An Interview with electrifying guitarist and singer Jeff Chaz - well known as the Bourbon Street Bluesman

"ALL forms of American modern music has its origin in Black Gospel music. From it came Blues, and then Jazz, then Rhythm & Blues, then Rock n' Roll."

Jeff Chaz: Keep The Blues Attitude 

Jeff Chaz, known as the bourbon street bluesman, is an electrifying blues guitarist based in New Orleans. Ironically, at one time the guitar bored him and he turned to other instruments like the trombone. Before he discovered that his true talent lay in the blues, he even made an attempt to play country music and found the genre to be a challenge for him. Jeff was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His formative years were spent in Creole, Louisiana, where his father practiced medicine and French. His father made house calls, sometimes by pirogue, and accepted ducks and such for payment. In grade school, Chaz aspired to Jazz trombone. In Jr. high, he switched to trumpet and played first chair in the band. At age 14, Jeff gave his efforts to the guitar for a while but grew bored. After high school in California where his family moved, Chaz took to the road with a Black Boston soul band. Still trying to find his niché, Chaz went back to California where he returned to guitar and studied music at San Bernardino College.       Photo by DebiLynn Fendley

Chaz made the decision to go to Memphis to study with the masters of Blues. He played in little out-of-the-way Black Blues clubs, which led him to performing gospel. He sang Amazing Grace at the opening of the National Civil Rights Museum and won the first Beale Street Blues Award. Chaz has performed with Albert King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Cab Calloway. In '96 Chaz came to New Orleans to help organize a project with local promoter Ellis Paillet, who introduced him to Bourbon Street's Famous Door owner, John Wehner.  Six days later, Chaz was back in New Orleans with bags and guitar in hand. Within two months Chaz was drawing record crowds and, with Wehner's direction and expertise, had put together the most exciting Blues band on Bourbon Street. Jeff Chaz made his performance debut at age 5 when he did an Elvis impression with a plastic guitar. Chaz has traveled, studied, paid a lot of dues, and finely crafted his trade. It all came together... now there are those who attempt to "do" Chaz. Jeff Chaz released a hot new album titled "This Silence Is Killing Me" (2016) featuring original tracks with a funky, big band, complete with B.B. King style blues guitar.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos © by DebiLynn Fendley, C. Shelton, J. Hebel, & R. Watson / All Rights Reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Well, all I can say that to me the blues is a feeling. Like my dearly departed friend Little Milton said in what I consider the Blues National Anthem, 'Hey, hey, the Blues is Alright'. There's blues for the sad times, and the happy times in life. It`s an international language. I'll never forget the first time I was really infected with the Blues Virus, heh heh! I was about 15 years old at a friend's house, a great guitarist, and he had a tube powered stereo and a turn table...Well, he dropped that needle on the 33rpm disk, and I heard the most amazing guitar sound...I said, 'Man, what's that?!!!'...My friend said, 'B.B. King'...It was the Live At The Regal album...I was hooked on the Blues, especially B.B. King ever since...It was the feeling in the sound that got me, not just the notes. For instance, I could hit one note on the guitar as in a scale, and it is just a nice note (all notes are nice)...But, I can hit that note with an attitude like I want the crowd to look up at me onstage, and that same note will take on a life of its own, you know what I mean brother?

(Oh my dear brother Michael, I just want to let you know that my sister's husband is from Athens, and she has learned to cook all of the fabulous Greek dishes from his late mother! And, she can speak pretty good Greek now)

When was your first desire to become involved with music? Who were your first influences?

I first wanted to start playing music when I heard my Dad listening to the music he listened to as a young man: The big bands of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, the New Orleans jazz of Louie Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, and the instrumental works of George Gershwin. My VERY FIRST idols were the great trombonists Tommy Dorsey, unmatched for his liquid, smoother than silk, sweeter than honey tone and technique, and the great Jack Teagarden, an amazingly soulful and articulate trombonist that could almost hurt that horn when he played with his soul power!

