Class Act

One of the finest educational opportunities in the Madison area is offered free of charge, is open to the public, and uses a bar for a classroom.
What began over 30 years ago in a little dive called O'Cayz Corral, has managed to wind itself through other institutions of higher learning such as the King Club, Anchor Inn, Liquid Lyrics Lounge and the Janesville V.F.W. Lessons are currently available on Thursday nights at Chris Kalmbachs Knuckledown Saloon where James Earl Tate teaches, preaches and carries out a life long mission to spread the blues. Tate's blues jams have provided many, many musicians a chance to join in, have fun, improve their skills, and share those skills with others. It seems simple enough, but it involves a lot of passion, dedication, and attention to not only the blues, but to each individual and instrument that's present.. It's all about the music. Blues music. James Earl Tate will be the master and you best be ready to learn.
On one recent Thursday evening the mission was honored by one of the many students who were given a chance, and, like so many others, continued to come out, join the band and pay their respects to Tate. Before he began to play a set with Tate's Band, Joe Nosek, of the Cash Box Kings, told the gathering that Tate was the first person to let him play on stage.
"Playing on stage", has always meant getting to play with Tate's back-up band. Atone time, it was The Million Dollar Blues Band, and, more recently, The 008 Blues Band. Current 008 members are keyboardist/vocalist Dennis Lynch, guitarist/vocalist Bob Geiger, drummer Nate Moronek, harmonica player Karyn "Cincinnati Red" Ringler, and bassist Ronny G. Tate will make sure to say each time "Pound for pound they're the best sound around. If I'm lying', I'm dying"'.' He's not lying.
Many of the regular musicians who have participated in the jam for over three decades are part of a rich tradition of blues music in Madison that has been characterized by hardworking, long suffering players and some landmark venues.
In the early sixties, UW fraternity parties regularly hired a band called the Ardells, who covered a lot of Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker songs, and featured UW students, Ben Sidran, Boz Skaggs. and Steve Miller. Every college campus and music club hosted the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band during it's original fourteen years together, but it was in October of 1968 when the blues really got a start in Madison. A former TV Sportscaster, then kid's show host "Marshall the Marshal", bought the building that was the beginning of The Nitty Gritty. Marsh Shapiro liked the idea of live music and brought it in seven days a week.
In 1969, The Nitty Gritty became known as the best Midwest blues spot outside of Chicago. A performance by Charlie Musselwhite was followed by blues greats Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Otis Spann, Bonnie Raitt, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Hound Dog Taylor, Litttle Walter, Tracy Nelson, and many more. After a 1970 concert at the UW Fieldhouse, The Jefferson Airplane visited the Gritty and jammed with The Luther Allison Blues Band. The doors were locked to control the crowd, as word of the wild session spread throughout the campus. The four hour jam lasted until 3:00 a.m. Allison continued to be a Madison favorite and he called Madison his second home until his death here in 1997. His final live concert was at the Barrymore Theater.
The live entertainment days of The Nitty Gritty ended in December of 1974 and the Church Key became the most prominent among the blues venues that also included Bunky's, Club DeWash, The Crystal Corner Bar, and The Harmony Bar and Grill. National acts such as John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison,
Sunnyland Slim, Canned Heat, and Tracy Nelson, played during one single month in 1978. Lamont Cranston, Duke Tomato and Bryan Lee would come from out of town. In Madison, Honor Among Thieves, Jerry Alexander, Tina and the Tigers, Shakedown, Paul Black and the Flip Kings, and Paul Filipowitz were sharing the blues fans. In addition, a great outlet for blues musicians, became the numerous jam sessions being held regularly through out the city and hosted by some of the finest players in Madison.
Several musicians lived in apartments above the Gritty. Among them were two young men named James Earl Tate, who had moved to Madison from Mississippi, and Ron Geborek, a Wisconsin kid from Kaukauna. Each of them began pursuing careers in the blues, Ronny playing with the Paul Filipowitz Blues Band, and Blues DeVille' while Tate began seeing the world as Luther Allison's sound technician. He and Allison had also become best of friends.
O'cayz Corral rocked nearly every night during the 1980's and 90's, and was decidedly not a blues bar. Located in the historically low down area near the railroad tracks on Wilson street, the decrepit little place was attracting rock bands from all over the world. Early tours by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven, White Stripes, Husker Du, Queens of the Stone Age, Living Colour, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and many others lined up outside to get a chance to play.
On a Tuesday night in 1984, Tate began hosting a weekly jam session that continued at O'cayz for nearly sixteen years. The house band that first night included Westside Andy and Rollo Steele from Shakedown, and Tate's friend from the Gritty days, Ronny Geborek.
"He didn't even ask me if I could play bass", says Ronny.
' I figured that anyone as smart as he is ought to be able to play bass", says Tate.
