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TRUE BLUE from Ellis Kell
May 1998

True Blues and All that Jazz (Express)…

Jazz Express is our featured blues ensemble for this installment. Eddie Hodge, Ray Freeman and the rest of the gang are one of the Quad Cities’ anchor blues & jazz groups, and have been since 1990. Though best known for their real deal blues stylings, Jazz Express has always prided itself on dishing up a blue stew that includes a variety of musical flavors and genres. From down-home blues and jazz to top-40 and funky R&B, Jazz Express has always given the audience what it wants to hear. This rule of thumb, according to leaders Eddie and Ray, is what Jazz Express has always been about - not what the musicians think they want to play, but rather what the people (who pay the cover) want to hear. Jazz Express is rounded out with top Quad City players Larry Huntley on bass guitar, Tony Carton on drums and also features the powerful vocal presence and showmanship of front-man George Rankin. John Lacefield is also featured on bass guitar from time to time. Former members of Jazz Express include Jerry and Donna Wilkerson (New Complexion Band), Dewey Lacefield, Bo Butler, Roger Alexander, Joel Dick (The Kabalas), Al Walker, George Handy, Dale Standard, Jimmy Adams and Joe Collins (Three Plus One).

Eddie Hodge has piloted Jazz Express for the last nine years, along with his ‘musical navigator’ Ray Freeman on guitar. Eddie Hodge hails from Mounds in Southern Illinois, originally began his musical endeavors on the trumpet, and also played saxophone in the school swing band. Eddie credits his former music teacher Stanley Thomas, from Douglas High School, for getting him started on the piano ‘by accident’. Actually, Thomas only had to ask the young man to hit one single tuning note on the keyboard one day, and the musical magic began for Eddie Hodge. He has never stopped playing piano since, and continues to develop and refine his craft and repertoire for the people who support his music. Among his contemporaries and fellow musicians in Southern Illinois, Eddie shared the same practice piano at the end of the hall with blues piano legends Eddie Snow and Pinetop Perkins. Sax players Bennie Moore and Cal Carlson were notable inspirations, according to Hodge, as was pianist Johnny Gibbons. "He (Gibbons) was one of the best local pianists I was ever around." Eddie was recognized by the former OIL Music Magazine as the area’s top keyboard musician in 1994, the same year that Jazz Express also took OIL’s award for top blues band and guitarist Ray Freeman nabbed OIL’s top guitarist award.

Ray Freeman’s guitar stylings have long garnered him praise from fellow musicians across the board, and across the country. Originally from Indianapolis, Ray’s credits include his famed tenure as guitarist for Junior Walker & the All Stars, Bill Doggett, Tangee & Tommie and others. Ray’s musical travels have taken him from the famed Apollo Theater and Madison Square Garden, to the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and on to the London Paladium. He has appeared on several national television shows including Soul Train, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and the James Brown Show. Among his many influences Ray includes original delta bluesman Pee Wee Crayton, John Blanchard (a pro player who taught him the basics), and the legendary Wes Montgomery. It was Montgomery who took the young guitarist aside at the ‘30th Street Club’ in Indianapolis and told him, "stop clownin’ around with it, and you got good potential." Young Ray took the words from the jazz guitar master to heart. This year Ray received a nomination for the 1998 Jazz Master Award through Arts Midwest, an arts organization serving the Illinois-Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota area. Ray has also performed in the Quad Cities area with Skip Brink, The Swirls, Jim Wright, Warren Parrish, Mixology Plus, Harmonica Slim and Nite Life. Ray’s jazz guitar work was also featured in two Duea Film Productions movies shot on location here in the Quad Cities, including "Bix Lives" and "An American Love" with Brooke Shields.

Eddie Hodge and Ray Freeman first came together as members of Quad City drummer Moe Payton’s well-known band, ‘The Dukes and Duchesses of Rhythm.’ Eddie & Ray reunited in 1990 to form the ‘house band’ for Private Eyes nightclub in Rock Island, and Jazz Express was born. Their Sunday night gigs were, until the club closed for a short time, a highpoint of the Quad Cities blues and jazz scene. Fortunately Jazz Express did not choose to close up shop, rather took up Sunday night residence at the Rock Island Elks Club. Their Sunday night sessions, which run 5-9 p.m., have grown into a local blues and jazz tradition. These sets have become a very popular drawing card with guest jazz and blues players and fans alike. The Elks Club is located at 421 - 7th Avenue in Rock Island, and Sunday night’s fare also features a great menu (as Eddie Hodge will testify), including catfish dinners.

Plans for a Jazz Express CD project have been tossed around for the past few years. Enthusiasm for the recording project was raised when a Los Angeles disc jockey once called Eddie Hodge to tell him that the station was playing a selection from an Iowa compilation CD the group had contributed to. It’s our ‘true blue hope’ that the band will find the time, resources and support the need to make their dream of recording a CD a reality in the near future. A Jazz Express CD would undoubtedly come as a well-deserved, well-warranted and more permanent historical record of a musical group with ‘true blue’ lasting appeal. It’s that very basic element that best characterizes Jazz Express or, as Eddie Hodge describes it, "we’ve always been lucky to have groups with staying power." That ‘staying power’ is no doubt attributed in part to the musical environment which both Eddie and Ray shared with their blues and jazz mentors and their contemporaries. "The older musicians would take time with you…to teach you, if you really wanted to learn," according to Ray. "Today they don’t talk about music and stay together like they used to. It’s not a brotherhood anymore… like back then in the after-hours clubs…with jams late into the night."

