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Magic Blues

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The news arrived this morning that Calvin "Fuzz" Jones has died. Fuzz was Muddy Waters' bass player for nearly two decades in the 1970's and '80's. Before that he'd worked with other great blues musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Elmore James. He was a strong bass player and a beautiful singer whose voice and touch swung with lightness and poignancy. As far as I know, he was content to be a sideman. He only stepped forward on the stage when asked but in life he never hesitated to offer his smile and high-pitched laughter. No matter what life threw at him, he greeted it with graceful acceptance, then laughed. And it threw a lot.

Fuzz was born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1926 and he moved back to Mississippi a few years ago after a long time in Chicago. He was born in poverty but learned to play the violin and bass as a boy. He'd suffered a bout of lung cancer in the late '80's and it was a recurrence that has taken him from us. But illness wasn't the only burden he had to bear this year.

Last January, he was in danger of being evicted from his apartment when he couldn't come up with the rent. What saved him from eviction was a collection spear-headed by his former band mate, Bob Margolin, and taken up by blues lovers. So, he died in poverty too.

My first husband, Jerry Portnoy, was Muddy's harmonica player so, when I was in my twenties, I went on the road many times with the band. I was born in Canada and didn't see a black person until I was five years old. I never saw poverty either. The extremes of wealth and poverty don't exist in Canada like they do in the United States, "the richest country in the world."

People pay higher taxes there--universal health insurance and a decent welfare program are what they get in return. It evens things out as the rich pay more and the poor are given the means to meet basic human needs. When I met Muddy and his band members, I was surprised by the hardship in which some of them lived and bowled over by their generosity of spirit. Hardship didn't keep them from playing music. They knew what they were here to do--that's the artist's life.

Muddy always said the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. You can hear the blues in so much modern American pop music--everything from the beat, the instruments, the shouting and hollering, the stories of injustice, broken hearts, love and hope. The stories in the blues are mostly of love gone wrong and hardship. It shouted out the sorrow you could hardly voice and found a way to laugh too.

When I was a broken-hearted kid the blues cleansed me of whatever suffering I had and gave me courage. It must have done that for legions of others too. It changed all of us who listened and it changed the course of our racial history too.

Back in the 70's many, many white rock musicians based their music directly on the blues. Many of them came to sit in with Muddy and the band, to hang out and say how much the music meant to them. After the show, they headed to The Ritz while The Muddy Waters Band bunked down at The Motel Six. That's okay.

A bed's a bed and there were lots of laughs at The Motel Six. I only wish that one fine musician, a stalwart, sweet soldier of the road, hadn't had to worry about paying his health bills or rent. We can change that story. The magic of the blues is it makes us feel--action is up to us. Rest in peace, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones. Thank you for your selfless service. May heaven be ringing with your sweet laughter today.

Calvin "Fuzz" Jones died August 10, 2010.