The two have now played together for over thirty years. "Never leave home without him", Tate will quip when he introduces him as "Ronny G"
Thirty Two years ago Ronald Reagan visited Desmond Tutu to discuss what to do about apartheid. Reagan became president and Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize. Tony Earl was Wisconsin's governor and Madison's mayor was Joe Sensenbrenner. Barneveld was hit by a killer tornado, and a gas leak devastated Bhopal. The Brewers were last in the American League West and the Cubs won the
National League East. The Packers were bad with Lynn Dickey at quarterback and Wisconsin graduate, Randy Wright, backing him up. Charles Barkley signed to play in the NBA. "Hill Street Blues" and "Cheers' were the best TV programs. "Amadeus", "Ghostbusters", and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" were in the movie theaters. Top musical albums were "Born in the USA" and "Purple Rain" while local band, Spooner released "Wildest Dreams". Liberace played the coliseum.
Cathy Dethmers bartended, and eventually owned O'Cayz. She remembered the jams being like great parties for everyone and yet, she remarked, the professionalism and restraint of the jammers was really amazing over the years. "Tate ran a pretty tight ship and knew when someone should leave the stage, or not get up at all"
In 1992, Tate commented to a local publication called " Rock Central"; 'We're smart enough to know that a musician has got to stay on top of everything". The article goes on to say that, "Tate's blues jam is capable of playing some of the best blues one could find in Madison
Don Rembert is a former band member who still frequents the jams. He explained to Laura Johnston of "Sights and Sounds", in 1995 "The jam is about learning and sharing each others musical experiences. It puts you in a position to challenge your own abilities, because playing with a new group becomes a different challenge for anyone. When you get up to play, you need to recognize that you are a member of a team and not an individual"
For over three decades The Million Dollar Blues Band and the 008 Blues Band have shuffled members in and out, But the line-up always has had first class players who are loyal to Tate. They play audience friendly, and skillfully improvised Memphis blues.
Many of the folks who come out to jam now, were coming out a long time ago as well according to Ms. Dethmers. Paul Filipowitz, Tony Brown, John Davis, Joe Nosek, Don Rembert, Hannah John Taylor Carol Lee, Maggie Alliota, Frank Deiter and Terry Galloway are just a few of those who were coming 25 to 30 years ago, and still do.
From the time he was a teenager, a rock guitar player named James Eisle, was pretty well known around Madison. A co-worker of his was blues player John Davis who had played in The White Trash Blues Band on the night that the Nitty Gritty opened. John introduced James to the jam and Eisele wound up playing in the band for years afterward. He still comes to play occasionally, and still remembers the awe that he felt being on stage for the first time with Tate, Rembert, Clyde Stubblefield, and some of the musicians he had been admiring from a distance.
Long time Madison area player and now Chicago Blues Hall of Ramer, Paul Filipowitz, was a huge supporter of the jam from the beginning, and is still amazed that it survived about sixteen years at a non blues club. The jam,and all other shows ended when the internationally iconic: O'cayz Corral met its demise in an early morning fire on New Years day of 2001.
By the time of the fire Paul had been hosting the jam for awhile and continued to do so at the King Club and later with Don Rembert at the Anchor. Tate returned and continued it at the Anchor, then the Liquid Lyrics Lounge for many years. After a move to a new home in Janesville, the jam took up residence at the VFW there. Ronny, James Eisele, and drummer Billy McDuffee all made the weekly trek from Madison. "Cincinnati Red" came over from Milwaukee.
One of the more dynamic jammers in Janesville was Oscar Wilson, who is now a member of the Cash Box Kings. His big voice and even bigger energy thundered through that VFW hall. Janesville got a very good lesson in blues singing from Oscar.
The jam's next destination was to Madison's southeast industrial area, where, tucked in among all the metal buildings is The Knuckledown Saloon. When I first asked owner Chris Kalmbach how he knew Tate and why the jam was in his bar, he pointed at Tate and said, "He was my babysitter when I was a kid".
Chris' dad is the blues-folk legend, Spider John Koerner and his mom is Bonnie Kalmbach, who for about twenty years hosted "Two for the Blues" on WORT radio. Tate, Don Rembert, and other musicians
were family to young Chris and still are. Chris is now doing his part to spread the blues by being a vibrant new member of The Madison Blues Society,and by by presenting the best blues around at the Knuckledown
Ronny G. knows that he has played far more jams than Tate has. Over the years others have stepped up to host when Tate was absent. Filipowitz, Eisele, Shari Davis, and others have taken turns leading Tate's band. About a year ago, a young man named Andy Smith took a turn.
Andy had been coming up to the jams all the way from Brodhead for a couple of years.
Knuckledown was the closest place to feature a blues jam. Besides honing his harmonica playing skills, Andy revealed a real decent singing voice and brought the essential element of youthful exuberance. Tate had some serious health issues and a long rehab to take care of in Janesville while 'Brodhead" took over..
"They call me T,T,&T., Trash Talking Tate. Hey, I'm an old man, and I've got a lot to talk about", was his opening line when he returned.
"If you don't like the blues, you must have a hole in your soul We've got blues for your ass, so don't go somewhere else and be a square. Remember, you didnt pay 17.50 to get in here tonight"
"Love the people. Play the music. Leave your ego at the door". That is the lesson that James Earl Tate learned in his Gritty days from Luther Allison, and is the lesson anyone can learn by joining thirty years worth of other musicians who have already experienced Tate's Jam.

written by Luke Parker.