “Anytime someone can see Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Howlin Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Muddy Waters on television, it benefits everyone from a business and a cultural perspective,” says Sony Legacy senior VP Jeff Jones.

“Jazz” told its story chronologically via the genre’s greatest performers, chiefly Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, with healthy doses of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. It stuck to a strict definition of jazz as it moved from ragtime through big band, bebop and hard bop, discounting various offshoots.

“Martin Scorsese wanted this to be the blues, the roots and its fruits,” says Universal Music senior VP of A&R Andy McKaie. As such, its tales concern originators such as Delta blues guitarist and singer Blind Willie Johnson, Chicago heavyweights Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Buddy Guy, Brit musicians such as Eric Clapton who made heroes out of forgotten American blues masters, and African musicians whose song traditions have been adapted by U.S. blues musicians.

“We acknowledged right off the bat that these are not the last words on the blues — this is the first word on the blues,” says series producer Gibney. “There would be omissions.”

Blues is an easier sell than jazz, says Garson Foos, president of reissue specialists Shout Factory, whose history with the blues extends back more than a dozen years when Rhino Records did several related series. “The roots of rock are in blues and that’s easier for people to grasp than jazz.”

The seven-pic project got its start nearly five years ago when Scorsese’s producing partner, Margaret Bodde, approached producer Alex Gibney about doing a single film on the subject with writer-director Charles Burnett (“To Sleep With Anger”).

Feature directors with docu experience — Richard Pearce, Marc Levin, Burnett, Wenders, Figgis and Eastwood — were hired, given artistic freedom and budgets of about $1 million each. Each filmmaker chose his own subject matter. With producing entities Road Movies (a German outfit) and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Prods. in place, they assembled a combined production and marketing budget that topped $14 million.

PBS announced the project in December and a month later took a highlight reel to the Sundance Film Festival where the directors were assembled to discuss the work on a panel. An all-star benefit concert was staged at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in February; a film of that concert, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is expected to be released theatrically, most likely early next year.

PBS has had a presence with the project at 75 film and music festivals this year, from Portland, Ore., to Hyannis, Mass. With more scheduled through September, that number will top 100, says PBS director of national strategic marketing Anne Zeiser. Advertising begins in earnest in September on cable TV and radio, with some print.

The first film to be screened was Wenders’ “The Soul of a Man,” which debuted in the Directors Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Reaction was almost universally positive. The director’s take on the relatively obscure musicians Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir made it clear that the series would not be chronological nor comprehensive.

“The complementary media — the book, the radio series and the CD project — helps fill in the gaps,” Gibney notes.

Films have been central in driving sales of recordings featuring older music forms. Numerous CDs released under the title of “Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ ” dominated the jazz sales charts for much of early 2001, collectively representing about 1 million sold. The “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack — a collection of recordings of early country, blues and gospel — has done a staggering 7 million in sales and sent countless record companies to their vaults to create country and bluegrass reissues over the last two years.

“The ‘Jazz’ boxed set was the big seller,” says McKaie, who has assembled more blues reissues than any other record-company executive and who was one of four organizers of the boxed set. “There’s a considerable audience out there that goes for the whole enchilada. We had to figure out how to mold this into a coherent picture — reflect the history and the evolution. We wanted to rep the series, too, so we put in some key tracks and some one-hit wonders and then put it in chronological order.”

Levin, who has directed several docs and features influenced by hip-hop and its attendant lifestyles, nabbed the choice assignment of chronicling Chicago blues and its best-known label, Chess, which Universal now owns. His goal was to capture a story that connected hip-hop with the blues; in a case of kismet, rapper Chuck D was looking for a similar project.

“The discovery of this sound — kids being opened up to this sound because of rappers — hopefully will continue,” Levin says. “I know my kids were never interested, but once they hear it in this context, they want to hear Muddy (Waters) and (Howlin) Wolf … Every generation has something to hand over to the next generation.”

Sincere as Levin’s belief may be, there has been a consumer and diskery indifference to the genre. Few seem concerned about the avalanche of blues vault-mining adding to the viability of contemporary blues artists.

“Blues has resurgences and this isn’t one of them,” says one concert promoter with years of blues bookings under his belt. “You have to have B.B. King, Etta James, Keb’ Mo’ or Buddy Guy if you want to do any business (on an all-blues bill). It’s really sad that such a great art form needs rock acts to do business.” Case in point: B.B. King is touring this summer with Jeff Beck and the New Orleans funk act Galactic.

And catalog releases, Kappus notes, “won’t help young artists, just as when Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray broke, it didn’t help Pine
top Perkins or Robert Jr. Lockwood.”

At online retailers, the story is the same: new albums from established artists Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Susan Tedeschi head up the best-sellers list week after week. Soundscan deemed John Mellencamp’s “Trouble No More” a blues album because of the repertoire covered, making it the No. 1 blues album in early summer; it currently sells about 5,000 copies per week.

Blue Note Records general manager Tom Evered sees jazz having the same plight as the blues: “More young artists need to make more interesting records.”

Intriguingly, the pop-music charts are bereft of anyone playing music with any sort of blues base. Even hard rock, which drew on blues chord progressions from the 1970s until the early ’90s, has drifted, save for the occasional act like Indigenous. Many of the contemporary artists in the films expose their enthusiasm for the blues — Los Lobos, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck and T Bone Burnett among them — but it’s unlikely they’ll be heading full-time down that road.

In fact, nearly everyone involved in blues believes there’s an untapped audience, one that is now mostly interested in some form of rock, be it classic or alternative. The Fat Possum label, for example, has for years marketed artists such as R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford to young alternative music fans and some believe catalogue material can have the same appeal.

“When the White Stripes go on about Son House, that is potentially getting through to a new audience,” says Foos. “You want to make a buyer feel hip (when they acquire a Son House album), but you don’t want to overhype.”

Continuing the Year of the Blues celebration, PBS will also be airing Jay Levey’s “Blues Story” this fall that serves as a “blues primer” as told by the musicians who have been performing since the early part of the 20th century. “The whole point is to give these folks their due so the public can realize they are true American treasures,” he says.

Another blues film will be shot in October at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., which is co-owned by thesp Morgan Freeman. 4Tell Films will shoot 10 days (Oct. 17-26) of themed concerts for a feature film, DVD, CD soundtrack, television and radio series. Producers are Jef Judin, Madison Davis Lacy and singer Cassandra Wilson, who is also the host.

Wilson, a jazz singer who has spent the last 10 years dabbling in the blues idiom as well as folk music, will release “Glamoured” in October, which Blue Note’s Evered describes as a “quiet blues album.”

“She’s one song away from breaking big,” Evered notes, and he’s hoping her association with blues programming familiarizes a new audience with her. “We’d be real happy if the blues audience was reached. She could use that identity.”

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