No matter how many years pass by, when September rolls around, Tom Mazzolini can’t help but fret.
How blue can he get? He could talk for an hour about the corporate takeover of the music and concert world, but as soon as the first sweet notes echo acrosshis favorite meadow in San Francisco, his image becomes one of a very satisfied soul.
Mazzolini is the producer of the San Francisco Blues Festival and has been since its inception in 1973. That would make this weekend’s event at Fort Mason the 34th annual concert, which is by far the longest-running blues festival in the United States and possibly in the world. And for anyone who knows how difficult it is to stage any large event in a town where six people are always trying to stop the music, that is a significant accomplishment.
"I can hardly believe it myself," Mazzolini told me the other day. "You have to be half insane to keep this thing going, keeping it focused. It become your life."
It would be hard to overstate just how far Mazzolini and the festival have come over the years, but for the thousands of people who will show up today and Sunday I can offer a personal and humble testament. As an impressionistic and blues-loving teen, I attended the very first festival, which was held in a small, basement theater inside the old UC Extension building in the lower Haight. And I can assure you that there aren’t many school auditoriums that could boast a lineup featuring the likes of Jimmy McCracklin, L.C. "Good Rockin" Robinson, Johnny Fuller and K.C. Douglas.
This year’s performers include such legends as Little Richard and Ruth Brown, but it will also feature the Chicago Harmonica Project, Irma Thomas, Tutu Jones and in a special tribute to New Orleans, Saturday’s show will be headlined by the Louisiana Voice of the Wetland Allstars with Cyril Neville, one of the members of the Big Easy’s stellar musical family.
But no matter who is on the bill, there’s usually a surprise. Take, for example, the time B.B. King showed up unannounced and played with a borrowed guitar. Mazzolini was so knocked out that he called it the equivalent of Luciano Pavarotti arriving to take a turn at The City’s annual Opera in the Park.
The festival has been held at the Great Meadow at Fort Mason now since 1982, which in a way is Mazzolini’s crowning achievement, because during its first decade it bounced from place to place, a great idea in search of a permanent venue. The festival moved from Golden Gate Park to McLaren Park — even one year landing in the unlikely venue of Kezar Pavilion. The nomadic wandering finally ended when Mazzolini landed the coveted space in the Marina.
Mazzolini came by his love of the blues quite naturally — he was born in Chicago in 19 and 41. After he joined the service, he moved to San Francisco in the mid-’60s and got swept up in the burgeoning music scene — which meant regular stops at the Matrix, the Fillmore and Winterland. Most of the blues acts in those days played in Bill Graham-produced venues — I once attended a Fillmore show that featured the three kings — Freddy King, Albert King and B.B. King.
But as the years passed more producers and record companies began pushing for more rock acts because blues music did not get much radio play — hence the transformation of many bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Many blues bands found themselves being squeezed out of concert programs in lieu of the psychedelic flavor of the day, and Mazzolini saw the growing gap and tried to fill it.
At one point in the early days of the festival, Mazzolini was so broke that he went to Graham’s office on 11th Street and asked Graham if he could help him out.
"He said he really admired what I was doing," Mazzolini said. "When I told him what I needed he wrote me a check on the spot."
Although the festival focuses almost exclusively on blues music, Mazzolini has not tuned out other acts he knows will bring in the crowds. Several years ago East Bay funksters Tower of Power headlined one of the days, and just a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Los Lobos closed the Sunday show.
"They ended the show with Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’" Mazzolini said. "I broke up. I could not believe what artistry and what sensitivity the band had. Those are the moments I remember."
Due to Mazzolini’s dedication, there have been quite a few of them over the years.