Coordinators of the formerly three-day-long Baltimore-Washington Jazzfest included a fourth day this year just so they could add a blues man to the lineup.
"Big Jesse [Yawn] moves people. The man bellows, and the people just love him," said Doris Ligon, the festival's founder and director of the African Art Museum of Maryland, which presents the event. "We wanted him to be part of the jazz expression, but he was already booked by the time we contacted him."
Instead of asking Yawn to rearrange his schedule, they rearranged theirs and gave him and his four-man band of six years, the Music Men, a slot performing tonight at Silver Shadows nightclub in Columbia. Yawn's performance is the first of the festival, which will feature concerts by more than a dozen acts - including the Navy's jazz ensemble - through Sunday evening at locations along Route 175 in Columbia.
Ligon said it's OK to begin a jazz event with a blues singer because, frankly, Yawn packs the house and that might spill over to other events. And to be fair, the 64-year-old singer, who lives in Elkridge, also does jazz, but it takes a backseat to blues.
"The blues is in me; it comes out in my music," Yawn said Friday night just before a performance at the Five Mile House in Baltimore. "You've got to have lived the blues to sing the blues."
Though his definition of living the blues - things not going your way - pretty much includes everyone at varying points in their lives, Yawn's got the vocal talent to back up the requisite doldrums.
And he's got the look.
Publicity photos show Yawn in important-looking, flashy suits (complete with pocket squares) and a fedora with lots of chunky gold rings on his fingers. At the Five Mile House, he sported the suit and the pocket square, but the fedora was replaced with a cigar. It's a look that says he is somebody, and he's to be forgiven his quirks because they're all part of the package - just like his epithet "Big."
While the band warmed up, Yawn gave himself credit for building the area's blues foundation. "Baltimore is not really a blues town. It's more so now than it was when I came 32 years ago," he said. "I've contributed a whole lot to the blues following here."
If the audience at Five Mile House is any indicator, there may be some truth to his claim. Yawn's well-dressed fans filled the dance floor and boogied away as he crooned tunes.
Yolanda Powell, an administrative assistant at Bon Secours hospital, has been a Yawn follower since she first heard him sing at the New Haven Lounge in the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center several years ago.
"I'd get my girlfriends together, and we'd go see him there every Wednesday," said Powell, who is in her 40s. "Once I heard [his voice], I fell in love with his singing."
Born in Florida, Yawn came to Baltimore about 1970, when he was in his early 30s. By then he had already had careers in gospel (he sang with the Violinaires and the Trumpets of Joy), in the military at Fort Sill in Oklahoma (where he sang with the 77th Army Band) and as a blues singer with the Memphis-based Bill Black's Combo and the Ohio Players - though Yawn missed the bands' heydays.
In Charm City, Yawn left music behind for construction work in the hopes of getting a steady paycheck. But he was pulled back into the scene full time in the late 1980s, he said, after he met a couple of local blues aficionados and was talked into returning.
He's been going strong ever since. Yawn has played at both of Bill Clinton's inaugural balls, throughout the Mid-Atlantic and in Italy and Germany.
Camay Murphy, executive director of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Baltimore, said Yawn's popularity is on par with that of his music.
"Jazz still has a relatively small audience," she said. "Where you're seeing growth in the audience is in blues. In this region, you've got a lot of big blues shows, and I think that you have a larger audience for it because it's more diverse than in previous years. It used to be considered an African-American thing, but now you have a crossover with whites and Hispanics and other people because it's a music that can get you in the mood. Blues has that kind of draw."
(Baltimore has its share of jazz history if not fans, though. Eubie Blake and Billie Holiday were born here.)
"Trends change, but the blues changes very little. It's always there; it never leaves the scene," Yawn said. "It's America's root music. Everything that's out there has a blues influence."
Big Jesse Yawn and the Music Men will perform tonight at Silver Shadows from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; 5550 Sterrett Place, Columbia. Admission is $15. Information: 410-730-0111. Information about the other Jazzfest events: African Art Museum at 410-730-7105 or log onto www.baltowashjazzfest.org.