Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2015 | Features

Blues Brother

By Kathryn Howe
With hard work and heart, a UI law alumnus builds a musical legacy that honors and preserves an American treasure.

Eevyn Young peered into her car's rearview mirror, very note, every slide of the steel guitar, every mournful blow into the harmonica tells a story—not necessarily a sad one, but always a truth born from the highs and lows of living.

Inside the blues tent at a New Orleans music festival more than 20 years ago, Jay Sieleman stood bobbing his head to one of those truths when he noticed two guys in front of him wearing shirts that read Ultimate Rhythm and Blues Cruise.

Intrigued, Sieleman paused his groove to ask, "What's this blues cruise?" He learned that the annual event brought some of the best musicians in the business together with fans for a week of performances, revelry, socializing, and fun. Like church on the open sea, only with more bourbon.

Sieleman soon booked his first cruise experience—and had such a soul-stirring good time watching acts like Koko Taylor, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds that he promised himself he would delve deeper into the historically rich world of the blues. "I thought, 'Why didn't someone tell me about this before?" says Sieleman, a lifelong music fan who had listened to blues in the past but never had his ears and heart open to it in the same way. "The blues is played by incredibly talented musicians who are very giving people and engaged with their fans. It makes you happy. Blues music takes away the blues."

Several years after that fateful trip, Sieleman, 75BA, 78JD, began a journey to become an unlikely hero—the hippie kid from Oelwein, Iowa, who grew up to protect and preserve a singular American art form that grew out of the sweat, hardship, perseverance, and triumph of African-Americans in the Deep South.

Blues Group PHOTO: ALAN HOWELL/used with permission of memphis business journal

Anyone associated with the Memphis-based Blues Foundation will tell you that Sieleman kept the blues alive when he took the organization's reins in 2003. Just a couple months before he came on board, the nonprofit teetered on the brink of irrelevancy and bankruptcy, rapidly losing money, membership, credibility, and support. Today, the internationally renowned foundation enjoys unprecedented success and economic viability. Saved from oblivion by Sieleman, it now fulfills its multilayered mission as the largest and most effective blues organization in the world: to preserve blues music history, celebrate recording and performance excellence, support blues education, and strengthen the future of music profoundly important to American history.

In May, Sieleman's efforts culminate with the realization of a capstone project—the $3 million Blues Hall of Fame, a bricks-and-mortar altar that honors legendary inductees through exhibits, photographs, relics, and inspiring tributes. Located in downtown Memphis—right across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum and the legendary Lorraine Hotel, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination—the Hall of Fame will stand as a permanent beacon of attention and recognition for the blues.

"It means everything to me to see this in my lifetime," says 81-year-old Bobby Rush, a Hall of Fame member and 60-year blues veteran from Jackson, Mississippi, one of many artists who were fed up with the Blues Foundation prior to Sieleman's leadership. "Jay came in and he made a difference because he was truthful to the music and the people doing the music. Without him, I don't know what it would be today. He's the motivator. He's the man. He's the driver of the Greyhound bus."

Even before he joined the Blues Foundation, Sieleman had enjoyed a varied and successful career. After his graduation from the UI College of Law—a place where the intellectual demands and high expectations challenged him for perhaps the first time in his life—he'd worked as an assistant county attorney and the state's first juvenile prosecutor in Des Moines, as a Peace Corps lawyer in the Solomon Islands, and as a legal advisor for the U.S. government agency that ran the Panama Canal. That job offer came in the late 1980s during the final transfer of the canal from the U.S. to Panama, a period marked by unrest and potential civil war against military dictator Manuel Noriega. Sieleman still doesn't know if he was the best qualified person—or the only one willing to move to Panama during that tumult.

In the late 1990s, after a few Blues Cruises and while still employed as legal counsel to the Panama Canal Commission, Sieleman began serving as a volunteer advisor to the Blues Foundation. From Panama, he wrote articles for the website and advised the organization and its affiliated local blues societies on various aspects of nonprofit law. All the while he made good on his promise to learn more about the blues, subscribing to magazines and newsletters, attending more shows, and embarking annually on the Blues Cruise. Filled with admiration for the goodhearted, hardworking nature of these talented musicians, he wanted to contribute to their art and livelihood.

That hope became a reality in 2003 when the Blues Foundation offered him the position of director of administration. From his vantage point, Sieleman could see the financial and administrative trouble wrought by mismanagement. As unpaid bills piled up, the foundation's board members who respected his legal knowledge, competency, and educational background approached him about righting the ship. To Sieleman, it sounded like the perfect job—and a huge challenge. He accepted, later becoming executive director in 2005 and president and chief executive officer in 2012.

"My two hobbies are listening to music and drinking beer, so I really came to this position as a fan and a person interested in fun," says Sieleman, whose office features a painting of Bonnie Raitt and a guitar signed by B.B. King. "I had no experience running a business or a nonprofit, but I guess they chose passion over experience. I wanted to help make the lives of the musicians better."

What he accomplished in almost 12 years as the longest-serving executive in the foundation's 40-year history transcended the rescue of a failing nonprofit—it helped save an important part of the nation's cultural heritage.

Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon, dubbed the "poet laureate of the blues" by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, used to say: "Blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits." Scholars can argue over whether early jazz existed before blues, but most agree that blues dates back to the very beginning of American popular music. Every American musical form begins with the precursors to the blues—those working songs, spirituals, and hollers developed in the 19th century by African-American slaves toiling in the cotton fields. After emancipation, and later with the rise of urban juke joints, blues took a narrative form that chronicled black society.

Characterized by a call-and-response pattern, specific chord progressions, and repetitive groove, blues has evolved from an a cappella oral tradition into a wide variety of styles and sub-genres that range from Delta to Chicago to electric blues.