How do you describe Jeff Chaz sound and songbook and what characterize your music philosophy?              (Photo by John Fuhrmann)

I really have a difficult time describing my blues guitar sound in a few words, BUT, an English critic says it the best, as I follow no rules, and I study no bluesman in particular. Paul Bradbeer describes me like this in his opening line: "Jeff Chaz may well be the missing link between B.B. King, Albert King, Roy Buchanan, and Frank Zappa". I never really listened to Roy Buchanan much, but when I did listen to him a little, I understood what Mr. Bradbeer was talking about. What a unique approach to electric guitar Roy had! Wow!...No Rules!!! Be yourself!!! Don't copy!!!! That's me... Also, much of my style, like B.B. King's early stuff, is Big Band influenced, you know, music of the 30's, 40's, that my dad would listen to at home. I started out as a trombone player, because of my heroes Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden, so I play improvisational lines on the guitar that are not typical blues guitar lines, YET I play with a blues feeling, and I never have a problem onstage soloing back and forth with the best of them...You see, someone may be a better technical guitarist, playing every Freddy King or Stevie Ray Vaughan lick there is, but I'll play whatever comes from my old fashioned melodic background with a blues feeling, still very authentic blues, but completely my own; and, I might add I get more unique as the years go by. I will always be different in these situations, and the only way I can be copied is if you buy my recordings (hint hint...on ITunes, or see me on YouTube!)

OH! I can't leave out the influence of the greatest songwriter of all time, George Gershwin. Why do I say this? He wrote many of the popular songs of the day, the great opera Porgy and Bess (where the classic 'Summertime' came from),then he would turn right around and write an amazing blues/jazz influenced classical piece like 'Rhapsody In Blue', among other great classical pieces for piano and orchestra. In fact, sometimes I will quote some of Gershwin's melodies in my solos, especially now that I'm older and am losing regard for all boundaries. And don't let me forget the music of my mother! She would take me to the cinema when I was very young to see the great musicals like 'the Sound of Music', you know, and those melodies keep coming back to me, the older I get....In short, my approach is, 'No boundaries, BUT KEEP THE BLUES ATTITUDE'! Also, I have become the Minister of Music in the predominantly black church here in New Orleans, House of Faith Non-Denomination Ministries, and that has only strengthened my approach to blues guitar and singing even more.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

The best advice ever given me was from my friend the late, great Little Milton...He told me sometimes I need to get in a car, have lots of gas and hotel money, and travel all over to as many radio stations in the country that have Blues programs, and make personal on air studio appearances...I still haven't done that, but for the next cd I will! He said that personal touch would be great for me to do!

"The blues is a feeling. Like my dearly departed friend Little Milton said in what I consider the Blues National Anthem, 'Hey, hey, the Blues is Alright'. There's blues for the sad times, and the happy times in life. It`s an international language." (Photo by Crystal Shelton)

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

A very memorable time for me was when I was I was playing trombone with Albert King... Albert had a reputation for being kind of grouchy with his musicians, and he always had something to say about the band to play something a certain way, whatever. Well, we were on a short tour. On the tour were Albert King, Bo Diddley, Eddie 'Clean head' Vincent, and John Mayall. At that time Mayall had the now famous guitarists Coco Montoya and Walter Trout...Well, Albert's dressing room door was open, so I was trying to walk past it as fast as I could so I wouldn't have to hear any comments from him. Well, he saw me, and said, 'hey trombone player, come here'...I was thinking oh boy, what's he gonna tell me now? Well, he had a big giant platter of smothered pork chops, and all this delicious soulfood that some fans had brought him. He just told me, 'Get a plate'. So, I had a private, special meal with Albert King in his dressing room! Cool, huh?.... And during the show, he was doing a song in an impossible key for horns, like F sharp; something like that...Well, God was with me, because when he told me to play a solo, man, I just nailed it! I mean, man, I was smokin' hot! He walked clear across the stage and just stood there close to me staring at me. I wish I could find the photographer that took the photo of this, because I was playing with a little smile, and looking at him out of the corner of my eye...Man, what a picture! Classic!

How do you describe "This Silence Is Killing Me" sound and songbook? What has made you laugh from studio sessions?

I would describe the sound of 'This Silence Is Killing Me' as Memphis blues and soul combined as I have always been influenced by the old Stax Records music, but also the great Southern blues artists like BB King, Albert King and Little Milton. Albert and Little Milton spent a lot of time in Memphis back when I was living there. My core musicians Doug Belote on drums, and Doug Therrien on bass are both veterans of soul, jazz and blues music. Between them they have played with the Crusaders, Tab Benoit, Joe Sample, and many others. My horn arranger, A.J. Pittman has arranged for many soul oriented groups, including Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders way back in the day, but also has a vast knowledge of Jazz and intricate harmonies, as demonstrated on my song, 'Merry Christmas To You' on the bridge section of the song.

As serious as my musicians were about doing their best job for me there were some very humorous moments...I mean, these guys have known each other for years and they were always poking fun at each other and bringing up things that happened like 30 -40 years ago…Rarely can you find serious masters of their craft that can lay down the most intricately, perfect track one minute, then the next minute tell you how ugly you are or how bad you smell the next...Ha Ha!                         Photo by DebiLynn Fendley

"Our unique mixture of traditional New Orleans Jazz, Blues, Brass Band Music mixed with some Afro - Cuban and Caribbean rhythms are an example to the rest of the world how all good things can work together-not just musically, but in everyday life and in relations with our fellow man..."

