By Mark Moran
Northeast Mesa is not the sort of place one would expect to find a traditional acoustic jazz and blues club.
Leave it to an 88-year-old former commercial airline pilot named Bill Travis to bring Mesa Jazz and Blues Theater to a nondescript strip mall. He’s aiming to keep the art form alive and thriving.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are. Everybody can have the blues, man,” says legendary 88-year-old blues man Pete “Big Pete” Pearson, who has played multiple instruments over the years and now sings.
Mesa Jazz and Blues Theater has 29 shows booked through the end of next year, starting with a grand opening Sunday, October 2, featuring half a dozen performers, including Pearson.
Pearson played his first show at the Triple J bar in Austin, Texas. He was, by his recollection, 9 years old.
“It’s really been my life,” says Pearson, who played with pretty much every blues legend you can think of, most notably with B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles.
“It’s a part of history for one thing. It’s not just blues. It’s about people’s lives and a way of living and the way they have carried themselves down through the years. It explains about slavery and how it got started. Blues tells a lot of stories. Blues had a baby, and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”
But unlike rock ‘n’ roll, traditional jazz and blues has been dwindling in both popularity and availability.
Travis was born in 1933 in Dickson, Tennessee, less than an hour outside of Nashville.
“I was a country boy,” says Travis, who with his family were regulars in the audience at the original Ryman Auditorium.
“I was about 7 years old. My mother had me take guitar lessons. All you had there was country music from the Grand Ole Opry and so that was my favorite, but the guitar lessons didn’t last long.”
And neither did his interest in country music.
For Travis, it was all about jazz from the first time he heard it.
“It was the improvisation,” he says. “I learned right away what they were doing, and it just amazed me. They could make up a song on the fly, make up a melody and never repeat the same melody.”
Travis discovered percussion, settled on drums and wanted to become a pro.
His parents moved to Detroit in the 1940s in search of factory jobs.
That opened a whole new world of musical opportunity for Travis.
By age 13, and with a lot of exposure to jazz and blues in the big city, he was hooked on soon-to-become legends like Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Earl Bostic and “Big Pete,” regulars in Detroit at places like the Fox Lounge and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, where he once watched jazz pianist Oscar Peterson stop mid-performance to scold someone in the audience for talking.
“These people came to hear music,” Travis recalls Peterson saying. “If you want to talk, go outside.”
Travis worked his way into gigs playing drums in a band and making $5 on a good night before his career hit a detour in 1953 when he was drafted into the Army.
He kept his dream of being a pro drummer alive by playing in the Army’s 4th Armored Division band while stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, playing in officer’s clubs and other military venues.
In 1957, he put the Army behind him, but not the music.
To keep performing professionally, he considered becoming a “territory musician,” a group that covered “maybe two or three states” playing for pay.
But he faced head on a decision over a nemesis that derailed a lot of jazz musicians during that time.
“I had a propensity for alcohol, and that’s also the time that heavy drugs were out. I had experimented with marijuana one night, and it just tore me up,” he says. “I didn’t care whether I went on. I thought that’s not for me.
“If I would have gone on these territory (jobs) with my propensity for alcohol, it probably would have ended up with drugs. If I had gone out on the road, I would probably have been coerced into it by peers. I didn’t go on the road.”
Travis chose college instead. The Army was paying for it after all, thanks to the GI Bill.
He studied business but soon realized that wasn’t for him.
He eventually wound up as a Pan American Airlines pilot for 28 years but always kept his hands on his drum set, playing when and where he could. He finally stopped performing in 2004 and retired to Dreamland Villa in Mesa.
Travis is still in love with jazz. So much so that with $25,000 of his own money and some really good connections in the music community, Travis has started Mesa Jazz and Blues theater inside the Connect Church at the corner of Higley and Brown roads.
“It’s for the purpose of preserving the music,” he says. “It was born in the United States, in the South. “It’s something I love, and I like to stay busy.
“Anybody over here that wants to hear jazz has to go across the city. Mostly what’s here is tribute bands and country and ’70s rock. You find some blues in some of the bars, but you don’t find the top blues.”
Travis aims to change that with his nonprofit.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that he’s trying to preserve it,” Pearson says. “It’s kind of dying out. All of the old blues artists that were around are kind of slipping away from us.”
Mesa Jazz and Blues Theater grand opening w/Dennis Rowland, Sandra Bassett, Sir Elton John Tribute, Beth Lederman Trio, “Big Pete” Pearson, Rhythm Edition Band
WHEN: 6:45 p.m. Sunday, October 2
WHERE: Mesa Jazz and Blues Theater, Inside Connect Church, 5255 E. Brown Road, Mesa
COST: Tickets start at $34.50