Blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon, taking the stage at the Bradenton Blues Festival Dec. 7, started out with an interest in playing reggae, not blues. But he soon realized, as he jokes, “There weren’t any reggae jams” in his native Chicago. The blues was a natural switch; he grew up listening to blues masters in his grandparents’ home, then started hanging out at clubs, soaking up the lessons of legends like Junior Wells, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy. “On weekends I’d play sideman,” he recalls, “trying to put together my own band,” which he did in 2001. He also recorded several well-received albums, including The Chicago Way, which gained international attention for him and his hometown, as he was filmed leading a tour of clubs there for CNN. His latest: The Preacher, The Politician or the Pimp.
Of course, playing the blues doesn’t always pay all the bills. Cannon has also been driving a Chicago Transit Authority bus for 25 years, often working 10-hour shifts, playing a gig, then heading to bed at 1 a.m. and rising at 6 a.m. to start the day anew. But he says his day job gives him opportunities to “watch people and see things,” and to write down his ideas (“safely in the bus yard”), working out the chords on his guitar later. “I tell stories that make people feel ‘I’ve lived that’ or ‘I know that situation,’” he says. “Musicians from other areas very rarely speak to the audience. I watched people like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters and how they speak to the audience. You have to let the audience know they’re there. When you tell them about your life or the next song, that engages them. It’s a personal thing.”