Why did you think that the New Orleans music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Although Memphis is really more of a blues city than New Orleans, New Orleans does have some fine blues musicians. Tourists come here to hear the blues and jazz. Why? Because the quality of the music and the musicians here is very high. And, of course, Funk started here in New Orleans, like Jazz was born here in New Orleans. I think that the future of Blues music is looking very bright right now. I'm noticing that more and more younger guitar players are wanting to play the Blues, and, like tonight at the BMC club, there were a lot of young people enjoying the Blues music....Very encouraging.

Make an account of the case of the blues in NOLA. What are your hopes and fears for the future of NOLA music?

The blues scene in New Orleans really seems to be holding its own! Many of the 'blues travelers' as I call them are the same folks that go to Chicago and Memphis seeking the blues....I'd say that the average blues musician here in New Orleans is playing with a mixture of Chicago, Texas, and Memphis influences. I truly believe that I'm the only cat here working full time that's totally Memphis influenced, although I've got more fans in the city of Chicago than I have in the whole state of Louisiana....I believe the reason for that is my energy level will at times suddenly jump from the laid back Southern level to the high energy Chicago level! I guess it depends on how much espresso I drank that day…Am I hopeful for the future of the Blues in New Orleans? YES!!! Absolutely! I'm noticing more and more younger people from all over the world at my performances now, much more than 10 years ago even....I'm noticing that not just younger men in their 20's & 30's are intensely watching me as I improvise on the Blues, but the young ladies too!...It's almost like they really want a break from Top 40 and Hip Hop and are dying to see someone really play their instrument...The Blues in New Orleans is doing well and going strong!...Other styles of music may come and go, but the BLUES, the root of all modern music, is here to stay!

Are there any memories from Albert King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Cab Calloway which you’d like to share with us?

The Albert King story of him walking across the stage and staring at me, challenging me to play my ass off is one of the most memorable. Another time at a Celebrity Theatre near Boston, Mass; I was playing guitar with Jerry Lee Lewis (photo), Jerry's main guitar player is Kenny Lovelace by the way, we were playing together. Back in those days Jerry liked to use two guitar players. Kenny is a great rockabilly guitarist! Man, he's great! He's been playing with Jerry forever and ever...Anyway, we were on the show with Shanana, the retro singing group, you know them, right Well, anyway, when it was my turn to solo, I just started kicking ass, you know? really smokin', but I was kind of loud I guess...Well, Jerry Lee stopped the whole show and turned to me and said, 'Son, you play real good but you're too damn loud!'... Ha ha... Shannana was in the front row watching us, and after the show, they came up to me and told me they thought I was great ,and not too loud! Well, anyway, that was a memorable gig...Oh, about Cab Calloway,,,I was playing with a kind of a soul/top 40 soul band in Canada in the mid 70's,and Cab was doing a show in the same hotel. Well, his bass player didn't show up, so someone came by and asked us if anybody could play bass with him that night, so I played with Cab Calloway that one show, that's all. The best meeting I`ve ever had, believe it or not, was with an entertainment lawyer, who is an actor also named Bert Pigg. Why you ask? He helped me set up my LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) and told me how to have my own legitimate, legal production company and record label. This has given me complete creative control over everything that I record, and I have; learned to function as not only an artist and producer, but as a music business professional...

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

As far as the best jams I've been to, I would have to say that Smoky Greenwell's Monday Night Blues Jam at the BMC in New Orleans has had some very memorable nights for me, it's hard to say which night and date, but sometimes the musical exchange of ideas while jamming is just incredible!

Are there any memories from Ruth Brown and Bo Diddley which you’d like to share with us?

I've been very fortunate in having been able to play in the Handy Awards Orchestra in Memphis in 1988! I was playing trombone in the orchestra playing behind many of the special guests and award winners, one being the legendary Ruth Brown! I was thrilled to death when she turned around and told me to solo around her singing, and even take a solo! What an honor!

Another fun memory was watching Bo Diddley when I was in Albert King's band for a little while...We were all on the same show...During one of Bo's songs in Phoenix, Arizona he put his guitar down and did a really funny, wild dance, Ha Ha!!...What a great performer and artist!

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Famous Bourbon Str. in Memphis? (Photo by Crystal Shelton)

During my years performing on Bourbon Street I've seen some funny things and some things that have really moved me emotionally...There's just something magical about the French Quarter that just sets people free to express themselves emotionally in ways that they probably won't in their hometown.

