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Blues Show Outgrows Its Roots : Culture: What began as a back-yard barbecue with live music has blossomed into a festival featuring six bands in a 2,000-seat venue.

August 14, 1995|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It began as a simple back-yard barbecue with just a touch of the blues.

To celebrate their first wedding anniversary, Val and Lee Masters invited a few special guests to their house in southwest Los Angeles for some down-home cooking capped off with live music from a local blues band.

That first gathering five years ago among the neatly planted rosebushes and impatiens has blossomed into an annual event that eventually attracted more than 200 foot-stomping guests and had enthusiastic neighbors setting up chairs on their front lawns.

"Suddenly, we were on a mission to preserve the music and educate people to the rich heritage," said Lee Masters, 48.

By the third year, they were charging $10 for admission to a show that featured music by two bands along with a chicken dinner. A gravelly voiced acoustical guitarist from Compton took the stage and welcomed the crowd to the first "Los Angeles Blues Festival."

The name stuck, but Val Masters, 46, realized that the location had to go. "It was enough work for me to decide: 'not in my back yard anymore,' " she said.

So this year's festival will feature six bands in a 2,000-seat venue on Sept. 2 from noon to 6 p.m. as part of the African Marketplace & Cultural Faire, at 5001 Rodeo Road, just east of La Brea Avenue.

Through it all, the Masters have remained the only sponsors of the homespun festival--booking acts, mailing letters and club-hopping around town to hand out flyers. To borrow from an old tune, they nursed it, rehearsed it and let out the news about how one back-yard barbecue gave birth to the blues.

The Masters' idea to expand the back-yard jam to a festival took shape shortly after the 1992 riots with efforts to rebuild Los Angeles and emphasize positive sides of the city's culture.

After completing a post-riot class for urban entrepreneurs, Val Masters looked into taking out a business license. She said she found blues festivals in Orange County, Long Beach and other distant places, but found no official Los Angeles festival.

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She snapped up the name. Theirs would be an annual concert that looked at the city's future but touched on its past, she said.

When the Masters were growing up in Los Angeles, the neighborhoods near and around Central Avenue were reverberating with a massive influx of African Americans from the South, who brought with them their own distinctive musical sounds.

Exposure to the music came long before the realization of what the music was about. Lee Masters remembers being little, maybe 3 or 4 years old, sitting in a club in Dallas, watching his father play pool and listening to sounds that would haunt him much of his life. Val Masters, whose parents were jazz buffs, was older than her husband-to-be when she was tantalized by the music. She remembers being in the house of a friend when the soulful sounds of Bobby (Blue) Bland awakened her senses.

Since those days in the '40s to the '60s, the popularity of the music has exploded in communities outside the heart of Los Angeles where the music first took root. But the number of clubs began to dwindle in the inner city--a loss for a generation of enthusiasts who had reached the age when they could understand lyrics they had heard in their youth: "Blues can bring joy, and it can bring sorrow. It can be here today and gone tomorrow."

"It's a common thread that we all have in us--that we grew up with the music, heard it before," said Lee Masters. "It's like going down a road and remembering you have been there before."

Their mutual appreciation for the music prompted Val and Lee Masters to put on the concert. "You could say it's been a labor of love," Val Masters said with a smile.

It's also an expensive venture. He is a city employee and she is a home health care consultant. They estimate that the festival will cost about $20,000 to produce this year. Tickets are $10.

Dale Spalding, a harmonica player who performed at the first back-yard festival and was in one of five groups to perform at last year's concert on the grounds of a mansion in the West Adams area, said the event has become a tradition that the musicians look forward to.

"It's rare when you get a chance to play for a crowd like that," he said.

The small festival specializes in featuring local bands that have not cracked the big time.

Two previous blues acts, Kevin Moore and Ray Bailey, have gone on to make successful recordings.

Bailey, a nimble-fingered blues guitarist and singer who grew up in Watts, said interest in the music is being rekindled.

"We've seen clubs close down and the music scatter to the suburbs," he said. "But that is not happening now. There's been a resurgence of the music. You can't keep it down."

This year's lineup includes guitarists Eric Johnson, Dale Spalding, Jinx Lee and the Fabulous Blue Ravens, big band leader Jimmy McConnell, the Hugh Bell Blues band and Melvin Eddy and the Slo Hand Blues Band.

"We are banking on the fact that people want this and will come out and support it," Val Masters said. But without sponsors and a large bank account, they are using their credit card to foot the bills.

"Actually, we are hoping to just break even, to pay for expenses," said Val Masters. "Otherwise, believe me, this just might give us the blues."

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