Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton makes a triumphant return to McCabe’s
By Bliss Bowen
Some may have spotted L.A. native Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton in the award-winning 2015 roots music documentary “American Epic,” in a starry cast that also featured co-producer Jack White and Willie Nelson. Others may recall Paxton’s residency a decade ago at Downtown L.A.’s Redwood Bar, where at 19 he grabbed ears with his preternatural feel for pre-WWII acoustic blues, folk and jazz. He moved to New York shortly thereafter, briefly attended college, and is now proudly ensconced in that city’s jazz scene, playing mostly with ragtime pianist (and onetime Eubie Blake protégé) Terry Waldo.
“They’re real proud of their New York jazz and that’s what I moved there to play,” says the Queens resident. “It’s hot jazz, the jazz with the essence.”
In a pop culture mesmerized by spectacle, getting to the essence sets Paxton apart. And at six feet two inches tall, often wearing overalls, legally blind, given to hearty laughter and punctuating sentences with folksy phrases like “I’ll put one thing on your plate,” he tends to stand out wherever he’s seen, or heard. Slyly humorous, he spices concert sets with 1930s pop tunes, Irish reels, jokes both ribald and endearing, and audience-pleasers like “When an Ugly Woman Tells You No,” often grinning as his long fingers crisscross the frets of his guitar, banjo or fiddle or spread across piano keys.
Musically speaking, old country blues, Cajun, folk, gospel and soul are Paxton’s native tongue. It’s what he grew up hearing his Louisiana-raised grandmother sing in the family’s South Central Los Angeles kitchen; at family barbecues with other Southern relatives on their block; and later at events like the Huck Finn Jubilee, where he met Earl Scruggs. Already playing fiddle, he started learning Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo from the late John Schlocker at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica when he was 13. He returns there for a show Saturday.
“That was my exposure to the music I love; it [was] shared that way,” he recalls of his introduction to songs composed before his grandparents were born. “It’s not a music that you hear on the radio.”
It’s music born of communal settings. Even now, he says, “just about everybody in the neighborhood knows all the words to the Jimmy Reed repertoire and Little Walter and Lightnin’ Hopkins.”
Paxton, whose stage moniker pays homage to Piedmont blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller, discourses thoughtfully on the music’s history. No matter where it’s from, he insists, folk music is “the people’s music,” so a “natural person” can feel connection — particularly to American folk.
“I don’t care if you’re in Jerusalem or Eastern Europe or Pakistan or India; you have exposure, and usually a lot of it, to American music, because America is a superpower,” he says. “My people in my culture helped make America a superpower. And though we’ve been second-class citizens for most of our stay here, America has put our music out there with its superpower and it’s reached people across the world.”
Though he turns 30 later this month, Paxton speaks in musical cadences with the air of an old-school entertainer — part of his act, and also his worldview. Sharing stories about family and music is his way of opening people’s minds to history.
“The best way to understand history is through music,” he says. “You can learn tons about social events from certain periods just through songs. They’re tied in a beautiful way, and of course being a person who’s proud of himself, I want to expose the world to my culture, because it’s been talked about but it’s never really been told, you know. So I’m happy to be telling it to people.”
He is committed to music as a live art form and has built his career performing at clubs and festivals, but he’s giving considerable thought to recording as an art form unto itself as he plans an album of “African-American folk music.” It’s been three years since “Recorded Music for Your Entertainment,” a joyful album of folk chestnuts (“Motherless Child Blues,” “Pretty Saro,” “Soldier’s Joy”) he recorded in Venice with friend and L.A. old-time musician Frank Fairfield. Three years with no new recordings to sell is a budget buster for a traveling musician.
“It’s getting necessary,” he acknowledges. “I’ve gotta get out of my comfort zone and figure out how to record an album comfortably that I like.”
Within his comfort zone onstage, he radiates a positive fullness of spirit. It isn’t that he feels responsible to lift audiences up, he says; it’s just his nature.
“I ain’t scared to go no place mostly because I’m happy most places. I feel like I’m doin’ something good, so there’s no need to fear or be nervous or be sad or be dreary. Also, I come from people who know how to handle hard times, to be frank. I was raised by a bunch of older people, and the things that they experienced pale in comparison to anything we experience here in this 21st century. … You use the blues and all these old methods we know of to beat the bad. A happy personality can beat the bad. That’s my endeavor.”
Jerron “Blind Boy Paxton” returns to McCabe’s (3010 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica) at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12. Tickets are $20. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit blindboypaxton.net.