By Evan Sernoffsky
Savanna Coen plugs in her guitar, walks up to the microphone, and breaks into the first verse of “The Thrill is Gone.”
At 12 years old, she bears little resemblance to blues legend B.B. King, but last year she still racked up 25 gigs in the area.
“It just really gets to me in my heart,” she said. “I feel like I have a big connection with the blues.”
Savanna performs the last Saturday of every month at the BluesOut! Kids Jam for young musicians at the Lesson Factory in Eugene. She is one of many aspiring musicians who are proving that you’re never too young to play the blues.
The jam is put on by the Rainy Day Blues Society of Oregon as part of its “Blues in the Schools” program. Most of the participants at the Lesson Factory don’t even come close to the cut-off age of 21, but they still play blues standards that have been around for more than half a century.
“My favorite song is ‘At Last’ by Etta James,” Savanna said. “She is such an amazing singer.”
Sitting behind Savanna on stage is 9-year-old Ethan Sandoval, who is already getting attention for his guitar chops. “Everybody thinks I’m good,” he said. “That’s why I like playing.”
Even with his passion for playing, Ethan admits to a little stage fright. “I get nervous at first but when I start playing I don’t get nervous anymore,” he said.
Josh Coen, Savanna’s father, is a member of the board of directors for the Rainy Day Blues Society and started the BluesOut! Kids Jam last October. Kids come to the jam to learn the basics and to become better musicians. “We want to take these kids to the next level,” he said. “Whether you want to be a pop singer, play rock, country, jazz or metal, the blues is a fundamental form of music where everyone should start.”
A lot of blues music follows similar progressions so learning new songs comes very quickly to a lot of the kids. The stage at the Lesson Factory has three guitars, a keyboard, two drum sets, microphones and even a tambourine. Throughout the evening kids come up and play different instruments, take a break and take turns singing some of their favorite songs including, “Dust my Broom,” “Stand by Me,” and “Smoke Stack Lightning.”
Starting to jam at a young age teaches kids the musicianship and etiquette of playing with other people. “A lot of older people will come to a blues jam and play super loud or they don’t know what they are doing,” Coen said. “We don’t want these kids to be the annoying ones.”
Because it’s not at a bar, the BluesOut! Kids Jam is one of the only places in town where kids can go to play the blues. “We call this the 12-bar blues without the bar,” Coen said.
While many kids start with the blues as a foundation, musicians like Savanna have found their true calling. “I was at a blues camp in Chicago and they said to picture something that you really love when you are playing. I tried it and it really works,” she said. “I picture my dog.”
This article originally appeared here.