Bryan gets up from the bar, after his thirty minute break, and walks the familiar walk. His path to the stage has been trodden a thousand times but the journey is always different. A new crowd, a new atmosphere, new possibilities. We aren’t talking your typical Bourbon Street set here—all tired covers and professional sheen. No, we’re talking hardcore Blues—the blues according to Bryan Lee.
It’s not the obvious joint to find B.B. King’s bosom buddy. Nor is it the type of place you’d expect to find a man, sightless from birth, singing and playing the blues with such deadpan grace you’d think he was miming in his bedroom with a hairbrush microphone and a cardboard Fender. Even so, there on the stage of the Absinthe Bar stands Bryan Lee, tuning his “Flying V” guitar while the Jump Street Five, his backing band, wind down yet another intro.
As the first chords sing out, few people in the crowd—an imbalance of heady enthusiasts and foot-tapping tourists—fully realize they are witnessing the last generation of true Blues artists. Music has become so dilute, and the motivations to perform so monetary, the passing of artists such as Bryan Lee will cut off emotional ties to a harsher, yet more enriching way of life. “My baby left me” will forever be lost in place of “the bitch cut loose.” Listen well therefore, to the story of the music of the Blues according to Bryan Lee.
You might think Bryan’s feel for the music came from living in the inner city, where his uncle played in the local bar and gave him a guitar as a present for his fifth birthday. In fact, he is from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where his excommunication from pint-sized society led him to more solitary distractions. Every night, WLAC radio would waft over the airwaves, sending sweet soul and mournful blues across the Midwest from Nashville. Nothing to do with blindness, but everything to do with destiny, Bryan became a night-owl. He would spend his nights tuning across the dial—listening and loving the sounds of black music in the fifties. Daylight was more of a time out in the life of Bryan Lee.
As Bryan’s fingers dance across the frets, stopping dead to cut killer chords and rasping riffs, it’s easy to believe he was destined to play guitar. Astrological readings proved his suspicions. He was actually born to boogie. From passing the hat at Port Sandy Bay to a full house at the Absinthe twenty odd years later, the boogie hasn’t diminished one iota.
“Have guitar—can play” wasn’t a free pass to acceptance in the world of working eyeballs, though. Bryan has heard the word “No” more often than most of us. Promoters wanted black blues artists, not blind white ones. Minority groups hadn’t quite apexed in their marketability at that point. Bryan had his fair share of struggling and came through better and stronger, forming ties with the likes of Gatemouth Brown, B.B. King and Freddie Brown along the way. As you try and imagine the force of will it must have taken to overcome so much rejection, prejudice and ignorance, yet still reach a pinnacle in his profession, you wonder whether having a full set of faculties is so great after all.
Throughout his set, Bryan and the band cover the whole range of blues styles, from Chicago to Kansas City, New Orleans to Memphis. If there were one town his style belonged to it would probably be Memphis. “I feel like I wanna boogie. I can’t help it, I love to boogie!” Bryan shouts in his blues-basement voice. The band breaks into a funky improvisation that eventually will become their own creation. It’s at this time of the evening Bryan begins to loosen up, his John Belushi-like appearance revealing a characteristically “cool” expression. The transition from one style to the other passes subtly outside the range of many an inexperienced ear. But as Bryan described later, the influence and intricacies of various styles demonstrate the depth of his feeling for “Blues”—the whole bag.
In Chicago, Bryan absorbed the original Blues from New Orleanians who had migrated to the Windy City in search of commercial recognition. In the smoky bars and clubs and on the streets, his synergy with blues was confirmed. Although from another place, another world, the common factors were there. He had the desire, he had the talent and he’s seen the hardship like all great bluesmen. Destiny and devotion were carrying him to the top.
In almost all professions, the sign of success is ultimately financial. But Bryan wasn’t seeking a fortune. Like most blues artists, the wispy dreams of mainstream recognition, such as B.B. King has achieved, rarely develop further. The blues, a musical form that is intrinsically sincere, bluntly honest, sends shivers of threat running down the spines of Harry the talent scout. That threat perhaps extends to the general public, as if they were being confronted with realities too harsh, too stripped of false sentiment to be comfortable. That’s probably why the blues, and artists like Bryan Lee, have never broken free of semi-obscurity.
There was a period in the seventies when Bryan recalls having money to throw around, peddling worn-out covers and golden oldies to party crowds. Although not truly expressing himself musically, his skills were in demand. And financially, times were good—in fact, they’d never been better. But true to the lyrics, he eventually realized, “money won’t make you happy.” Following his heart was more important than following the green trail.
His heart led him back to the only logical destination of Blues artists seeking inspiration, appreciation and freedom from the crush of new talent in the major cities—New Orleans. From secondhand New Orleans in Chicago clubs, to firsthand New Orleans on Bourbon Street, Bryan Lee eventually found himself “home.” A backing band followed—The Jump Street Five—which evolved to become Eric Langstaff on trombone, Ward Smith on tenor sax, Benny Turner on bass and the incomparable “Eugene” on keyboards.
As Bryan and the Jump Street Five jam in an increasingly tight set, it’s hard to imagine Bryan belonging to, or hailing from, anywhere but here—in this particular bar, on this particular street, in this particular town. His vibes are those of New Orleans—an effortless, laid-back style that seduces you into physical and mental reaction. Although Bryan has five albums and two discs to his credit, there is no escaping the fact that blues is a “live” experience, better communicated through the facial and bodily expressions of the creators.
Watching Bryan “squeeze his baby,” then listening to her sing the whole range of feeling from her five strings, allows one to appreciate that going beyond simply “feeling” the blues to being able to express them exquisitely is one huge canyon that only special human beings can leap.
Bryan has been in New Orleans for a while now, as his familiarity with the walk to the stage suggests. He’s negotiated obstacles all his life and succeeded admirably. He even looks forward to opening his own club, The Bryan Lee and the Jump Street Five Band Blues Bar, which will spotlight local Blues artists. When I asked the names of some up-and-coming artists he might showcase, the thoughts come hard. There are very few emergent talents on the horizon these days, it seems. A moment of sadness passes silently between all present.
His final hurdle, even after all he has been through, might be the same prejudice with which he began. If you can’t see, you can’t be in the gang. If you aren’t black, you aren’t really from New Orleans. What’s the difference? More a subconscious belief than an active barrier, it still marks the flaws within a form of music that supposedly brings humanity together.
Bringing his set to a close at 2:30 a.m., Bryan sends the crowd home on a note of optimism. In blues he has found vision. In the guitar he has found a friend.