Nine O'clock Blues: What Color Are The Blues?
A few years ago I saw a 9 or 10-year-old wearing a T-shirt that read “Blues Ain’t Black or White.” That raises the question whether Champion Jack Dupree would have agreed.
American expatriate Champion Jack Dupree once said, "[I] found England was a heavenly place for me…When you leave from slavery and go into a place where you're free... I couldn't go back there, because anybody that spit on me, I'd kill them."
A brief look at the childhood of Blues pianist William Dupree, better known as Champion Jack, helps explain his exile and his reasons of being well aware of race. He was born in 1910 somewhere around New Orleans. Dupree was quite vague about his childhood, however we know he was orphaned at age 2 and raised in the alma mater of Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, New Orleans' Colored Waifs' Home for Boys.
Jack’s father was from the Belgian Congo and his mother was part African-American and part Cherokee. In an interview Dupree said they died in a fire set by a fire set by the Ku Klux Klan. A number of interviews make it clear that early in life Dupree resented his orphan status and believed his race was responsible.
At the orphanage that Jack began to learn piano and he apprenticed with Tuts Washington. He became the “spy boy” for the tribe of Mardi Gras Indians known as the Yellow Pochahantas and that opened the door for him to begin playing in barrelhouses, bars and saloons. Working as a musician became Champion Jack’s passport to travel and he found himself spending time in Chicago, where he worked with Georgia Tom and Indianapolis where he was influenced by the great guitar-piano duo of Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr.
Music was always Jack Dupree’s main career, though he augmented his income as a cook and at the recommendation of Joe Louis, a boxer with 107 bouts. Dupree spent World War Two as a Navy cook and he was interned in a Japanese Prisoner camp for two years.
After the war Dupree found commercial success beginning with a hit called “Walkin’ the Blues” which led to a tour of Europe. It was in Europe that he found cultures he said were more honest about their racism than the United States. As a result, he relocated in 1960, living in various European countries including, ultimately, Germany.
Dupree’s style was suited to European Blues fans, or maybe Jack set the style for Europe. It can’t be denied that he was a major success in Europe as illustrated by the fact that when B. B. King toured Europe he would often open for Dupree.
It seems that by late in his life Champion Jack Dupree would have agreed with that ‘Blues Ain’t Black or White” T-shirt.
In 1990 he returned to his childhood home to play at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Soon after he said, "When you open up a piano, you see freedom. Nobody can play the white keys and don't play the black keys. You got to mix all these keys together to make harmony. And that's what the whole world needs: Harmony."