Will Wallace has been a director of the Monterey Bay Blues Festival for 20 of the organization’s 23 years. “I came on board to chronicle the festival,”Wallace recalls. “I also handled press and publicity, designed and produced the programs, did whatever needed doing.” Today, in addition to continuing to document the event through his thoughtful photography, he is involved with talent selection.
A man with a compelling, charismatic presence, his heart is full of humility. Quick to credit others for their work, he would be the first to shrug off the notion that his dedication has had a lot to do with the Festival’s continued success.With his Canon camera in hand,Wallace is a familiar figure at both the Monterey Blues and Jazz Festivals, searching out moments and expressions that can transform the aural art of music into the visual one of photography.
“I’m a jazz nut,” says Wallace with a boyish grin. As a youth, his ear was attracted to the music surrounding him in his hometown of St. Louis, especially that of bebop giant Charlie “Bird” Parker. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with music and the people who make it. One would be hard pressed to find a musician on the Peninsula who hasn’t met or heard of Wallace. He’s everywhere there is music to be heard and enjoyed. He doesn’t play, though. “I’m an in-the-closet pianist,” he says.“It’s therapy and I don’t care if anyone hears me. I play for my own self-expression.”
When he relocated to the Monterey Peninsula in 1970, Will naturally began attending the Monterey Jazz Festival but had not yet developed his interest in photography. That avocation was stimulated by an encounter with legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who was also a photographer. “I was not yet serious about photography, and I was at the Jazz Festival with my little 110 camera,” he remembers. “I pointed it at Dizzy and he looked me and said, ‘Don’t take my picture with that shit!’ The next year, I got a Canon SLR and have been a Canon man ever since.”
So with a love of music that deep, it was only natural that Wallace would get involved with the Monterey Bay Blues Festival. The organization was founded in 1986 and has grown to the point that the three-day festival (June 27, 28 and 29) attracts the biggest names in the business. Name a blues musician and chances are that he or she has rocked the house from the Pattee Arena stage.
This year’s lineup includes Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, Keb’ Mo’, James Cotton, Debbie Davies and the man himself— B.B. King. Dozens of artists also perform on the President’s and Garden Stages.Though main stage seats often sell out, fans can still get their fill of blues and barbecue with the popular grounds admission, a ticket that ranks among the best entertainment values anywhere. But it’s not all about fun: when asked why the festival was founded, Wallace is quick to answer: “To preserve and perpetuate the blues as an original American art form and bring that art form to the attention of the public through educational projects and the annual production of a blues festival and other public events.”
Indeed, the Monterey Bay Blues Festival has awarded more than a million dollars in grants and scholarships to promising young musicians. And the Blues in the Schools program has recently been given a leg up with the hiring of Dennis Murphy as director. So what does Will Wallace do when he’s not shooting his remarkably astute photos of musical legends? He responded to a newspaper ad for a free dance lesson and found yet another outlet for his creative spirit. “I started dancing about six years ago and now everything else is on the back burner,” he says.
For more information on the Monterey Bay Blues Festival, go to www.montereyblues.com.