One of the ancillary benefits of mastering the blues is that you’re entitled to an awesome nickname.
Blind Willie McTell. Sonny Boy Williamson. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Howlin’ Wolf.
Pittsburgh bluesman Jimmy Adler sort of went in the opposite direction. For his day job — as an English teacher at the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Downtown — he goes by the colorful moniker Mr. Addlespurger (his given name).
But for his music, he keeps his name short and to-the-point.
“When I was a kid, I remember my mother using (Adler) on the telephone, because you didn’t have to spell it. Addlespurger requires spelling. Maybe she was ordering something. … It just made life simpler.”
This Tuesday, the Jimmy Adler Band is headed to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge. They won the slot in a regional competition by the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania. Winners from other regions with an active Blues Society will convene in Memphis this coming week. Winners of the big competition can get coveted slots at the big summer blues festivals — a great way to get blues fans’ attention, among other things.
It’s a real high in a year that has seen some serious lows for Adler. In October, while walking through an alley Downtown on the way to a T stop, a teenager punched him in the head without warning. The incident was caught by a surveillance camera.
“I got a concussion and missed several days of school,” Adler says. “Now, I’m dealing with an issue with my shoulder. I don’t know if it’s related. I missed gigs on Friday and Saturday (that week). I never miss a gig. I was in pretty bad shape.”
Adler is trying to put the incident behind him.
“The hearing is still coming up in February,” he says. “It’s, like, a week after I get back from Memphis. I didn’t know the kid, and he wasn’t a student at the school.”
For now, he’s concentrating on Memphis, and the slick guitar work that got him there. Adler’s guitar style blends several distinct blues traditions.
“I generally describe it as Chicago blues flavor, with some West Coast jazzy jump, which comes from T-Bone Walker, Duke Robillard,” Adler says. “The Chicago blues would be the great triumvirate of Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam. They wanted to play like B.B. King, but couldn’t afford an entire band. Small bands, playing single-string notes. B.B. King kind of revolutionized that style of guitar playing.”
The slide guitar of Elmore James is another major influence.
“Elmore James was ferocious,” Adler says. “I had a glass slide that I cut from a bottle with a saw. It was kind of simple — hard to master, but you could follow along.”
Adler’s high-school students often don’t have much experience with the blues.
“Of course, they can’t get into clubs,” he says. “But I’ll play in the classroom, if I can build it into a poetry lesson. I also use it when I talk about tone in writing. It’s hard to explain how words on a page can convey tone, but they can hear it on the guitar. The kids love it. They’d probably have me play all the time. Some have been out to see me at festivals. I’ve seen them come out to the clubs as they get older.”
Outside rock and blues clubs, the Jimmy Adler Band plays for swing dances at the Wightman Center in Squirrel Hill. For that, Adler plays an upbeat, jazz-inflected style known as “jump blues.” They’ve performed at Penguins and Steelers rallies, too. Adler has even toured France, where interest in classic American music is consistently strong.
Upcoming gigs and CDs, including the recent album “Midnight Rooster,” can be found at www.jimmyadler.com. There are two shows this weekend before they leave for Memphis on Tuesday.
Win or lose in Memphis, it will be a nice change from the past year that was way harder than it needed to be.
“It changed my patterns — I have not been through that alley since the incident,” Adler says. “I had a routine. I used to take the T every day. I’d go through Tito Way. That routine has changed. I’m driving.
“I kind of want to get back to the routine. My principal has been gracious — she suggested that I not get back to it right away. I think the alley has changed. There were other incidents in that alley. They’ve beefed up security.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.