Young bluesman Jontavious Willis stakes his claim at JAS Café
Special to The Aspen Times
When a masterful musician plays the blues, it’s a visceral experience: It stirs your heart, wrenches your guts, and shakes the very depths of your soul. Every generation has its blues masters, and now, a new one is breathing new life into the historical American art form: Grammy-nominated Jontavious Willis may only be 24 years old, but he’s definitely an old soul when it comes to belting out the blues.
Taj Mahal has called him a Wunderkind and a “great new voice of the 21st century in the acoustic blues.”
Indeed, Willis’ voice exudes passion just talking over the phone about the blues.
“The blues is just one of those hidden gems because it’s not very popular today, but blues (musicians) are heroes of mine — and of American music,” he says. “There are so many different stories and so many different elements in blues, like cheating and being mischievous. There are so many stories you can tell, so many facets, so many walks of life under the blues umbrella and so many parts of the blues we relate to. For me, it’s understanding the generation that came before me and appreciating the ingenuity and the tidbits they bring. Now it seems to me that a lot of popular songs sound similar. Back then, a lot of the songs were personal.”
Willis draws his intimate connection with the music from singing gospel at the Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church with his grandfather in Greenville, Georgia.
“My grandfather inspired me the most,” Willis says. “He had a great voice. He didn’t try hard. It just kind of flew out of him naturally.”
At age 14, he found a YouTube video of Muddy Waters playing “Hoochie Coochie Man” and became instantly hooked on the blues.
“Muddy Waters is a close second (in terms of inspiration). He got that command on the crowd,” he says. “There’s a very thin line between gospel and the blues — the music is pretty much the same, but the message is different. Blues and gospel started together; they’re more like brother/sister than mother/daughter. Muddy Waters said, ‘You gotta have the church in you.’ There’s so much you get out of gospel. Both talk about struggles, but both look at a different place for the solution. The blues look to more of a worldly, ‘I can do something myself’ solution as opposed to gospel that looks to God.”
Though 90% of his guitar playing is standard tuning now, when he was younger, he used a variety of open tunings.
“The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing,” Mahal says. “There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out.”
Willis didn’t necessarily tune to complicate matters. It’s just that he took his first lesson in 2015 as a college student who could only afford one $45 tutorial, taught in the key of G.
“I ran from there. I started tuning to a variety of open tunings,” he said. “On Dec. 24, 2010, my dad bought me a guitar for Christmas, and I started playing pretty good around February — I got video to prove it. I can promise you.”
When Willis was 19, Mahal saw a video Willis posted playing “Lucy Mae Blues” on YouTube and invited him to participate in the Music Maker Foundation, which supports blues music and those who play it. Since then, Mahal, who acknowledges he’s “very, very particular and very private about my stage,” has invited him to grace his stage in Atlanta.
“He had a thunderous response from the audience. So I’m just excited that he has a wonderful and amazing future, and he’s got a great sound, and we are all lucky to be at this point when this man is starting to launch (what) is going to be an incredible and long career,” Mahal says. “He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing.”
That Atlanta appearance led Willis to broader opportunities, including opening slots during the TajMo tour with Mahal and Keb’ Mo’.
“I wanted to be able to captivate people like I did in church,” Willis says. “It’s such old music, but I try to find new ways to bring light to it that’s kind of personal in my storytelling, personal experience, and every facet of singing.”
Frank Matheis, of Living Blues Magazine, calls Willis “the real deal, a player and singer whose got it all: Deep roots feeling, instrumental prowess, and a voice that carries the heart and soul of the blues with unwavering connection to the ancient roots.”
While Willis describes his guitar playing as “simple,” he does say he puts his voice at the forefront.
“I feel that’s what the blues is about. When you start focusing on your instrument more than vocals, you are forgetting the purpose of the blues, which is to tell a story,” he says.
He revives the soul of the blues because he believes in it to the core.
“To me, the blues is the most important musical genre and the roots of many others. Deeper than that, it is a cultural thing for me and my heritage,” he says. “I feel when I play the blues. I am connecting with those before me and presenting it to others, a spiritual type thing.”
Willis infuses his shows with a variety of stories about the music, personal experiences, and lessons he’s learned from others. And since he’s only been in Aspen in the summer, the winter weather will be yet another experience for him, he says. As he describes his show Saturday:
“It’ll be good traditional blues with a kind of in-the-living-room type of feel.”
What: JAS Café, Jontavious Willis
When: 5 p.m., Saturday
Where: Here House, 614 E. Cooper Ave., Aspen
More info: jazzaspensnowmass.org