Tune in to the sustaining sounds of America’s music with some of the best

By Howard Mandel

It’s February, Black History Month, season of the blues. Still dark and so cold that Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day and Martin Luther King’s birthday are celebrated (in part) to combat seasonal affective disorder, it’s a good time to turn to the melodic, harmonic and emotionally fulfilling strains that have run through American popular music for more than a century.

B.B. King and Lucille.

New York is not generally regarded as a blues-steeped city—it lacked the industrial jobs to attract or support the millions of African-American laborers who sought escape from the agricultural south to the urban north during the Great Migration of the 1920s through the ’50s—but there’s plenty of blues to be heard here. Often it’s underground or disguised—though that isn’t the case Feb. 12, when B.B. King and Buddy Guy are scheduled to play the United Palace Theatre in Washington Heights.

They’re the two best-known bluesmen alive, exerting significant influence, recognized or not, on anyone slinging a guitar and singing in the U.S. today. B.B., at age 84, is the tradition’s dean and namesake of clubs in six other cities besides the plush bar and grill we have on West 42nd Street. He performs frequently enough to substantiate his claim “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Guy, 73, played a Louisiana musician last year in Bertrand Tavernier’s movie, In The Electric Mist, and has just relocated his Chicago club, Legends, to a larger space. He’s also aptly titled his autobiography Damn Right I Have the Blues, though his unstoppable energy subverts the notion that the blues is a sad, sad song.

That’s right: It needn’t be. The blues is, strictly speaking, the African-American music identified independently by both W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey back around 1903, a mournful, three-line form that employs melisma and bent notes to evoke hard luck and trouble. But it has been employed throughout decades of stylistic variation with little change to its core values and strategies. You play the blues to kick the blues.

This was a big theme of the blues divas who sang on New York stages backed by the best jazz musicians in the Roaring ’20s. It was the story of most famous blues songsters, guitarists, harmonica players and pianists, as depicted in movies like Cadillac Records and the forthcoming Who Do You Love, both taking off on Chicago’s Chess Records, where country pickin’ and strummin’ was transformed by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Bo Diddley and others into rock ‘n’ roll. It’s why the blues is party music, too.

Which is rather how the blues manifests itself in Manhattan: not as lugubrious lament, but as soundtrack for revelry that nonetheless watches its back. When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis focuses on “Basie and the Blues” Feb. 11 through 13, it revives the uplifting, smoothly synchronized swing that framed lyrics about careless love, hard work, short money and intoxicating escapism. Saxophonist Dave Sanborn and organist Joey DeFrancesco do the same without the lyrics at the Blue Note through Feb. 14, imitating the grits ’n’ greens instrumental model saxophonist Lou Donaldson proposed back in the ’50s—which he will demonstrate again with his organ quartet at Birdland, Feb. 24 through 27.

When guitarist Leo Nocentelli and basssist George Porter of the great New Orleans band The Meters unfold their funk at B.B. King’s Feb. 16, they’ll add the proud strut of Hurricane Katrina survivors to the blues’ eternal chord progressions. Guitarists Dave Stryker (Feb. 24 at Iridium) and Mike Stern (frequently at 55 Bar, where hot blues diva Sweet Georgia Brown also holds forth) and electric bassist Gordon Edwards (with a standing Wednesday night gig at Creole) give the blues some fusion twists.

Terra Blues on Bleecker Street is the lone pure blues club still in Manhattan; little noted but fine local blues artists including Bill Sims, Jr., Junior Mack, Michael Powers and Bobby Radcliffe play there for no cover, no minimum year-round, because the blues (like Black History) can’t be held to one month. In fact, next month will be bluesy, too, with Cassandra Wilson, cool diva of the blues, at the Blue Note Mar. 9 through 11, and Robert Cray’s band Mar. 19.