Sarah Sanders meets me at the door. Within seconds I encounter Mama Blue. The moment Sanders and I walk inside a Starbucks in the suburban DMZ that is Lakewood, someone recognizes her.
Before Sanders can order her standard drink – “venti iced caramel macchiato with seven shots” – she is pulled aside by her adoring public. While this could be a false alarm – the person who spotted Sanders is equal parts old friend and fan – it seems like a fittingly dazzling introduction in this innocuous venue. Decked out in oversize sunglasses, faded black jeans, her hair bloomed out in a voluminous style, and a shirt emblazoned with Kermit the Frog’s smiling face, Sanders cuts a striking figure.
“This is the last of the great neighborhoods,” she says as we settle into the last available two-seat table on the far side of the barista station, hidden from the lunchtime racket. ‘Shop local’ guilt initially tinged the plan to meet here. “Is this tacky?” she asked. But Riverside and Avondale could be distracting, not so much by adoring fans, rather by friends and other musicians stopping by to chat. “I’ve got to be me and I feel like I’m personable,” she says, laughing, “but there’s a reason I’m not on Facebook all of the time.”
Tomorrow she flies to New Jersey for the Riverview Jazz Festival. Held in Jersey City, Hoboken and the surrounding burgs, the scheduling of the eight-day festival seems focused on Jersey-based heavyweights like Cuban band Típica 73 and drummer Winard Harper, along with up and comers – like Mama Blue. While she might not be filling her FB feed with a promotional assault, she may not need to – she landed the festival gig via word of mouth.
“Tourists come from everywhere and if you make an impression on them they go home and talk about you. It’s ironic because this person came down and saw me and she had a friend, who had a friend … six degrees of separation, this is how it rolls.” A friend and former Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (DA) student named Natalie Miniard, now a successful realtor in Jersey City, is connected to the jazz festival and organizes concerts in the area. “This tourist knew her, and saw me, and now I’m playing the festival.”
The gig came about so quickly that her band already had other plans. So she’s hooked up with a keyboard accompanist. “I gotta keep their name on the ‘DL’ because they’re blowing off another gig,” she laughs. The gig is her first time visiting New Jersey, her first real trip to NYC other than shopping in Chinatown for a fake Louis Vuitton purse. She’s excited for the possibilities the trip could bring. “Natalie once had Rachel Platten perform and three days later Platten’s signed to Columbia. So who knows? Maybe some of that will roll off on me.”
Before meeting, we settled on ground rules typical for interviews (“you gotta tell me whatever’s off the record”) but one question lingers: Who is being profiled, Sarah Sanders – or Mama Blue? “This is all her thing,” she says, taking a sip and waving a hand. “Like that gal we met in the front, and speaking with her? That was total Mama Blue at work. I’m an introvert and she helps me deal with people. If I could be Mama Blue all day, every day, I’d be so happy. But I can’t.”
Mama Blue was born Sarah Sanders in Orange Park on June 17, 1976 and grew up on the eastside of Jacksonville, near Richard L. Brown Elementary School. For someone who exudes such a colorful vibe now, as a child her radiance was suppressed. “I didn’t hear a radio or see television until I was about 14.” Her father was an Apostolic Faith preacher, a Pentecostal denomination known for controlling congregants’ lives with strict standards regarding radio and TV, which are considered sinful. “I had to have my hair covered, all of these things … it was a cult as far as I’m concerned.” While she may not have been plugged into MTV, she credits her grandmother’s singing and her mother Sherry with introducing her to music. “My mom sings and plays guitar, the viola, and organ. She’s off the chain.”
Fed up with the rigidity, eventually her mom issued a sort of divine intervention. “My momma was like, ‘Get your ass out of this house!’” she laughs. “And the next day she took me to JCPenney’s and bought me a pair of acid-washed jeans. And she let me go to school and I walked in class and it was like, ‘Holy crap! She’s not wearing a dress and will you look at those jeans?’ And I blossomed after that.”
