Chicago Joe Jones Turns Atlanta Kids Into Rock, Blues Stars

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Many Atlanta youths are going back to school next week, but summer was not necessarily a time for relaxation. Instead, it was a time to transform simple C-chords on the guitar to full-on, Jimi Hendrix-like solos.

Chicago Joe’s Rock ‘N Blues camp has helped many Atlanta middle and high school students on the path to rock glory. Now in its 11th year, the camp had five, one-week sessions this summer. Kids had to form a band, learn four songs and perform twice in those five days.

“This week is music week,” said camper Ben Wulkan. “You wake up, you go to camp, you go home, practice, practice, eat dinner, practice, go to bed. It’s hard, but it’s fun.”

Wulkan has been going to the camp for four years since he was nine.

Chicago Joe Jones is the leader of an entourage of blues and rock instructors at the camp.

Born in Chicago, the singer and guitarist took the Windy City’s name to stand out from all the other Joe Jones in the blues world. There was already a Philly Joe Jones and Papa Joe Jones.

He has been in Atlanta since 1986. During the school year, he teaches kids how to play the guitar and sing. He also hosts weekly jam sessions, where you have 8-year-olds rocking out with professional musicians. The Rock ‘N Blues camp is just one part of the Chicago Joe educational experience.

For the past few years, the camp has been held at Midtown Music. Guitars, basses, horns, keyboards, drums and voices croon from cramped studios, while instructors count off one-two-threes from a studio next door. There’s also a main stage — where the last big concert is held — which has a very low ceiling.

“We’ve kind of grown out of our space,” said Micki Gonzalez. She makes sure the camp runs smoothly.

The horn section was relegated to the women’s bathroom for their practice room, which they did not seem to mind. “It actually has really great acoustics for horn section,” said saxophonist Kevin Frazer.

After 11 years of this camp and even more years as a music educator, Chicago Joe has created a large network of musicians. Some of his students are now fully fledged professionals, making strides in the music world in Atlanta and beyond.

He’s had campers as young as eight come to the camp and to his weekly jams during the school year.

This year, there was a new group of students at the camp: a group of 11-year-olds, who are in their own band during the year.

Thomas Flemming, the keyboardist, founded the band. “I got the idea from when Cole, my drummer, did a killer drum solo at a Christmas band concert for my school,” he said.

Chicago Joe and the other instructors have their work cut out for them at the beginning of each camp session.

“Younger kids tend to rush the beat a lot,” he said. “It’s just, I don’t know, maybe because their hearts are beating faster than an adult’s.”

“They also want to come in loud and proud,” he continued, “We have to work on getting them to settle down, tell a story with a song and make the song ebb and flow.”

At the camp, Chicago Joe focuses on encouragement. No derision to new players is allowed. He said, “Basically, we tell them, he started where you are, so did she, so did he, all of us has been there.”

There’s also the issue of band names and song selection, which can become a heated debate amongst kids with different tastes. “It gets so intense with the song-picking. Some people cry,” said Wulkan.

Some of selected songs for that week of bands included “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult, “Renegade” by Styx, “Tell Mama,” by Etta James, and “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” by the Ramones.

Chicago Joe sets a couple rules for the song selection. After so many years of repeats, he doesn’t allow “Day Tripper” or “Purple Haze.”

By the end of the week, campers start to really feel the rock and roll life style. “One girl doesn’t use a pick and so her fingers are just getting really bloody,” said Gonzalez. “It’s really kind of a joke. She’s totally fun with it.”

Midtown Music was packed at that week’s final concert. Parents sat in plastic chairs while their kids rocked out on stage.  

A lot of Chicago Joe’s students got into blues and rock because of their parents. Guitar-playing, rock and rolling moms and dads introduced their kids to the yodels of Robert Plant and riffs of Jimi Hendrix at a young age.

And even though this camp teaches rock and the blues, Chicago Joe is a proponent of all types of music. “It’s been proven that kids who engage in music do better in school and in life, period,” he said. “And rock and roll and blues, there are people who used to call it the devil’s music, that notwithstanding, it’s music, and it’s something valuable to teach kids.”

The camp will move to a new location next year, but where Chicago Joe goes, a bunch of kids who can shred will always follow.