Bostonian organ player Bruce Bears talks about Big Jack Johnson, Little Milton, Lowell George and Duke

"Jazz and Blues are elemental in all vital modern music. Pop may come and go, but the Blues lives on."

Bruce Bears: The Blues of Liberty

His work with blues and jazz master Duke Robillard, uptown blues and soul queen of Boston Ms. Toni Lynn Washington, gospel star Mavis Staples, masterful songwriter and soulful singer Martin Sexton, raw bluesman "Big Jack" Johnson, singer-songwriter Mark Erelli, and many others have made Bruce Bears' skills as a keyboardist and musician as diverse as they are in demand.

Fascinated by R&B and jazz as a child, Bruce began searching for the sources of American music in his late teens. Researching backwards from influential 70's band Little Feat, to New Orleans masters James Booker, Professor Longhair, and Chicago blues master Otis Spann, his influences run the gamut from jazz greats Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris, funk and soul master Sly Stone, New Orleans organ great Art Neville, jazz organ masters Shirley Scott and Jimmy Smith, to raw blues men Pinetop Perkins and Roosevelt Sykes. In addition he has played with a wide variety of performers and musicians including: Little Milton, Sherman Robertson, Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia, J. Geils, James Harman, Junior Watson, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, and Kid Bangham, just to name a few.

Bruce also has a musical collaboration and recording project with fellow sidemen Jesse Williams and Mark Texeira called 'threadbear fynn' which focuses on instrumental music with influences from styles including New Orleans piano and funk, the soul jazz exemplified by masters such as piano great Gene Harris, organ great Jimmy McGriff, and "Jam" Music.

In the late 70s, Bruce began playing in various rock bands and R&B/Jazz groups in Upstate New York. In 1983, he moved back home to Massachusetts and began working in Top 40 groups; He eventually wound up in his first, serious Boston based group, The Motor City Rhythm Kings. After playing keyboards for "The Kings" for several years, he played in various local Boston based blues groups, and he eventually formed and currently leads five time Blues Music Award (aka WC Handy Awards) nominated and Best of Boston winner, The Toni Lynn Washington Band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Blues keeps me centered. It connects me with my culture and gives me inspiration to create.

How do you describe Bruce Bears sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

On the Jazz side of the Blues with a healthy dose of Funk.

"Happiness is a rhythm section that listens and an audience that cares." Photo by Arnie Goodman

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

Things are very interesting right now! I'm recording more than ever and playing with great Blues, Jazz and Roots musicians and artists.

Not too any bad moments, but I guess the worst was losing Big Jack Johnson.

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Jazz and Blues are elemental in all vital modern music. Pop may come and go, but the Blues lives on.

Do you remember anything funny from Duke Robillard, Toni Lynn Washington and "Big Jack" Johnson?

My daughter asking me why Big Jack's teeth were so "shiny" when she was 5. Many others I can't tell you about.

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

With Kenny Neal, Sherman Robertson and Carl Weathersby about 10 years ago! Crazy fun!

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

Meeting Jimmy McGriff, Pinetop Perkins, Tony Z, Duke Robillard, Toni Lynn Washington, Big Jack Johnson, Little Milton, Sax Gordon Beadle... all of the people.

I've played with and learned from over the years. There's too many to mention.

"Boston is one of the best places in the country to play blues."

What do you miss most nowadays from the late 70s? What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues?

I miss Lowell George. My hopes for the future: Andy Poxon and Gracie Curran... amongst other young artists.

What's been your experience during filming of "Native Sons" in Clarksdale, MS?

Hangin out with Pinetop and Honeyboy backstage with Big Jack Johnson and playing at Red's in Clarksdale afterwards. That was a ton of fun!

Which memory from Little Milton, Sugar Ray Norcia, James Harman, and Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson makes you smile?

Riding on the bus with Milton was a gas. He had a LazyBoy chair installed on the bus so he could ride in style! Sugar Ray at Lakewest playing harp on Duke's CD! James Harman in Canada playing The Maximum Blues Festival and telling the crowd to cheer for me... Luther hangin at Johnny D's in Somerville Massachusetts talking about playing with Muddy and stories about the early Chicago scene.

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

Oh man... That  would take a book. Memphis and New Orleans, Stax and Chess... the story is one of the best and most important in music.

"Blues keeps me centered. It connects me with my culture and gives me inspiration to create."

When we talk about Blues usually refer moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Sure, people are still playing real blues. Some people are calling what they play "blues" when it's really rock.

Do you know why the sound of organ is connected to the Soul Blues? What are the secrets of?

The connection comes through jazz and gospel and the development of soul music from the church into the studio.

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

Kansas City in the late 30's to watch Jay McShann, Count Basie and Charlie Parker play the blues when they were still young (not to mention all the other great early jazz and swing players that lived there then).

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? Happiness is……

Happiness is a rhythm section that listens and an audience that cares.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Boston? What are the differences from the others local scenes?

We've had a good blues scene for a long time that's connected with the excellent music schools in the area and a very active club scene and blues society. It’s one of the best places in the country to play blues.

Bruce Bears - official website

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