Jazz Express will provide backing for featured blues artist Sam Franklin, former saxman with the late Albert Collins’ band, at this year’s Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport’s LeClaire Park. Mr. Franklin and Jazz Express take the Bandshell stage at 2:30 on Saturday, July 4th. Jazz Express will also be the featured bluesfest weekend act at the President Riverboat Casino’s guest services center on Friday & Saturday, July 3rd and 4th, from 8:00 p.m. - Midnight. Eddie & Ray will also be performing their duo act in atrium lounge at the Radisson Quad City Plaza Hotel on May 2nd and June 6th, from 6:00-9:00 p.m.

True Blue Cyberspace…

This first of this month (May) is slated for the debut of the Delta Snake Blues News expanded web page venture. Delta Snake Blues News, already an established on-line blues publication, will produce the first true blue daily web news dedicated to the world wide blues community. The new web page will feature a daily headline section, interviews, CD reviews, columnists from around the world, and weekly features on everything from record label news, playing the blues, and where to find the best soul food. Delta Snake Blues News is piloted by editor and publisher Al Handa, who has gathered over 50 Internet writers from all over the world to contribute to the effort. Notables from the blues community who have agreed to act as the advisory board for the new pages include Tom Mazzolini of the San Francisco Blues Festival, Mark Naftalin of Winner Records and former member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Blues Access editor and publisher Cary Wolfson, producer and recording artist Ron Levy, along with blues recording artists Son Seals, Jimmy Thackery, and several other prominent blues industry figures. ‘True Blue’ is proud to have been invited to contribute monthly to the editorial mix of blues and related news that will be featured on the new site. The regular monthly issue of Delta Blues Snake can be found now on the web at: True Blue New Releases…

Here’s just a few ‘bite-size’ samples of what’s really cookin’ out there:
  1. "Funk Is in the House," Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington & The Roadmasters (Bullseye) It don’t get no funkier than this, children! Fat horns and blistering arrangements burn down the house on this collection. Not for the faint of heart, or soul. True Blue Track: "The Big Easy"…you can almost smell the French Quarter!

  2. "Take Your Best Shot," Smokin’ Joe Kubek featuring B’Nois King (Bullseye) Smokin’ Joe & Co. cut to the bone with their brand of hot blues rockin’, and his guitar slices through the night like a straight razor with glass-packs! B’Nois King’s soulful, powerhouse vocals are the blasting cap on the charge. True Blue Track: "So Blind"…’scuse me, but this ol’ swing blues is on fire! Special Note: Smokin’ Joe Kubek and his band will deliver their molten brand of hot rockin’ blues at 4:00 p.m., Sat. July 4th, on the Bandshell Stage at this year’s Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.

  3. "Fundamental," Bonnie Raitt (Capitol Records) The undisputed Queen of the True Blue Slide Guitar is back with a new twist on a signature style that always comes straight from the heart and soul of the matter. This return to "The Fundamental Things," as the lead cut implies, offers a very intimate and raw approach for Ms. Raitt. Her slide work, especially on the National Resophonic, is pure and up front - just where it belongs. The studio sweetening is set on lean for this collection, and the harvest yields a very pure and spontaneous return to the very roots of the artist’s inspiration. True Blue Track: "Meet Me Half Way"…this one could bring a dead man back to life!

  4. "Hard Luck John," John Lee Granderson (Testament Records) This one just tears at the heart of it all, knowing that those folks at the U of I in Chicago are bound and determined to roll on over what’s left of ol’ Maxwell Street in the name of ‘acquisition and progress’… John Lee Granderson is one of famed Maxwell Street’s legendary performers - one who graced the south side Chicago street along with Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Big John Wrencher and the other creators of the original Chicago blues. This reissue of original recordings made 1962-66 serves as epitaph for a vital chapter in the history of the blues and now, unfortunately, for the very street where those blues were nurtured and crafted. True Blue Track: "Achin’ Pain Blues"…bricks crack like old bones, beneath the weight of that wreckin’ ball.

Further on Up the Road…

Hat’s off to ‘Blu Lew’ and the gang at Vibration Nation for contributing their time and talents to the Mississippi Valley Blues Society’s shiny new presence on the web. Visit the MVBS site on the web at for all the pertinent details on the 14th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, which will be coming around the bend on July 2, 3 & 4 in Davenport’s LeClaire Park.

Soul-food for thought…

"African Americans invented the blues, but whites embrace it now. Who does the music belong to? That’s dead horse. Certainly no single race, tribe or nation holds a monopoly on feeling low or melancholy. This expressive music is an equal opportunity phenomenon."
Peter Blecha, Curator
Experience Music Project

That’s all there is this month, and there aint no mo! Until we meet again at this crossroads…
Blues to ‘ya!

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