Jontavious Willis, 19, is a student at Columbus State University and a true blues prodigy. With mentors like blues icon Taj Mahal, there can be no doubt that the tradition of a unique American musical art form is being passed down to a worthy young artist.
Rolling out spoke with Willis about his music and his background.
Where are you from?
I am from a town called Greenville, Georgia, in Meriwether County.
What instruments do you play?
I play six-string guitar,12-string guitar and once I took five stings off the 12 and tuned it kind of funky. I include it as a separate instrument, so seven-string. Slide guitar, harmonica and five-string banjo. I’m working on getting a fiddle.
How did you start playing the blues?
Well, I started playing blues Dec. 24, 2010, by February, I had it pretty good.
Why did you choose this genre?
Well, I started singing in the choir at age 3 and my granddaddy has a wonderful voice and the way he sings his gospel songs [sounds] just like blues. So, I was basically already in the genre, [I] just had to know it was in me.
Taj Mahal talks about your unique form of playing guitar and its tuning. What do you think he meant by that?
I tune my guitar to my voice normally in my favorite three keys. But I have many different tunings that no one uses. My playing style isn’t so complicated, it’s all guts. My whole point in a song is for you to hear what I’m saying. I want you to hear my story.
Who are your three musical inspirations and why?
Oh just three? I’ll do one for each instrument:
Muddy Waters is number one for guitar. If I had to be compared to a bluesman, I want to be like Muddy. Muddy was the man! He took his influences and made it his own and his voice was great.
Sonny Boy Williamson for harmonica. Sonny Boy’s harmonica was simple and easy and his phrasing was great.
Papa Charlie Jackson for banjo. Papa Charlie Jackson made me get a banjo. Even though he played the six-string banjo, I loved the sound.
If you could perform with any musical artist of the past and the present, who would it be?
I would love to play and mostly talk with Muddy Waters; if I didn’t play with him I would be satisfied just to hear his wisdom. The other person would be Buddy Guy. I want to meet him so bad. Not only because he knew Muddy personally, but because he is an ultimate musician in his own right.
What are you studying in college?
I am studying sociology as a major and anthropology as a minor. I would like to work in the fields of human resources and musical anthropology with my degree.
Blues is the father of modern R&B, but it’s the daddy that no one talks about. Why do you think that is the situation?
People don’t speak about blues being the father of R&B that much for the simple fact [that] “he” has way more children than that. Country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, rap, etcetera are all his children. It’s easier to not talk about it rather than raise questions. Another fact is that you can’t turn your radio on a regular FM station and hear blues, so many people just don’t care.
What would you like to say about blues to readers your age?
Blues is more than old people music; it is a story of a struggle. Its heritage is the first American made music. If you love music, don’t subject yourself to one genre. You might just get more ideas by broadening your genres. If you wanted to learn to play a guitar or banjo, buy one. It is not weird to have one. Learn to play instruments; it gives you a different feel. And best of all, be you. I don’t want to be known as the next B.B. King; that honor is too high and the standard is too high. I want to be myself. Leave your own footprints in whatever you do in life.
Click to the next page to hear him play.