‘Blind Boy” Jerron Paxton is taking a call inside his Ridgewood, Queens, kitchen to answer a few questions. He talks while making rugelach, from scratch. “I make everything from scratch,” he says.
When not home baking, Paxton is likely to be the only black blues performer wearing a yarmulke you’ll see this year. Or any year.
And that’s just for starters.
Even inside a genre that emphasizes the solo artist, with the musical distinctiveness and force of personality that goes with the role, the 26-year-old Paxton stands out vividly. Unlike other musicians content to rearrange the occasional old standard, Paxton tirelessly plumbs buried collections in search of forgotten but noteworthy song material, not only from blues but from jazz, folk, country and pop music, and returns it to the world’s ear in his performances. In a milieu where the electric guitar has long ruled as virtually the sole accompanying instrument, Paxton hues resolutely to its classic acoustic forerunner, along with the banjo, piano, fiddle, harmonica, Cajun accordion and percussive “bones,” each of which he plays with practiced skill.
Paxton will play his second solo concert at B.B. King’s on Aug. 21. His CD, “Jerrod Paxton: Recorded Music for Your Entertainment,” is making steady rounds. He has played the folk festivals at Newport, Live Oak (Santa Barbara, Calif.) Calgary and Merlefest (celebrating the music of Doc and Merle Watson), as well as others across the continent and overseas. He’s now finishing a summer tenure as artistic director of the Port Townsend Festival in Washington State.
And then there’s that yarmulke.
“I come from an old family of Cajun Jews,” he explains. “They were Francophone and Sephardic.”
While he was born in Los Angeles, his maternal family roots hark back many generations inside Louisiana. He suspects that his clan’s origins may trace back to crypto-Jews from medieval Spain, but says, “The trail stops with my great grandfather. It’s complicated.”
He does say that he’s the only member of his family that he knows of who practices the rites of his Jewish heritage. “We were the only house in South Central [L.A.] with a mezuzah, as far as I know,” he adds. A small, devoted following of young religious Jews shows up at his shows.
The yarmulke, a broad, black affair seen conspicuously on the cover portrait of his CD, is a standard accoutrement at concerts, though not at his most recent gig at B.B. King’s (“too hot,” he says). He picks up bookings for Friday nights, calling himself “sporadically shomer Shabbos.” At the same time, while less than strict on dietary habits on the performance trail, describing himself as “kosher-ish,” he keeps kosher at home.
Paxton especially enjoys hosting dinners with his brand of “kosher soul food,” which features but is not limited to his homemade pastries. “My friends are my biggest connection,” he says.
A habitual late riser given his performing schedule, he attends afternoon services at Congregation Beth Aaron when at home in Ridgewood.
“I’m not as shomer Shabbos as I would like,” he concedes. “At the same time I believe the Almighty has gifted me with certain opportunities to pay the rent and to take care of my momma.”
His mother remains in Los Angeles. His father is “a very good drummer.” His parents have long been “happily separated.”
Paxton has toured Israel twice, including a visit earlier this year — “from Metula to Eilat” — to sold out shows.
For a young man in a hurry, Paxton knows how to take his time. He forages across the vast repository of historical music from the blues to virtually every category that fits the label of popular music. He pursues his research and takes the stage while dealing with longtime failing vision due to a faulty retina.
In June at B.B. King’s, New York’s premier blues showcase, Paxton, a black vest, suspenders and white shirt on his big frame, sat on a wooden chair surrounded by his various instruments and a rising number of empty bottles of Poland Spring water. The only electrification was a voice microphone and a lower mike for his guitar.
“Y’all know how to waltz? Anybody here old enough to remember how a train sounds?” he asked the audience, then proceeded to answer the questions on his harmonica, caroming from extended, arcing wails to bursting, staccato chords. Then, to the highly audible appreciation of the audience, he blew through a series of comparative riffs simulating the sounds of the Southern Mississippi versus the Sante Fe Railway whistles, the horn of a Model T Ford and “a little baby in the back seat who won’t hush up.”
Paxton kept his grooves fluid and deft, never straining for mere virtuosity. His playlist ranged from familiar standards like “”The Cat Came Back,” “Rye Whiskey,” “O Louisiana” (a variation on “O Susanna”), “Get Along Children” and Don Ho’s “Little Grass Shack” to more obscure but worthy titles such as “When the Cornpone’s Hot,” “Call Them Possum” and “My Lorena,” a Southern slave romance.
After the show Paxton mingled with fans for souvenir snapshots and inspection of his instruments, as well as selling signed CDs.
In his tart but candid account of his personal history, Paxton is far from reticent about his varied origins, but he declares: “I keep my music and my religion separate.” Asked about the state of mind that makes the sound of the music, he declines to probe too deeply for a common ground between the blues that blacks feel and the blues that Jews feel. “Everybody suffers,” he says. In the end, he lets his ears do the thinking. He mentions a recent hearing of a cut of Slovak music with a striking violin part. “That motherf—er has the blues,” he says.
He cites “Ashkenazic” music and its signature “crying clarinet.” “It’s tough, it’s bad, it’s horrible,” he says. “It releases you.
“It weeps and it’s happy in the same instant. There’s the mournful intro, and then the party kicks off.”
Otherwise, he says, “The blues are the soundtrack to black culture.” An apt illustration of Paxton’s aversion to fixing a “blues” label beyond that boundary was his choice of the song “One of These Days” at the B.B. King show. It’s the signature number of the celebrated and, to many ears, decidedly “bluesy” American-Jewish performer Sophie Tucker. Less well known is its authorship, that of black Canadian composer Shelton Brooks.
After leaving California for a stop at Marist College in upstate New York, Paxton enrolled in, then dropped out of Manhattan’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, while immersing himself in the city’s live music scene. The Jalopy bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn became a favorite haunt. His popularity and concert deals neatly followed. He was recently featured in a cover story by the Village Voice.
At the show’s break, B.B. King sound man John Yorke commented, “Blind Boy was born in what, 1989? And there has never been anybody more authentic in contemporary blues.”
Yorke added that Paxton was leading a “new vanguard” in a burgeoning movement of such authentic blues. As an example he cited the up-and-coming 20-year-old performer Solomon Hicks.
“He’s the real deal,” says David Burger, the composer of Jewish choral music who worked closely with both Richie Havens and Shlomo Carlebach. “He’s a great instrumentalist, knows the real blues and plays them with heart. He’s like what you might have heard from the great bluesmen of the ’20s and ’30s, without the scratchy sound of overplayed 78s. I don’t hear any specific Jewish influence on his music, per se. But he sings the blues, which has roughly the same connotation as tzuris.”
“The biggest folly in American culture today is how everything gets reduced to technical terms,” says Paxton. “But music, real music, is spiritual. Folk music means music that stands against academia. It’s music by and for the people.”
Talking time is over. The rugelach won’t bake themselves. “Shavua tov [good week],” Paxton signs off.
Blind Boy Paxton performs Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m., at B.B. King’s (Lucille’s Grill), 237 W. 42nd St., (212) 997-4144, bbkingblues.com.