Considering the ongoing legacy of its alumni, it is hardly surprised that she was part of the first wave of students from DA. Auditioning for the chorus introduced her to musical theatre. “I thought ‘wow’ – this is really cool.” Prior to graduating from DA, she was offered a performance scholarship to Jacksonville University and, in 1994, began her college studies. By the end of her academic career, she was fully armed with knowledge of various styles of music, along with skills at sight-reading that only amped up her natural aptitude for music. “It afforded me the opportunity to perform with some of the best musicians and have some of the best teachers in our area at that time.”
Family and relationships are two topics that come up repeatedly in conversation. Mama Blue speaks of her mom and children, playfully telling how she became a mom, and how a realization about family pushed her forward.
“I love me a white man, honey,” she laughs. “Cream in my coffee. Both of my kids are half German, alright?”
When she was 19, Sanders met her first real boyfriend at a House of Pain concert in Jacksonville. The couple wound up traveling with the tour through Florida, hanging out with Everlast and Cypress Hill. “[He] was funny as hell. He’s a UFC fighter … tats … the whole nine yards. And short like me.” Sanders became pregnant with her first child, Zavian. While he had never acted in any disparaging way towards her before, after Zabian was born he began hurling racial epithets at her. When Zabian was nine months old, he came home, lost it, and tried to hit both of them. “I ended up joining the ‘Battered Women’s Club.’” A habitual offender, he ultimately was arrested for domestic violence and did seven years. Since then, she describes their relationship as “cordial” and “better.” “A situation like that is what helped create Mama Blue. I could never sing the blues until I went through that kind of madness.”
In 2000, she “chased this German dude to Europe.” She met him when he came to fix her computer at PRC Digital. The German, Shawn Roush, joined the army and was stationed back in his ancestral homeland. Sanders eventually moved to be with him in Germany, where she became pregnant with her second child, daughter Shiloh. Living on the outskirts of Schweinfurt, working a day job and singing jazz at night, Sanders embraced life as an expatriate mom and musician. “I remember being eight months pregnant, lying on this piano singing torch songs,” she laughs. “I was doin’ it honey!” Then she had an experience that had a pulsar effect on people the world over and rocked her to the core.
“When 9/11 happened, I remember sitting in an elementary school, pregnant, holding my five year old, seeing Turkish folks burning flags on the street. I don’t know where my husband is and we’re not on a military base. We are out in the streets. I’m holding one child and expecting another. Chaos. That flipped everything around for me and woke me up.” Her marriage to Roush ended, and she came home, rattled but with creative resolve. “Coming back, I knew that I had to make a change.”
In 2011, Mama Blue emerged. Her name started popping up, permeating concert fliers and music listings when she appeared at festivals. It was less a social media blitz than an organic arrival. From the onset, bassist John Mortensen has been both her musical and romantic counterpoint and biggest supporter. “He compliments me very well,” she says. They originally met playing together in the Mike Bernos Band. “I’m playing with Mike and this dude keeps showing up at the gigs, like he’s stalking me. And he’s always bringing some different ratchet-looking black women with him every time.” Mortensen eventually worked his way into the band. Subsequently Mortensen and Mama Blue formed a different group. She says he is the core of her band. “John’s very analytical and he’s logistical. I’m a Gemini and I’m not.” The band’s current lineup includes Kyle Cohen (guitar), Joyce “The Funkstress” Genwright (guitar) and Kent McKinney and Eric Bailey sharing drum duties.
Mama Blue has become a solid artist by mixing soul, blues, and jazz into a potent blend. While she estimates that the band has more than 50 originals, like many local acts, they drop some covers into the set list, including tunes by Aretha Franklin, Gary Clark Jr., Tina Turner, Etta James, and Jimi Hendrix. Mama Blues’ favorite source of inspiration comes in one, rock royalty form: Queen, whom she believes epitomizes music. “They successfully meshed every genre of music into their own music and they do it with class. I still don’t think they’ve been given as much respect as they should’ve been given,” she says. “They surpass these boxes that people try to put musicians in.”
