Despite the twin handicaps of being white and from the Midwest, Bryan Lee was born with the blues in his soul. That event occurred in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, in 1943. Lee's eyes were damaged at birth, and he was completely blind by the time that he was eight years old. That didn't stop his musical education. Presented with a guitar as a gift from his mother, he became a diehard blues fan as he woodshedded along with tunes he heard on the radio at night.
By the time he was eleven or twelve, he was staying up most of the night (and sleeping through school the next day) to listen to WLAC out of Nashville. He ordered records from the station, and practiced along with them, too. By the time he was thirteen, Lee was good enough to play in bands with older musicians. In high school he worked with local cover bands, and later began fronting his own group doing one-nighters throughout the Midwest.
After school, Lee's burgeoning career took him to Washington state, Milwaukee, and Chicago, but New Orleans was always his spiritual home. After a 20-year road odyssey, he finally made it to the Crescent City in 1982, exchanging second-hand New Orleans blues for the real thing Bourbon Street.
Lee formed his Jump Street Five, and began working at the Old Absinthe House in the heart of the fabled French Quarter on March 16, 1983 (his birthday). Playing five nights a week for the next 14 years, they built a loyal following of blues lovers in the intimate, dimly-lit room. Such music luminaries as Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Sting, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and James Cotton dropped in at various times over the years to jam with Bryan. The band has appeared at the Jazz and Heritage Festival since the early 1980's, and has inspired critical raves at the Montreal Jazz Festival as well. The director/producer of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, Quint Davis, called Lee and his band "one of the greatest blues institutions that New Orleans has ever known."
In 1991, representatives from Justin Time Records dropped by the Old Absinthe House bar to check out the music. As Bryan recalls, "There was a seminar down here of independent record companies and, of course, after the meetings everybody went out and walked around the French Quarter. Bourbon Street still holds that mystique for a lot of people. Anyway, the folks from Justin Time were walking down Bourbon Street, heard me playing, came in the club, and were just really knocked out. A lot of people have approached me in the club about recording, but these were the only ones who called me when they said they were going to call me." Bryan debuted on Justin Time with 1991's "The Blues Is ...". He followed that up with "Memphis Bound" (1993), "Braille Blues Daddy" (1994), and "Heat Seeking Missile" (1995).
Unfortunately, the current owner of the historic Old Absinthe House has opted to lease the space out for conversion to a pizza and daiquiri pub with a Hawaiian theme, complete with plastic hula girls on the bar and thatched rooves over each table. Lee is understandably upset about losing the connection to his old stomping grounds.
"Here's a historical building that's been open since 1806 being turned into some kind of theme bar to attract tourists," he says. "There were all kinds of historic artifacts in the place. Back in the 1800s, sailors would leave money up on the wall with their names on it because they didn't know if they would have any money when they returned. There are business cards from people who challenged other people to duels. All kinds of characters drank in that bar. Andrew Jackson drank there, Jean Lafitte drank there. W.C. Fields left a walking cane there. Mae West left a pair of her panties there. There's a rich legacy connected to that place, and now its gone. They came in with jackhammers, chopped up the bar, the floor, everything. It's sacrilege. For me, it hurts because I helped build that business."
Since the closing of the Old Absinthe House Bar, Bryan Lee and his Jump Street Five have relocated to the Tropical Isle, down the block on Bourbon Street, where they can be heard Wednesday through Sunday. They are also gearing up for a nationwide tour in support of their most recent album, "Live At The Old Absinthe House Bar ... Friday Night." "I think my playing has gotten better," says Lee, consistent work always makes you stronger." As a result, to borrow from one of Lee's own lyrics,"The blues IS Bryan Lee and the Jump Street Five".