MONROE - Monroe County has never really been a bastion of African-American culture. In fact, according to the most recent census, just 1.9 percent of the county's total population of 145,945 identified themselves as African-American.
But those numbers haven't stopped county residents from adopting one of the most popular pieces of African-American culture as their own each February as the Monroe County Library System gets ready to put on its 15th Annual Black History Monroe Blues Concert at 7 p.m. on Feb. 23.
What started out in 1988 as one man playing in the corner of the Navarre Branch Library to a small group of blues devotees has grown into a massive jam session that has drawn not only national headliner acts, but also thousands of local blues fans.
“The blues is so connected with so many other kinds of American musical styles that I don't think the concert would really have worked as well with any other genre,” explained Bill Reiser, the library system's circulation coordinator and part-time concert promoter.
Over the last 15 years, the concert has outgrown three different venues and has strained the 1,250 seat St. Mary's Center Auditorium the last five years that it's been there. Mr. Reiser said it's good music and quality musicians that continue to draw people to the shows. But, he added, “never underestimate the fact that it's a big free concert on a Saturday night.”
This year's concert is being billed as a “family reunion” show, and features some of the most popular acts from the last 15 years, including Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women, The Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong Trio featuring 93-year-old Howard Armstrong, and Robert B. Jones, who has played at 14 of the last 15 shows. Unlike some past shows, this year's concert will be entirely acoustic.
Mr. Jones, host of the popular Blues from the Lowlands radio program on WDET, 101.9 FM, Detroit Public Radio, said he is particularly proud of the role he has played in bringing blues to Monroe County. Mr. Jones was the first artist booked by the library just as he was starting out his own performing career.
“We started doing this in the corner of the Navarre Branch library 15 years ago, and right from the start, you saw African-Americans and whites come out to that library. It's been pretty well attended right from the beginning,” Mr. Jones said. “It's really wonderful to see it turn into the kind of event that draws national acts.”
Mr. Reiser said the challenge with this year's show wasn't who to invite, but trimming the list of acts that wanted to come back for a repeat performance.
“Putting together this family reunion concert was an easy and difficult task at the same time. We'd love to have everyone back that has already played, but if we had done that, we would have to have a three-day show, like our own Woodstock,” Mr. Reiser said.
The eclectic musical mix through the years has meant that the show has drawn different factions from the local area, and that's just what Mr. Reiser said he was shooting for.
“One of the themes of the series is that it's about inclusion, and we certainly try to reflect that in the mix of musicians that we bring in. I think the music is the only common denominator; there seems to be something for everyone,” Mr. Reiser said. “The crowd is as much of a diverse section of the community as you get in Monroe County. That's the night that I feel that I'm with my community more than any other night of the year. The music is so pure and simple that people can connect with it no matter what.”
The 15th Annual Black History Month Blues Concert is presented by the Monroe County Library System and made possible with the support of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Non-profit Enterprise at Work, and the 2002 Blues Coalition of community cosponsors: La-Z-Boy Foundation, Monroe County Community College, Detroit Edison Foundation, Monroe Evening News, Arthur Lesow Community Center, City of Monroe Parks & Recreation Department, Friends of the Monroe County Library System, the Black Swamp Blues Society, and the Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites of Monroe.
The annual Blues Concert's continuing popularity has come as a pleasant surprise to concert organizers, and to performers like Mr. Jones whose spent his career watching it grow.
“When we first did it the first couple years, nobody ever expected that there would be 15 of them, or that you could fill St. Mary's year after year. But there's always been an audience in Monroe that appreciated the blues,” Mr. Jones said.