By Leslie D. Rose
In 1920’s Harlem, jazz and blues musicians gave way to the concept of rent parties as a means of earning the additional funds needed to, well, pay rent. Somewhere in this decade, Chris Brooks, chairperson for the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation’s annual Baton Rouge Blues Festival, stumbled upon the idea as a fundraiser.
The tradition of rent parties include a venue – usually someone’s home, musicians, party-goers, live music and pass-the-hat style donations or an admission fee. At the end of the evening the benefiting musician would typically have earned enough money to supplement artist wages and pay bills.
“We always wanted to have a pre-festival party, but calling it that sounded lame, so I wanted to figure out how we could tie in the blues with it and make it authentic,” Brooks said. “I did some research and I found rent party and thought – that’s perfect!”
Yielding thousands of patrons, the Baton Rouge Blues Festival takes place in downtown Baton Rouge and costs a lot of money to produce – rent money, if you will. Expenses include sound equipment, space rentals and paying every musician who touches the stage.
The inaugural rent party in support of the Festival took place in 2013 at a former metal workshop. It featured Blind Boy Paxton and an impromptu performance from Paxton and fellow Festival performer Lavelle White. The party was capped at 100 attendees and raised about $4000, which according to Brooks, covers roughly less than five percent of the Festival costs.
This year’s rent party seeks the same results as the previous year. It will feature Lafayette-based musician Brother Dege & The Brethren. Dege plays traditional swamp blues with his signature instrument, the slide guitar. He’s been credited with reinventing the Delta blues. His song “Too Old to Die Young” was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained and he’s been a tribute to Louisiana’s live music scene since the mid 1990’s.
Featuring Brother Dege & The Brethren
Prince Hall Masonic Temple
1339 North Blvd.
7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
$40 per person, $70 per couple
Steeped in even more history of Baton Rouge’s original music, the 2014 rent party is being held at the historical Prince Hall Masonic Temple. The venue has been home to many performances in its 90-year existence and musicians Brother Dege & The Brethen will join the ranks of past Temple performers Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, who is noted as one of the founders of rent parties during the Harlem Renaissance.
Aside from the Hall being a historical landmark to American music in general, its location is what attracted Baton Rouge blues legend Tabby Thomas to open up Tabby’s Blues Box across the street from it in 1979. This year’s festival will also honor Thomas through its commemorative poster by local artists in the area who were asked to come up with tribute artwork centered on the late blues pioneer. Brooks said one of the biggest roles of the Festival is to honor blues history and encourage a younger market to appreciate the music.
“It’s our job to preserve [the blues] and we program the festival accordingly to where, not only does it celebrate the traditional swamp blues through artists like Kenny Neal and Henry Gray, but we also programmed it to appeal to a younger demographic to get them out there to appreciate it,” Brooks said. “In 2012 the largest [age] demographic was 35-54, last year it was 18-34, so it’s a cross-mesh of people now and that is by design.”
The 2014 Baton Rouge Blues Festival will be held on April 12 from 11:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. in downtown Baton Rouge. The inaugural Festival was held in 1981 and is one of the oldest free blues festivals in America.
The Baton Rouge Blue Foundation was Founded in 2002 as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Its overall premise is to promote, preserve and celebrate the Baton Rouge blues culture and bring the best of Louisiana swamp blues music to the world. With ample historic preservation of blues music out of other Louisiana cities, the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation works to fill the specific need for such preservation of Baton Rouge’s indigenous variety of swamp blues. The Foundation sponsors a blues education program, the Blues Music History Project, the annual Blue Carpet Blues Gala, and of course, the annual Baton Rouge Blues Festival.
Brooks said future plans of the Foundation include an educational outreach program through area schools, the development of plaques to go on historical blues sites, renaming streets and parks to honor legendary Baton Rouge area blues musicians and work with the city to develop, cultivate and celebrate this area’s original music.