WORDS BY MARTIN DEVANEY
On the first, frigid Friday night of the new year, PaviElle French gathered with friends, colleagues, and other well-wishers around a radio in a St. Paul living room. As the traffic and weather report ended, the room fell silent as the first notes of Memphissippi Sounds’ ‘Look out for the Wolf’ rolled out of the speaker. Luca’s Juke Joint was open for business.
Adopting the DJ name she used as a young woman, spinning and studying under DJ Stage One at the Dinkytowner (RIP), French becomes Lady Luca for two hours every Friday night on KBEM Jazz 88.5 FM. Though it is a blues-focused show, she makes it clear from the jump she aims to educate listeners and shine a light on Black musicians who have had a major influence on all forms of American music. On any given episode, she might focus on Delta blues or boogie-woogie and illuminate how those musical traditions have found their way to contemporary hip hop. The show is much more than just playing blues music on the radio for a couple hours on Friday night.
“Blues is the throughline to all music,” she explains, “whether it was people singing in coded language on a plantation or street reporting about what’s going on in their lives in hip hop songs.”
But ever since the 1960s blues resurgence—led by the likes of Eric Clapton and Edgar Winter—the origin of the blues, and who the true torchbearers are, has become less clear. As with so many art forms, there are gatekeepers of the blues and how it is perceived. Too often, that narrative is led by those who hold the money and haven’t come from the tradition they claim to champion. French cites several young artists such as the above-mentioned Memphissippi Sounds (whose Cameron Kimbrough is the grandson of blues legend Junior Kimbrough), Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and local singer Annie Mack as some of the true heirs of the blues lineage. French sees herself as a conduit of sorts, making this music available to everyone through her art and activism.
“I want to be a keeper of my culture on my terms,” she says. “I see Ken Burns doing a documentary on jazz and I say, ‘I wanna do that.’”
She’s been doing that. Born and raised in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, French grew up around institutions such as the Penumbra Theater and Walker West Music Academy and blossomed into an interdisciplinary artist of staggering breadth. In the past several years, she has been a McKnight and Jerome Hill artist fellow, received awards for dance and choreography, worked as an arts educator, sang with the likes of Sonny Knight and Wanda Davis, and has also reached into the classical realm as a resident at the American Composers Forum, receiving a grant for her composition, A Requiem for Zula, written in celebration of her mother’s life.
There is also the matter of the music French releases under the mononym, PaviElle, including the 2021 full length album Sovereign, which she says was born of the “tragedies and travesties” of the past few years. She and her five-piece band perform the album and other material February 17 at Icehouse, which she says will ultimately be a party to celebrate the achievements of the past few years, and a way to let off a little steam. The album (like the artist who made it) is multifaceted, having spawned a making-of documentary and The Sovereign Suite, a work commissioned by The Schubert Club and performed at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater in 2022.
“This is who I was raised to be,” she says. “This is the way. Being a practitioner of the arts has become my way of staying spiritually connected to my community and the Black art aesthetic.”
WHEN YOU GO
Feb 17, Icehouse, 2528 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., icehousempls.com
9 PM doors/10 PM show, $15-$18
Listen to Luca’s Juke Joint, Fridays, 9-11 PM, on KBEM Jazz 88.5 FM