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By Corrie M. Anders
In the spring of 1980, Noe Valley resident Tom Mazzolini was on tour in Europe with a group of blues bands he was promoting. As the tour concluded, the musicians decided to compile cuts from their live gigs into an album.
They were stalled for an idea for the album cover when suddenly an image popped up during a farewell dinner at a restaurant on the Rue Claude Tillier in Paris. Someone suggested getting a photographer to replicate Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, with the musicians subbing for the biblical figures.
When the cover was completed, famed blues singer and guitarist Sonny Rhodes occupied the center seat at the table, which also included other band musicians and a crew of roadies. Mazzolini stood third from the right in the position where Leonardo painted Matthew, the Evangelist.
His photo placement was just happenstance, says Mazzolini. "There was no deep significance."
Still, he indeed is an evangelist -- for the blues. Mazzolini has been spreading the gospel for nearly four decades, as a music critic, as the host of "Blues by the Bay" on KPFA Radio, and as the indefatigable founder and producer of the San Francisco Blues Festival.
It's the longest-running blues festival in the country and often attracts 20,000 music lovers to the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, to watch everyone from guitarists B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan to R&B singer Big Mama Thornton and zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier.
"It's like a crusade for me," says Mazzolini. "Every performance has its magic, its uniqueness, the feeling you get from the reaction of the crowd to an unknown performer. That sense of discovery is the unforgettable part of all of this."
The festival reaches a milestone this month, when Mazzolini will put on the extravaganza for the 35th time. The Sept. 28-30 party will include several star artists -- Charlie Musselwhite and Jimmy McCracklin among them -- who played the first event in 1973, held in a small gym at the U.C. Extension Center. But this year's fest will also feature some hot new acts, including British soul performer James Hunter, folk blues artist Eric Bibb, and "sacred" steel guitarist Robert Randolph.
"He's fascinating," Mazzolini says of Randolph, 28, who has emerged from the Pentecostal Church as one of the leaders of the gospel blues sound.
And he's a crucial part of Mazzolini's mission to bring young performers to a wider audience and "to educate the public about the history of blues and its role in American culture."
Mazzolini, 65, is urbane and intellectual, with an unassuming demeanor that softens his sturdy six-foot frame. His knowledge of the blues is almost encyclopedic. He learned much of it firsthand in smoky nightclubs along the chitlins circuit, where he could revel in the wailing sounds and down-and-out stories of cheating women and no-count men.
He says his personal taste gravitates toward early-school guitarists and harmonica players, especially Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter Jacobs. He also likes Elmore James, whose "voice and his methodology of playing the slide guitar were absolute genius"; guitarist Otis Rush; and Magic Sam Maghett, another brilliant guitarist who died of a heart attack just as he was "on the verge of stardom," says Mazzolini. "I felt his soul when he played, and he died young at 32."
Those musicians, all of them African-American, started out in the 1930s, playing in the Mississippi Delta region and other southern locales, he says. Many later migrated to Chicago in search of a more hospitable racial environment.
Mazzolini's introduction to ethnic music started in the '50s as an adolescent growing up in an integrated section of Chicago. He was an Italian kid whose playmates included Jewish and African-American kids. His father operated a bar and his mother was a celebrity photographer. "The genesis obviously happened there," he says, adding that there were numerous black businesses and blues clubs in the area. "There was that feeling of different cultures that were unique and extraordinary, and somehow, someway, that connected with me."
Mazzolini joined the Marine Corps as soon as he turned 17. He and his African-American military buddies spent lots of time listening to R&B. Black music "was never a mystery to me. I felt it," he says.
After the military, Mazzolini ended up in Los Angeles, then moved to San Francisco in the late '60s to attend college at San Francisco State University. That's where he earned a degree in American history and met Velma Kingsbury, his wife and business associate. "She was an assistant to me from the beginning," he says.
In 1970, Mazzolini gave up his Haight-Ashbury apartment and bought a two-flat building on Hill Street. At the time, Noe Valley was a blue-collar neighborhood and "very, very affordable," he says.
These days, Mazzolini works from home, preparing for each year's festival as well as his weekly radio show, also in its 35th year. The home office is also the nerve center for the hundreds of magazine articles, liner notes, and obituaries he writes -- and for a huge library with close to 5,000 pieces of music.
One entire wall of his living room is filled from floor to ceiling with shelves of records, including the prophetic San Francisco Blues Festival: European Sessions. On the opposite wall are rows of CDs, also stacked to the ceiling. Vintage posters fill any available space.
"Stuff accumulates, but you can't throw it out," Mazzolini says with a smile as he surveys the stacks of concert playbills, music magazines, and a fat roll of blue admittance tickets left over from one of the festivals. "It's history."
The "history" also includes an electric Fender Stratocaster guitar that Carlos Santana gave him as a gift, and an acoustical guitar that the late Delta bluesman Johnny Shines once owned. But for all his intimacy with blues music, Mazzolini says he has never fantasized about joining musicians in a hot jam session.
He lays the blame on his less-than-perfect pitch. "I have a guitar I pick at when I get stressed," he confesses. He lifts Shines' six-stringer from a floor stand, slips on a metal finger slide, and picks an old Mississippi-style riff for less than a minute. "There's a little magic in those strings," he says, deflecting attention to the instrument rather than himself.
Another calming device for Mazzolini is to walk down the hill to 24th Street for coffee and conversation at Martha & Bros. He sometimes stops to hang out and chat with folks at Phoenix Books and Records. "There are a lot of bright minds in Noe Valley," he says.
The gang at Phoenix and at Streetlight Records, where Blues Festival tickets are sold, are well aware of Mazzolini's contribution to the blues. So too are the bigwigs in the record business. He has been honored on numerous occasions -- by the Bay Area Music Awards, the National Blues Foundation, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, to name only a few.
Lee Hildebrand, a respected music journalist in the Bay Area, says blues lovers owe an enormous debt to Mazzolini. "He has really kept a focus on blues," says Hildebrand. "In the gray area during the musical ups and down, the changes in style, and sagging and ascending popularity of the music, he's been a constant. He's presenting some of the best blues nationally for 35 years. His tenacity is amazing."
If you're wondering if Mazzolini ever gets the blues himself, the answer is yes. The melancholy generally hits when he's scrounging festival support at a time of waning interest from corporations, city grantmakers, and the media.
"It gets harder and harder when no one pays attention," he says. "It's very frustrating."
But the blues aficionado says he has no plans to unplug his career.
"It's not a job...you don't retire from something that you do every day of your life," says Mazzolini. "I look at it this way. If I were a blues player, I'd just play until I couldn't play anymore."
The 35th Annual San Francisco Blues Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 29 and 30, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Laguna Street. For information, call 415-979-5588 or visit the fest online at www.sfblues.com. Tickets are available in advance ($35 per day) at Streetlight Records on 24th Street. To kick off the festival, there's a free waterfront concert on Friday, Sept. 28, at Justin Herman Plaza from noon to 1:30 p.m.