By RACHIDA HARPER The Palm Beach Post
Delray Beach, Fla. (AP) – Briana Uoysse is used to auditioning.
A classically trained violinist, the 13-year-old successfully tried out for the Bak Middle School of the Arts in 2017 and is preparing to do the same to win a spot at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts for high school.
But all that didn’t prepare her for the power of the blues.
“I’ve learned that even though you go to school for music, you might not know everything about music,” Uoysse, an eighth-grader, said last week. “I learned so much that I didn’t know before.” Uoysse spent her holiday break with some 20 other students ages 7 to 18, immersing themselves in the blues at Delray Beach’s Arts Garage.
“It’s always good to introduce (students) to new stuff,” Georgette Johnson, Uoysse’s mom, said. “There’s different forms of music. There’s classical music, there’s jazz … This is a different type of music which represents our culture.” Students come from across the county, some with years of music lessons behind them, others who think they’d like to give music a try. They’re here to learn the blues – in a week.
Chicago Blues Hall of Fame inductee Fernando Jones established the Blues Kids of America Foundation on the South Side of Chicago in 1989. The program aims to preserve the art, performance and culture of the blues among youth in America.
Blues Camp followed 21 years later.
Jones has introduced students to the blues at camps in Illinois, Georgia, England, and most recently, Florida.
From Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, kids rehearsed tunes such as “Chicago (Has Got Everything You Need),” in preparation for a performance at a local venue that night.
Jones would assemble the students on the Arts Garage stage and take them through a song, and then they would do it all, from singing to manning the drums, piano, guitar and violin. Every day from 9 a.m. to noon., they added vibrancy to the usually tranquil venue.
Jones does not promise kids will become highly trained musicians in a matter of several days, but hopes they leave with a better sense of self.
“They’re learning to be proud people of color or African Americans,” Jones said, although the program is not restricted to African Americans. “They’re learning about themselves.” To join Blues Camp, students must be nominated by a parent or mentor. Because the program is free, students are required to submit only an audition video — playing or singing along to a song listed on the website.
Blues Camp came to South Florida through the help of KOP Mentoring Network of Delray Beach. The program seeks people like Jones to help kids become successful.
Founder C. Ron Allen wants to see youngsters thrive despite challenges including poverty, even homelessness.
Jones and Allen share a common goal: keeping kids out of trouble.
“Schools don’t do this. That’s why mentoring programs are so important,” Allen said. “We can reach these kids where they are and we can say `Hey, just go ahead and try. We are here to save you. We are here to help you. You are not alone.”’ Thanks to help provided by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Annetta Jenkins of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Agency and local churches, Allen says the program is a success.
Several students in the program are in need of positive learning experiences.
“How many kids right now, during this break, are home, getting in trouble, or doing something not as positive as this?” Allen said. “They’re here with us this week, and this is something they’re going to take away from here that’s going to serve them for a lifetime.”
Jones has memories growing up in Chicago that have shaped him into the musician he is today.
He recalls learning how to play the blues from his older brothers at 4 years old and receiving his first guitar from his uncle.
“From my experience in Chicago, little black boys get into trouble, not because they were born to get into trouble, but because they ain’t got nothing else to do,” Jones said.
Besides teaching students about the significance of the blues, Jones started Blues Camp because he wanted to provide kids with an incentive to stay out of trouble, like he had growing up.
Allen, a former crime reporter for the Sun-Sentinel, became tired of seeing youths wind up in the criminal justice system for foolish reasons.
For the past 28 years, Allen has used KOP Mentoring Network to provide youth in South Florida with the sources they need to make positive life choices.
A mutual friend introduced Jones and Allen. After a 15-minute phone call in May and a visit to Chicago this past July, Allen knew Blues Camp would be a great addition to KOPMN.
“In two days, I saw the transformation in these kids’ lives,” Allen said. “I said, `I want this in my city.”’ His first day at the camp, Allen noticed a young girl wearing a baseball cap. For two days, she sang with her head down. On the third day, she was no longer wearing the hat. By the last day of camp, she belted out songs with confidence to an audience.
Even though Blues Camp came to an end Saturday, the opportunity for students to grow continues. Jones and Allen have plans to take them to Blues Camp in Chicago this summer, and Jones wants to make the camp an annual holiday break event at Arts Garage.
“They’ve gotten the chance to get outside of the neighborhood, so now they can inspire another kid to dream, which has nothing to do with music at all,” Jones said. “It’s just a kid being able to dream and have an opportunity.”