It's been a busy spring for Jay Sieleman, an attorney by trade who came to Memphis to work full-time for The Blues Foundation in early March, serving as the organization's director of administration. "All I've seen are the six blocks of Union between my apartment and my office," Sieleman says with a laugh.
Sieleman is especially busy this month, with the Foundation's signature event, The W.C. Handy Awards, on the horizon. "Buy tickets and come," Sieleman urges in a typically understated manner when asked about the upcoming ceremony and its attendant events. "We're gonna have a great event," Sieleman says of the Handys, noting that the awards ceremony is as much a celebration for the musicians as it is for fans of the blues genre. "Solomon Burke is performing -- everyone knows that is an event in itself," Sieleman says delightedly.
"We also have three of the best new artists performing -- Robert Randolph, Ana Popovic, and Richard Johnston," he says, adding that Popovic, a Yugoslavian, will be the first European to play on the Handy program.
A longtime adviser of the Foundation, Sieleman nevertheless took a rather unorthodox journey to Memphis from his native Iowa. He served as Provincial Legal Advisor to the Solomon Islands during a stint in the Peace Corps and later worked as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. After more than a decade in Panama -- where he worked as the assistant general counsel on the Panama Canal Commission, which oversaw the transfer of the canal back to the Republic of Panama -- Sieleman decided to "get back to a more normal life" in the States.
"I've always been very interested in music -- going to concerts and buying records," he explains. "I wasn't really such a big blues fan; I wasn't exposed to it. But in the late '80s, rock-and-roll wasn't doing anything for me anymore." He credits a trip to New Orleans' annual Jazz Fest for opening his eyes to the blues. "It was more of an immersion into the blues world," he says, "almost like passing through the looking glass into a whole other world of good music."
In 1996, Sieleman introduced himself to then-Blues Foundation director Howard Stovall, offering to provide services to the nonprofit via its advisory board. "It was all fairly limited to legal issues, nonprofit status, and things of that nature," he says. Then, when Stovall stepped down last year, Sieleman was recommended as a possible replacement. Six months later, though not in the same executive director role, he's the man with the plan.
But what of the Blues Foundation's well-publicized threat to move to Baton Rouge? "Something that still needs to be clarified is that the city of Baton Rouge came and made this proposal," Sieleman says. "The Blues Foundation was having financial difficulties, and we were willing to listen to their plan. Their proposal never really panned out, and some organizations in Memphis came forward to help with our finances, so we're still here," he says.
"From my perspective as a newcomer, the most important thing I can emphasize about the Blues Foundation today is that we need support," Sieleman says. "The financial situation of the foundation hasn't changed for the better. While there's no plan to move, the Blues Foundation itself, and everyone who cares about it, needs to take a serious look at how this organization is going to sustain itself in the future. We have the title, but we need to do more to maintain that, whether through education or support of blues societies or performances like the Handy Awards."
As Sieleman explains, "The four main legs of the foundation's finances are memberships, ticket sales, private contributions, and corporate sponsorship. But it takes time and money to generate more money," he says. "All nonprofit organizations face this -- ideas are never a problem. What's difficult is having the time, money, and ability to implement ideas."
But he's just as quick to emphasize the Blues Foundation's strengths. "The Handys are the premier blues event, year in and year out. The BluesFirst conference and International Blues Challenge just had its most successful year ever, with 69 bands competing. With 2003 being 'The Year of the Blues,' we're getting more media attention than ever. Perhaps the real issue is whether entities like the Blues Foundation can capitalize on this and use it as a springboard to go beyond this year," Sieleman muses.
He's counting on the Martin Scorsese-produced PBS blues documentary series (scheduled to air this fall) to generate even more interest in the genre. "Through our partnership with WKNO, we tape and distribute the Handy Awards to public television stations around the country," Sieleman explains. "By tying us in with the Scorsese documentary, more stations are likely to pick up the Handy broadcast." The Blues Foundation has also partnered with Experience Music Project in Seattle to prepare educational materials distributed in conjunction with the PBS series.
"You know, shortly after I arrived in Memphis, I had a chance to attend a Music Museum Alliance meeting," Sieleman says. "After the meeting, we took short tours of the many tourist places in Memphis. We also went down to the Blues Legends Hall of Fame in Robinsonville [Mississippi] and the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. On earlier visits to Memphis, I'd always stayed close to Blues Foundation events on Beale, and I never really realized how much music there is around here. I'm not an Elvis fan, but even Graceland is fantastic," he raves. "Memphis is music, no doubt about it."
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