They might just get up and start dancing in some totally improvised fashion when they are overcome with the music and the sense of being free! I have to laugh sometimes, not making fun of them, but sometimes I'll see some moves I didn't know existed (laughs)....Then sometimes it's very touching to see how people from different countries and cultures will meet at my gig, then come back together like old friends the next day!...Nothing more beautiful to see!

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? 

As far as missing music from the past, all I can say is that I miss the musicians dressing up nice all the time for shows, and especially all of the great instrumental hits that would be played on the radio....

From the musical point of view what are the differences between New Orleans and the other local scenes?

I would say that New Orleans' music scene is different because every night you can hear a great variety of music, performed by great, world class musicians.... Jazz, Blues, Brass Bands, different kinds of rock, old and new style, just everything!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Caribbean music?

Well, as you know, ALL forms of American modern music has its origin in Black gospel music. From it came Blues, and then Jazz, then Rhythm & Blues, then Rock n' Roll. I believe Soul Music has pretty much a style closer to the great gospel you can hear in Black churches...As far as Caribbean music, I really do not know much about it at all.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could change one thing in the musical world, I would try to have Roots Music educational learning workshops and programs for our young people to preserve our great American art form which people in countries around the world now play in their own bands and listen to!

"Although Memphis is really more of a blues city than New Orleans, New Orleans does have some fine blues musicians. Tourists come here to hear the blues and jazz. Why? Because the quality of the music and the musicians here is very high." (Photo by Raul Watson)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

If I could go back in the past for a day, I would like to go to a big band concert, like Benny Goodman when he did the famous Carnegie Hall Concert....

Yes, that's it! I'd like to be there for that show! He had a totally racially integrated band: Jews, Blacks, Italians, and they made the most amazing music together...

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?

Yes, as I get older it is easier to write, and older the blues. I have many more life's experiences, both negative and positive to generate into my lyrics for one thing. Believe it or not, all of my blues songs are actual true stories, such as my comical, 'Seafood Department Blues', my song with the self explanatory title, 'Tired of Being Lonely', and the sadly melancholy blues ballad, 'Instrument of Pleasure'.

What characterizes Creole culture's philosophy? Happiness is…? 

Family, Religion, Cuisine, Pride in who they are.

HAPPINESS IS: To me, being able to minister in music and Word at the little black church I belong to which keeps me one with God, and gives me the strength and faith to face everything life throws at me....Performing in front of an appreciative live audience, also being able to win over an audience that isn't sure if they like me or not. Being able to write and produce a meaningful Blues recording.

How would you spend a day with Robert Johnson in NOLA?

Of course this would be way back in time… I'd buy him whatever he would like, be it food, drink, whatever, and sit down with him and just jam, one on one. I'd ask him how he came upon his style, I'd also ask him about his outlook on life in general. Also take him out to see him sit in somewhere.

"I think that the future of Blues music is looking very bright right now." (Photo by Jan Hebel)

What would you like to say to Elvis? What would you like to ask Marie Laveau?

I would just like to tell Elvis how unique his vocal style was, and how cool his movements were onstage, especially in his early years before people like Ed Sullivan censored his hip and leg movements.

MARIE LAVEAU: I would just like to ask her how, being a Christian church goer she became interested in Voodoo.

Do you know why the Blues is connected to the Afro-American culture?

Well let me see…I am part Black, I minister in a predominately Black church and on a Black Christian television program, and I learned most of what I know about the blues from Black artists who I've listened to most of my life. I've been friends with the great Little Milton, and have performed with great artists such as Albert King, so I think I have a little insight here... Blues is a ROOTS music, born out of what is commonly referred to as Negro Spirituals. Most modern, popular music forms directly or indirectly, are based upon this great roots music, the blues. The blues talks about, especially in the old days, about the struggles and ups and downs of Black life in the USA.

What is the impact of Blues & New Orleans music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Here in New Orleans Blues, New Orleans Music and our unique culture and cultural past are an influence on not only the USA, but the entire world....Our unique mixture of traditional New Orleans Jazz, Blues, Brass Band Music mixed with some Afro - Cuban and Caribbean rhythms are an example to the rest of the world how all good things can work together-not just musically, but in everyday life and in relations with our fellow man....Also you will find many racially mixed  people here, and people of all races and nationalities doing business together, which outsiders love to see, and can learn from…LOVE HAS NO COLOR IN NEW ORLEANS!

Jeff Chaz - official website

Photo by DebiLynn Fendley

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