Guitarist Chris Cortissoz (left) sits in with Cecil Yancey (right) and other members of the Smith Brothers, hosts for a regular Wednesday night jam session at the Iron Armadillo. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Local blues scene confronts its own crossroads

Last September, the United States Congress passed a resolution declaring 2003 to be the Year of the Blues. Apparently, someone forgot to tell San Antonio.

The city's blues community has not only endured the closings of bellwether hangouts like Wings and The Big Easy, but the San Antonio Blues Society recently pulled the plug on a planned third annual Robert Johnson Festival, commemorating the Delta blues legend's historic 1936 recording sessions in downtown San Antonio.

"We've been trying to get some funding sources, and funds are very tight, so we weren't able to get it going this year," says John Cockrell, director of the Blues Society's education program. "We've had a hard time getting grassroots support in the city for it."

In 2001, the Blues Society installed a marker outside the Gunter Hotel, where Johnson is widely believed to have recorded (although some experts place the recordings at the Bluebonnet). At the same time, they launched the Johnson festival as a way of furthering the city's appreciation of Johnson's SA connection. Despite a modicum of corporate help from the likes of H-E-B, festival organizers found themselves battling to round up the $10,000 needed to make the festival viable. Cockrell says one of the Blues Society's members had to float the organization on a credit card to cover most of last year's expenses. This year, nothing could save the festival.

"My frustration is that a town of this size isn't more supportive," Cockrell says. "I shouldn't be surprised. We have trouble supporting a symphony."

"If you think about blues and you go way back, it's real raw and earthy sounding. It's not supposed to be polished."
— Cecil Yancey
Cockrell adds: "This city should be able to fund some kind of a blues festival. They do it in every other major city. The Cincinnati model is real interesting because they get $50,000 from their city council."

For all the blues scene's recent setbacks, an unlikely source of optimism has emerged. The Iron Armadillo, a Broadway biker haven besotted with heavy metal, has filled the void created by the closing of Wings, with a weekly Wednesday night blues jam patterned after the Wings model.

The driving force behind the Iron Armadillo blues jam is the same man who helped Wings get their weekly jams off the ground: Cecil Yancey, bass player for the Smith Brothers.

Yancey, a 50-year-old African American, paid little attention to the blues as a San Antonio teenager, gravitating toward the psychedelic rock then dominating FM radio. It took the influence of a friend to help him notice what was right under his own nose.

Finnish Guitar ace Jartse Tuominen joins the Smith Brothers at their regular Wednesday night jam session at the Iron Armadillo. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Joe Estes, who would go on to become one of SA's most beloved guitarists, was then a blues-worshiping adolescent. "Joe would come down to my house, dig through my dad's record collection, pull out all these blues records, and we'd learn them," Yancey recalls. "That's actually how I got started. This guy was like, 'Your dad's listening to the right stuff.'"

In 1967, Estes and Yancey formed the Ruby Falls Blues Band, a group that eventually morphed into the Smith Brothers. By that point, Yancey had settled in California, where he lent his bass expertise to various disco and jazz-fusion groups.

In 1989, Yancey returned to San Antonio and established a computer-consulting business. He had settled into life as a responsible family man, and assumed that his gigging days were over. But his old friend Estes convinced him to pull his bass out of the closet. They played together, off-and-on, until Estes succumbed to cancer at the age of 48, on October 5, 2000.

Yancey established the popular jam sessions at Wings, largely because he had purchased an electric, upright bass and was itching to get some use out of it. After Wings closed, Yancey's promotional partner, Patrick Word, suggested that he look into the Iron Armadillo.

"I asked the owner about booking the Smith Brothers on the weekends," Yancey says. "They told me they were doing a little bit better with the heavy-metal, hard-rock kind of thing, but they were thinking about doing a jam session. They asked if I would be interested."

Iron Armadillo
2411 Broadway
Three months ago, Yancey debuted the Iron Armadillo's Wednesday jams, anchored by the surviving Smith Brothers. In September, he brought W.C. Clark, Austin's godfather of the blues, to the club for a wildly successful show. He says that although local blues players face limited gig options, the city's pool of performing talent remains formidable.

As Cockrell points out, San Antonio maintains a contradictory relationship with the blues, with plenty of enthusiasts who will "pay $50 a ticket to see B.B. King when he comes to town, but don't come out as much for local things." It's a problem that Yancey is working to rectify, and he takes heart from the fact that his brother Clark, usually a reticent clubgoer, has attended every one of the Iron Armadillo's jams.

"I'm trying not to make it the kind of jam session where you have to be a seasoned player to play," Yancey says. "If you haven't played in a long time, and you want to play, it's open to everyone. Really, if you think about blues and you go way back, it's real raw and earthy sounding. It's not supposed to be polished." •

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