For singer-guitarist Joe Zook, the passion he has for the blues is equaled only by the passion he has for teaching.
For the past 30 years Zook and his band, Joe Zook and Friends, has been playing various types of the blues around Trenton and the central New Jersey area, as well as at blues festivals around the country and the world. Zook, along with his band, Blues Deluxe, will appear Friday, October 27, at Ellarslie Mansion, the Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, the second and final concert in the museum’s fall jazz and blues series. The band includes Billy Holt (whom Zook has been playing with for more than 30 years) on bass and vocals, Rick Lawton on drums, Ted Lywacz on piano, and Steve Guyger on blues harp, harmonica, and vocals.
For the past 18 years Zook has been a music teacher in the Trenton public schools. He spent the first 17 at the former Martin Luther King Middle School, and now is at Hedgepeth/Williams School. He teaches kindergarten to eighth grades. But because of dwindling resources — some districts don’t even have music programs anymore — and new requirements brought on by the No Child Left Behind law, Zook says it is becoming hard to really concentrate on instructing kids in the fundamentals of music. “We do the best we can. We still have some time to instruct the kids,” he says. “I like to bring my guitar and teach some gospel and blues, show them what I love. And they do respond. Most of the kids love it.”
Despite the frustrations of the education field, Zook is happy he became a teacher. “I’m 53 years old. When I’m 60, I’ll be eligible for retirement,” he says. “My health care is taken care of and so is my family’s.” It’s the best of both worlds for a working musician. A precious few of them do very well financially but the vast majority of musicians are in a lifetime struggle, a struggle for relevance and a struggle to make ends meet.
Struggle, of course, is at the heart of the blues. The music, like the African-American Southern culture that gave birth to it, was born from pain, strife, and upheaval. Zook says he has always been drawn to the struggle, and the joy, that the blues conveys. “A lot of the way I think about the blues can be summed up in a song that Otis Spann, an old Chicago bluesman, sang,” Zook says. “The song is called ‘The Blues Don’t Like Nobody.’ I like to ask people, ‘Do you like the blues? Do you like the blues? You do? Well, that’s a shame, ‘cause the blues don’t like nobody.’ Ironic, isn’t it?”
The blues, Zook says, provides a way for musicians and listeners to release some of the tensions of life. “It’s a cathartic release.” And the blues has given Zook the opportunity for a higher profile than he would have ever expected to have. He has traveled around the country and the world and has released a CD. And he has played many concerts in this area. He was recently a headliner at a benefit at Maxine’s II in Trenton. “That’s a great place,” he says. “When you do something like that, and it’s all blues, it really isn’t about the money. Just to be able to pull something off like that and pack the place isn’t easy to do.”
Zook grew up in North Trenton, where he attended public and private schools. His father, Sam, was an ophthalmologist, and his mother, Mary, was a homemaker. Both parents were pianists.
Zook had a nice, contented childhood, he says. Growing up with one younger brother, Zook says “my parents may have spoiled me a little bit.” That’s because he contracted polio at 2 1/2 years of age and had to walk with braces and a special shoe on one leg. “I am a polio survivor. That may be one reason I can relate to the blues,” Zook says. As a young teen, he had an operation to correct the deformities in his left leg, and soon after, he was able to walk normally.
He began learning how to play the guitar when he was 15. Soon after, he says he discovered performers such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, and it was after reading about the musicians who inspired his favorite rock stars — stars such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson — that he began trying to figure out what makes their music so compelling.
“Back then, you could get records and stack them on top of each other. I would do that, listen to them one by one, one after the other, and then I’d get my guitar and play along with them. That’s how I learned how to play, and that’s how I learned about the blues,” says Zook.
After graduating from Ewing High School in 1970, he tried to make an impact as a musician but the money was not coming easily. He was working at the Michael Scott leather bag and purse factory in Roebling in the late 1970s when, he says, “the light came on.”
It took Zook more than the typical four years to get his degree, but finally, in 1981, he received a bachelor’s in music education from Trenton State College. He began teaching in Trenton in 1987. “I am so glad I went back to school,” says Zook.
Zook now lives in Hamilton with his wife, Donna, and his son, Joey, who is 13 and plays flute and violin, and acts in school plays. His daughter, Maria, who is 26, is a teacher of physical education and health in south Jersey.
He says he will never regret his own decision to become an educator. “When I can play a 12-bar blues solo for my students and see their faces light up, it’s more rewarding than anything I can imagine. I am just so glad that I can have a bit of an impact on younger people.”
Joe Zook and Blues Deluxe, Friday, October 27, 7 p.m., Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park. Singer-songwriter Joe Zook presents an evening of autumn blues from the 1930s to the future. Wine and hors d’oeuvres. Register. $15. 609-989-1191.