Alta Live: Past, Present, and Future of Oakland Blues

Oakland's Blues scene has influenced superstars and helped define the genre. Two local legends, Ishmael Reed and Ronnie Stewart, regale us with the city's Blues history—and future.

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Blues music has influenced superstars and spanned genres, but according to Oakland musicians, the city’s blues pioneers are all but ignored. In 2013, 40 Oakland blues musicians, legends among them, gathered in front of Esther’s Orbit Room for a group photo. Today, seven of the performers have passed away, the venue is closed, and the once lively scene is memorialized by a Walk of Fame. But Alta contributor Ishmael Reed, who wrote about the city’s blues scene for our Winter 2021 issue, insists it’s never too late for a repeat performance. Reed, an author, poet, and musician in his own right, joins Alta Live and blues great Ronnie Stewart for a conversation on the past, present, and future of Oakland blues.

About the guests:

Ishmael Reed is the author of several collections of poetry, including New and Collected Poems 1964–2007, which won the Gold Medal in poetry at the California Book Awards; New and Collected Poems;, Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963–1970, which was nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize;, and Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church.

Reed has also written numerous novels, including Juice!, Mumbo Jumbo (which was nominated for a National Book Award), and The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Also a playwright and essayist, he has published a collection of his theatrical works, The Plays, as well as several books of nonfiction, including The Complete Muhammed Ali.

Reed has founded and cofounded several small presses, journals, and organizations, including the Before Columbus Foundation, the Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, PEN Oakland, Quilt magazine, and Yardbird Publishing Company. He has edited a number of anthologies, including From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2002.

In 2012, he was named the first SFJazz poet laureate, and in 2008, he was honored as the Blues Songwriter of the Year by the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame. He has released numerous CDs of jazz and spoken word.

Reed received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. His numerous other honors and awards include the first International Alberto Dubito Award, an American Civil Liberties Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Award, and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Until his retirement in 2005, he taught creative writing at UC Berkeley for three decades. He lives in Oakland.

Ronnie Stewart is dedicated to keeping the blues alive as a musician, a preservationist, a historian, and the executive director of the West Coast Blues Society, a nationally recognized resource for both the public and local musicians. Stewart has been immersed in the blues since he was a young boy living on Center Street. He established the 7th Street Oakland Blues Walk of Fame, a tribute to the city’s music and musicians that runs along Seventh Street in front of the West Oakland BART Station.

Check out these links to some of the musicians, organizations, and albums Reed and Stewart touched on:

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