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The Monday blues

The Monday night jam at the Green Iguana is unparalleled in the area for its high-quality musicianship.

By MARTY CLEAR
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 27, 2002


[Times photos: John Pendygraft]
Shawn Brown, a singer and keyboardist who is a frequent guest at the Green Iguana's Blues Jam, loses himself in the music. "I think he is beyond a doubt the finest talent in the South," Sarasota Slim, another regular, says of Brown.
SOUTH WESTSHORE -- It's a Monday, and most bars, clubs and restaurants are enduring their slowest night of the week. But over on West Shore Boulevard, shoulders bump shoulders at the Green Iguana.

Over in a cramped corner, on what passes for a stage, some of the area's finest musicians improvise raucous but eloquent blues. Scattered throughout the audience, others sit with guitars and saxophones, waiting for their turn to join in.

For more than 13 years, the Green Iguana's Blues Jam has been a Monday night tradition.

"I lived in New York for 10 years, and I'm a music connoisseur," said Jennifer Holt, a Monday night regular since she discovered the jam in September. "We saw some great music in New York, and this is right up there with the best."

A handful of other bars around town host blues jams, but none has the prestige or mystique of the Monday night Iguana jam.

Meghan McLane, 23, sings Bring It On Home To Me as Craig Van Tilbury, 45, left, plays lead guitar. Meghan often shares the microphone on R&B classics with her mom, Michele Smith, who has been coming to the jam since 1990.
One reason, probably the main reason, is the consistently high quality of the musicianship. Though anyone can join in, natural selection keeps the best players on stage and the weaker ones off.

"This isn't an open mic night," said Dean Germain, the keyboardist who hosts the jam every week. "It isn't live karaoke. This is a jam. Sometimes people get up and play, but they realize pretty quickly they can't keep up with this caliber of musicians. I just tell them to go home and practice some blues and come back in a couple of weeks."

Sometimes, he's more blunt. He doesn't like to insult people or hurt their feelings, but the music matters most.

Along with bassist Benny Sudano, Germain has been the consistent presence at the blues jam since its inception in 1989, and these days he hosts it every week. Other stars of the local blues scene -- including guitarists Deacon Fuller and Sarasota Slim -- have also presided over the jam.

Buzz Place, 46, left, soaks in a sax solo by Richie Quarantello. Place later joined the jam with his harmonica. Musicians who are putting a band together often stop by the Green Iguana to spot new, developing talent.
Another well-known local musician ran the show for a few months last year, but organizers gave him walking papers. He didn't seem to understand the essence of Monday night at the Green Iguana.

"He treated it like a band gig," said Jimmy James, who books the talent for the Green Iguana. "He'd invite the same people up every week."

Often, James said, that left aspiring musicians sitting all night at the bar, waiting in vain for a chance to get up on stage.

"For the average Joe who comes in here with his guitar, for that guy who works all week in a law office, this is the one and only chance he'll ever have to play alongside someone like Sarasota Slim," James said. "You don't want to leave him sitting there."

These days, Germain puts together a different core band for each week's jam. He and Sudano -- affectionately known in these circles as BenJammin' -- are the constants. But they're joined by a different guitarist and drummer each week. On a recent Monday, Sarasota Slim and drummer "Buddy" Rich McFall rounded the band.

Musician Shawn Brown plays a few chords during a Monday night Blues Jam at the Green Iguana on Westshort Boulevard. For 13 years the Blues Jam has been a Monday night tradition, hosting some of the finest musicians in the area
By varying the core band each week, Germain exposes the crowd and musicians to a world of blues, from harp-driven Chicago blues to silky jazz-influenced ballads and raw R&B classics.

"Besides the quality of the musicianship, the thing that makes this jam special, is that it's all blues," Germain said. "You won't hear Foghat, you won't hear Butthole Surfers. You'll just hear the blues."

The band starts with a few songs at about 10 p.m., and then other musicians take the stage. Shawn Brown, a singer and keyboardist well-known in local jazz and blues circles, is a frequent guest.

"I think he is beyond a doubt the finest talent in the South," Sarasota Slim said as Brown belted out a heart-wrenching version of When a Man Loves a Woman. "He's my hero."

A battered tip jar sits on top of the organ during the Blue Jam at the Green Iguana.
By night's end, the packed house has grooved to maybe a half-dozen guitarists, a couple of saxophone players, a blues harp player and a steady stream of singers. Some weeks there's even an ad hoc horn section.

"You never know who's going to walk through that door," Germain said. "We've had James Peterson, Lucky Peterson, Buddy Guy's band. This is an internationally known blues jam. We go to Sweden and people know about it. We go to Italy and they know about it."

It's not unusual for touring blues bands to schedule some extra time in Florida so they can sit in on the Green Iguana jam on Monday.

"Real musicians, when they're in town, they come here," James said.

(Besides booking the talent for Green Iguana, James is a "real musician" himself. He plays bass for Tommy TuTone, who had a top-5 hit in 1981 with 867-5309/Jenny.)

Sax player Richie Quarantello takes a break from playing to cut a rug on the dance floor for a while. At the Iguana, you can hear Chicago blues, silky ballads and raw R&B classics.
The jam has become sort of a clearinghouse for blues players. Musicians who are putting a band together often stop by the Green Iguana on Monday night to try to spot new, developing talent.

Most of the audience is made up of people who come almost every week. Some, like Holt, are relative newcomers. Others have been coming almost since the beginning.

"I guess I started coming in 1990 after I moved back to Tampa," said Michele Smith. "I wasn't such a regular at the beginning because it depended on when I could get a babysitter."

Now, with her kids grown, Smith is a Monday night regular. She'll occasionally take to the stage to play keyboards or sing. Her daughter Meghan McLane -- one of the kids who used to require a babysitter -- is well-known at the blues jam.

Slide guitar is a common sound at the Blues Jam. But you can also hear harmonica, sax and drums.
McLane has developed into a popular, sultry singer at the jam, and her mom often shares the microphone on R&B classics like Sam Cooke's Bring It on Home to Me.

"There's a great atmosphere here," McLane said. "And it's a good excuse to come out and sing on a Monday night."

For Germain, it's a treat to be able to give the area's best blues musicians a chance to play together. But ultimately, he said, the real thrill of the Monday night jam is that it gives him a chance to spread the blues gospel.

"I get people who come in and say, 'We have never been into the blues that much,' and the next thing you know they're buying blues CDs and trying to learn more about the blues," he said. "That to me is the greatest reward of all this."

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