A Young Player Keeping the Blues Flame Burning Bright

Long ago, when Music Maker was just getting off the ground, Guitar Gabriel told us that the blues was a spirit. It could never die.

We remember Gabe’s lesson every time we hear the music of Jontavious Willis. Jontavious was born 71 years after Gabe came to Earth, but in him, we find reassurance that the spirit of the blues, one that goes back more than 150 years into American history, is in no danger of fading away.

Jontavious grew up in the church in Greenville, Georgia, watching a man named Robert Parks bring down the spirit of the Lord through his guitar every Sunday, and the instrument always entranced Jontavious. He began to teach himself on Christmas Eve of 2010 when he got a guitar as a gift. For the first five years of his playing, he had no teachers.

“I would say I was pretty much self-taught from 2010 on up to 2015,” Jontavious told us in a recent conversation. “Everything I had learned to that point was just what I had taught myself.” He watched tutorials on YouTube, he said, but “I couldn’t ever understand what they were talking about, but I just knew. I just went out into it, just going into it, just diving right in. Didn’t know any of the technicalities and stuff. I just taught myself.”

“Yeah, they’re here. It’s a lot more of them than there’s ever been. I know a lot of them.” Jontavious Willis on young Black blues players

In search of more knowledge of the blues, Jontavious and his family visited Music Maker in 2015. At that time, he was only 19 years old.

Whenever a young person shows up at Music Maker with an interest in what we do, we always roll out the red carpet. But when Jontavious sat down to play for us, we were blown away. We sent Jontavious home with a box full of books and CDs. But more importantly, we sent two of our staffers to take Jontavious to visit two of our partner artists, the late Boo Hanks and the now-retired John Dee Holeman.

It was Jontavious’ first chance to sit at the feet of his predecessors and learn.

“Now, every set that I have, I play a song I got from Mr. John Dee, then I play a song I interpret from Mr. Boo Hanks,” Jontavious says. “They have influenced me more than they would ever know.”

Jontavious has assembled a group of young blues players, and he spreads their work far and wide via social media, sending the message that there are still many young Black players who want to become part of the blues tradition.

Jontavious Willis was born on May 9, 1996.


Top photo by Aaron Greenhood.

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