Right now there’s a lot happening, quickly, for Mama Blue. When she comes back from the jazz festival, she and the band are celebrating her 40th birthday by playing what she’s billing as “Mama Blues’ XX Birthday Bash” on June 17 at Harmonious Monks in Jacksonville Beach. Longtime friends Flat Land are opening and the free party promises everything from cornbread cupcakes to a super secret group closing the night. Of course Mama Blue will get onstage as well. Both of her children now play. Shiloh, 14, plays baritone sax. “That girl is on it,” Mama Blue says proudly. And 19-year-old son Zavian is an aspiring songwriter in a more hip-hop vein. “For years he’d say, ‘Mom, you gotta hear what I’ve done,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t need to hear any of that; I’m a real musician.’” Though Mama Blue is hardly a fan of most contemporary rap, turned off by its “degrading” portrayals of women and sex, she’s come around to her son’s music. Zabian is making his live debut at her birthday bash.
Right now Mama Blue and her band are scrambling to finish a six-song debut CD, entitled Life. “It’s basically a promotional CD to raise funds to make a real CD,” she says. “This is a whole other emotional thing for me.” She’s funding everything, which means she doesn’t always take money home from gigs. But that’s okay. “I’m down with this: You got five cents? Because I’ve got ninety-five cents and let’s do something. Let’s make ten bucks. Let’s make something happen.” Getting signed with Brooklyn, New York-based Daptone Records is the goal; it makes sense because Mama Blue already sounds like the kind of artist that would be featured on the roster of the hip, indie funk and soul label. “What do I have to do, other than what I’ve been doing, to get an opportunity to go a step further?”
The lunch hour caffeine rush is over and we’ve become two of the holdouts. Saccharine alt-jazz-rock – if there is such a sad thing – gurgles through the ceiling speakers. The conversation lags, a brief pause that rolls into shared silence until Mama Blue breaks it. “I’m just hoping someone can say –” seeming surprised by her tears, she looks away at the window, wipes her eyes, and almost whispers the rest of the thought, “- yeah, I’ll take a chance on you.”
When she hasn’t been at center stage, Mama Blue has still shown up for curtain call. An in-demand actor, she’s a theater veteran. Over the past 15 years, Mama Blue has starred in local musical productions including Ain’t Misbehavin’, Bye, Bye Birdie, Carousel, A Christmas Carol, Company, Guys and Dolls, Little Shop of Horrors, Jesus Christ Superstar, Oklahoma, and The Rimers of Eldritch. Play rehearsals are a double-edged sword. They can offer a semi-steady check but they also burn up the calendar for gigs. “You have rehearsals and shows pretty much every single night. And it’s a different kind of energy. But still a good energy.”
But not all of her moments out on the boards have been pleasant. Last month, Mama Blue starred in the title role of the world premiere of Sweet Emmaline – the Musical Journey of Debbie McDade. Written and directed by Deborah D. Dickey, Emmaline tells the true story of Debbie McDade, born Emmaline Maultsby, and her journey from Lincolnville to NYC as a jazz vocalist and, oddly enough, renowned whistler. McDade eventually performed with the likes of Earl “Fatha” Hines, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, among others, and became the first black woman to star on a USO tour. The now 91-year-old McDade lives in St. Augustine and was present for the show’s run. “Long story short, this woman Deborah [Dickey] was at a party in New York and a friend of mine, James Kinney, who does all of the choreography at the Alhambra and is also a DA grad, told her about me.” Dickey was looking for a “jazz singer slash actress” to portray McDade; Mama Blue was a natural fit. “I went and auditioned and I was only given the first page of the play. And Deborah kind of rattled off the story to me and I was really digging the whole idea.”
After she was cast, things hit a sour note. As production started rolling, Mama Blue felt increasingly uncomfortable with the content of the play, particularly in the stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans. “The play is basically a white woman deciding to write a black woman’s story and of how she thinks black people lived and talked. And it was an insult to me, my craft, to Debbie McDade, and to black people. There were two black actresses telling her [Dickey], ‘This is not how black people talk.’”