"The blues is American roots music. The blues is monumental to our souls," says Dion DiMucci, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer known for popular songs like "Runaround Sue," "A Teenager in Love," and "The Wanderer." "Everything else in gospel, jazz, and rock traces its lineage back to those twelve bars, those three chords, those notes beautifully bent. And that's true not only of music in our 50 states. Our music has been one of our greatest exports and contributions to world culture. Musicians everywhere have learned their chops from America's old recordings."

Sergio Kapfer, 78JD, who first met Sieleman in law school, believes blues history is important for everyone to acknowledge, honor, and understand. Before coming to college from Greenfield, Iowa, Kapfer hadn't been exposed to the blues. But then he saw Duke Tumatoe and the All-Star Frogs, a band that used to tour the Midwest at the time, and he fell in love—not only with the fabulous music, but with the artist themselves, many of whom rose above often very difficult circumstances to create it. Now a VIP member of the Blues Foundation, Kapfer supports efforts to preserve this uniquely American sound and emphasize its historical and modern significance.

As Sieleman himself once told the Memphis Downtowner magazine, being a blues fan says much more about a person than just his taste in songs: "If the altar you're worshipping at is music created by African-Americans, it's hard to be an intolerant racist."

Growing up the second oldest of five in the small but thriving northeast Iowa town of Oelwein, Sieleman, like Kapfer, didn't encounter much blues—or many African-Americans. But, he developed a love of music. Awed by his father's own treasure trove of albums, he collected vinyl records and soon earned a reputation among his peers as someone who knew about the music industry. Although a smart kid who always finished his homework before heading out to play ball, Sieleman also made his parents want to tear out their hair. In true 1960s form, he rejected the "institution," announcing he had no plans to attend university after high school. But, earning an associate arts degree from nearby Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls whetted his appetite for higher education. He enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1973.

Sieleman met Kapfer in law school, and they became lifelong friends. "He was just one of those really nice guys with a great personality," Kapfer recalls. "He was easy to get along with; he had no pretenses and was so down to earth."

When Kapfer heard about Sieleman's appointment to the foundation, he knew his friend had followed his heart. Sieleman admits he brought no master plan, no strategy, or real genius to the job. But he was armed with first-class analytical and critical thinking skills from his time at the UI College of Law, along with common sense, an ability to learn quickly, and the willingness to put in the hours required. He started by cutting his own salary and reducing staff. At times, the foundation employed only two people; even today, only three full-time staff members oversee the day-to-day tasks.

Former foundation board member Bill Wax, also the former program director for BB King's Bluesville on Sirius/XM satellite radio, says: "Jay is very organized, single-minded, and a problem-solver. He had a systematic plan for where he wanted to go and the steps to get there. The foundation had been missing someone like that."

Under Sieleman's inspired leadership, the foundation reinvigorated existing programs like the Blues Music Awards and the International Blues Challenge and created new ones to extend community outreach, provide stewardship to musicians, and support the next generation of blues players.

Ever since the foundation's formation in 1980, the Blues Music Awards program has honored outstanding artists selected by fellow musicians. One of the highest accolades in blues music, the program draws some 100 nominees to the live Memphis show and awards ceremony, featuring an evening of fantastic performances. Formerly called the W.C. Handy Awards, the program has grown from a few hundred attendees in those early years to over 1,200 today. Likewise, the International Blues Challenge—a five-day competitive event of more than 250 band, solo/duo, and youth performances from 40 states and two dozen countries—has grown into one of the biggest and most respected showcases for blues musicians.

Beyond these anchor events, several newer programs aim to preserve and nurture the past, present, and future of the blues. To provide practical and essential assistance to musicians, the foundation offers the HART Fund for medical, dental, and funeral expenses. For the next generation of musicians, the Blues in the Schools educational curriculum and the Generation Blues scholarship program foster a love for the blues among promising young players.

Such efforts helped the foundation's reputation recover and soar. Under Sieleman's guidance, the foundation grew from a net worth of less than $200,000 to over $4 million, with net income based each year on $1 million in revenue. Membership has tripled to 4,500 individual members, plus 200 affiliated local blues societies that represent another 50,000 fans and professionals around the world.

As DiMucci says: "It would have been easy for Jay to maintain an organization that was essentially a fan club. There are plenty of cultural-heritage trusts that do this. They become an echo chamber or a perpetual nostalgia trip. Now, thanks to the Blues Foundation, the music's more available, and the tracks are better documented. Thanks to Jay, the blues has assumed its rightful place as an ambassador for American music."

With the opening of the sleek 12,000-square-foot, two-story Blues Hall of Fame, Sieleman ends on a high note. He delivers a meaningful fixture where fans can come and experience the blues year-round. As an added bonus, such tourism will benefit the city he loves—and where he plans to spend his upcoming retirement. In September, a few months after the hall's debut, Sieleman will step down from his post.

He says he's ready to see what someone else can do. And although not overly sentimental, he relishes the memories of a job that allowed him to work with his heroes on behalf of music that will endure forever.

Although his plans aren't definite, one thing is certain: at least one week out of the year, he'll lounge on the pool deck of a Blues Cruise with a smile on his face. Beneath the warm sunshine, he'll relish just being a fan of the music that long ago captured his heart.

There's nothing like the Handy Band that played the Memphis Blues so grand.

Oh play them Blues.

That melancholy strain, that ever haunting refrain

Is like a sweet old sorrow song.

Here comes the very part that wraps a spell around my heart.

It sets me wild to hear that loving tune a gain,

The Memphis Blues.*

*Lyrics from "The Memphis Blues ," W.C. Handy

Interested in learning more about the blues? Click here.