Softly spoken with a distinctly southern lilt, Blues guitarist Jeff Chaz admits he has, “Done a lot of stuff,” over a long and sometimes turbulent career. Like all true blues musicians he knows that hardship and suffering is the lifeblood of the genre and makes you a better player – as long as you manage to stay strong. Grabbing a word or two with Jeff Chaz isn’t hard. He is courteous and likes to talk – words come easily to him, just like playing the blues does. Now in his mid 60’s, Jeff is often referred to as the Bourbon Street Bluesman, although most nights he can be heard playing in another part of town, on Frenchmen Street where, as he says, “Most of the real New Orleans blues and jazz music can be found.” Kreol caught up with Jeff to speak about his latest album, ‘Sounds Like the Blues To Me’, and his life as a hard-working blues man. How did he get started, we wanted to know, and how does he go about composing new songs?
“I actually started playing another instrument, the trombone, when I was about 11 years old, mainly because my dad was a big band fan and listened to Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and all those guys.
Later, when I was in a band and touring (in Canada) our guitarist quit one night and I was volunteered to take his place. I was about 17 at the time and I’ve been playing the guitar ever since.”
Jeff has always written his own material but as for composing and recording, he says that he prefers not to think about it too much.
“I don’t even practise my music before I go into the studio. I get nervous if I have to think about it so I learn the music in the studio – that way, I get it fresh!”
He works out that he’s been in the music industry for some 48 years, a long career by any standards.
So what have been some of the main challenges he’s had to deal with?
“There have been a few over the years, but the time that comes readily to mind is in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A lot of club owners in New Orleans went out of business or changed and the atmosphere suffered”, as his face clearly extracted the harsh memories. So did Jeff’s mental health
and suffering from depression, he was committed by his wife, who then divorced him and by the time
he came out of hospital three weeks later, he found himself homeless. He moved to California to live
with family, “played guitar a little bit”, and worked briefly in the kitchen of a senior centre until one day his sister told him the only place he fitted in was in New Orleans, so back he came.
Getting stronger again
“I ended up staying in a Salvation Army (hostel) for a while and then I started ministering through music, playing gospel music and singing in churches. I felt my strength coming back, my voice got stronger and my playing too. I started to feel better and then one day I got a call from an old friend from Memphis,” reminisces Jeff. The friend, Johnny Phillips, nephew of the famous Sam Phillips who founded Sun Records, suggested that Jeff put together 10 of his favourite original songs and they’d record a CD. The result (in 2013) was, ‘Chronicles’, a mixture of funk, jazz, R&B, soul and, of course, blues.
“The record – I still call them that – did real good and I recorded some more tracks to produce my
latest collection, Sounds Like the Blues To Me, which came out this year (2016) and that’s being doing
really good as well,” says Jeff. Was it that single phone call that got him back on his feet again?
“I always had the inspiration, and I found that God carried me through all the rough times and in the end it just made me have to work harder.”
Memories of England
Although Jeff has toured extensively in the US and Canada, he has only made it across the pond to the
UK once, back in the late 80’s, when he toured with a rockabilly piano player by the name of Jason D
Williams. The highlight of the trip, says Jeff, “was playing a private gig for a wealthy woman, Lady
something or other… whose guests included actress Joan Collins and Stevie Winwood”. That wasn’t the
only experience that left a lasting impression, however, he recalls, “All I know is that I wouldn’t eat breakfast in England again. They don’t have grits, no shrimp or crawfish – nothin’ that I like!”
Finding a copy of Jeff’s latest CD in England may not be easy (it is available to download from iTunes) although he clearly remembers sending off a batch to radio stations in the UK, thanks to the amount he had to pay for postage! But so keen is he for us to hear his latest work, he offers to walk to his home, some 20 minutes away, and fetch us a copy. Speaking to Jeff, it’s hard not to be impressed by his enthusiasm and the love that he has for the blues and the music business in general, despite all
the ups and downs.
Asked if he could have one wish at this stage in his career, it comes as no surprise that it’s music related.
“I’ve always had to nickel and dime it when it comes to recording, – I’m used to doing things on a low budget – so I’d wish for a real good recording budget. I’d really like to record at Ardent Studios in Memphis.”
Jeff still has plenty of musical ambitions, including writing music for the movies and producing, “A wider variety of blues-oriented music, as well as out and out jazz, crossover blues/rock, old style 60’s love ballads, reggae, and BB King style music – something really slamming!”
Another ambition is to produce a gospel/ Christian album with some of his fellow musicians
or, as he calls them, “Some of the bad cats, I got.” He’s convinced there’s a market for, “The type of
gospel album I’m talking about, with harder hitting soul music that even a regular, non-church going
person would go out and buy.”
Although he cites many musical influences, there’s something uniquely original about Jeff Chaz.
He’s never been afraid to put it out there either. In answering our question about the best moments of his career, Jeff recalls an incident when he was only 16 and still playing the horn rather then a guitar,
“It was in San Bernardino, California and I was playing horn parts in a band called Dynamic Plus One. At one point, I was encouraged to play a solo and although I was nervous about doing it, I did and actually nailed it – it was right there and then that I thought to myself, this is something I can do.”
All these years later, albeit with a different instrument, making music is still something Jeff can do – very much so – and is likely to go on doing for some time to come.