She also feels that McDade, who was present for some of the rehearsals, was not happy. Mama Blue says she racked up more than 2,000 miles commuting to St. Augustine for rehearsals, and essentially did the play for “gas money.” She only met with the musical director one week before the show opened. Though the story was supposed to celebrate a local jazz great, the play takes place after McDade’s fall from grace when she’s waiting tables. Mama Blue now wonders if, as she was featured in press releases as the “draw” for the play, she was kind of used to drum up publicity for what otherwise might’ve been a less visible debut. “I agreed to do it because the story sounded interesting. And I thought that it seemed surreal because she did what I’m doing. And I’ll own it: in some musical circles Mama Blue is respected, she’s looked up to. But I felt used and I think that Debbie McDade felt used as well because they made a lot of money off of that woman and I don’t even know if she got any money. But her family came from California and New York and they were not happy. And none of what Debbie McDade told me herself is in this show.”
Mama Blue has told other musicians about her opinion of and experiences with the play and says she’s had positive feedback and support. “We can’t perpetuate that bullshit.”
Folio Weekly Magazine contacted Dickey for comment via email. As of press time she had not responded.
Over the phone days after our conversation at Starbucks, after Mama Blue hit it hard at the Riverview Jazz Festival, the rasp of her voice on the phone makes it sound like the festival smacked her around a bit, as well. Mama Blue played five times in three days; when she wasn’t playing she was busy making connections. She’s tired but still wired and animated, almost shocked at the outcome of the gig. “What have I been missing?” she laughs, sounding slightly dazed. “I was up until 4 a.m. and I’ve been singing nonstop since I got here. Insane.”
At her headlining gig, she performed to a packed house of 75 people who paid $25 a pop for the privilege of hearing her sing. “It was like a mini DA reunion since so many live up here and they came out in full force to support me,” she laughs, still sounding surprised.
That night she had yet another gig lined up at New York’s Fat Black Pussycat. From networking with Christine Santelli, the Grammy-nominated songwriter who worked with Bettye LaVette, to scoring a $150 tip for singing one tune at a bistro, Mama Blue hit a homerun at the fest. “I’ve met so many people behind the big folks,” she says, referring to the music biz types who frequented the festival. When the smoke cleared and the stage was shut down, she made sure that she had a gig to come back to. In October, Mama Blue and her band are performing at the annual Jersey City Halloween bash.
Tomorrow she’s got another opportunity, albeit a less exciting one: she’s heading to the 9/11 Memorial Plaza and former site of the World Trade Center to pay her respects. “I’ve been putting this off for 15 years. But this song is in me.”
Blame it on force majeure. For some kind of narrative consonance, or maybe gimmicky closure, our goal was to meet one the last time at an innocuous coffee shop, the place where this conversation began. Thanks to Tropical Storm Colin, the first such storm to hit Florida in three years, pummeling rains, 50 mph winds and a tornado warning put us back on the phone. It’s the day after she visited the 9/11 Memorial and Mama Blue is back home in Jacksonville.
“It was tough,” she says. Deep in thought, she stood at Ground Zero and watched people flick cigarette butts in the reflective pools as kids hopped up and down on the names of the dead. In all, she took maybe three pictures. When she was snapping a picture of the Survivor Tree a security guard approached and struck up a conversation. He joked that if she started hyperventilating from emotion, he’d call the paramedics. Mama Blue had paid $25 to step into the place. She says the security guard told her, “This is all about money.” Duke’s basketball team held a memorial there where they kicked out survivors’ family members. Even the Survivors’ Tree was moved from its original location, ostensibly for better landscaping design and ornamental appeal. God Bless America.
“Through all of that, in the back of my mind I knew I was in a graveyard.”
The experience wasn’t solemn. She didn’t even find it peaceful. But she had finally made it.
If Mama Blue expected closure, it came to her in another form.
“Now it’s time to write this song. It’s come full circle. Now it’s time for the beginning, the middle, and the end.”