The Denton Blues Festival is a free event held every third weekend of September at Quakertown Park in downtown Denton, Texas. The festival includes a main-stage lineup featuring professional and amateur blues musicians, and a smaller, second stage featuring hip-hop and R&B artists, along with professional dance groups. The festival also provides a number of other family-oriented activities, including face-painting for children, arts and crafts booths, food, and drink. Sponsored by the city of Denton, the University of North Texas, and the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce, the popular event continues to grow each year, attracting more than 4,000 blues music fans from all over the Southwest.
In 1996 the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce decided to host an African-American music and arts festival at the University of North Texas in order to promote local musical acts and performers. By 1997 festival organizers moved the event to September and changed the name to Gospel Extravaganza, in an effort to avoid direct competition with the more popular Denton Arts and Jazz Festival held in the spring. The Gospel Extravaganza hosted numerous gospel choirs and young African-American Christian performers from the Denton area, but the event suffered from low attendance and a general lack of interest from local citizens and college students. In 1998 the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce renamed the event the Denton Blues Festival, which has proved to be quite popular with music fans throughout Texas.
Highlighting local and national blues artists, the festival has hosted a diverse range of musical acts since it began in 1998. These include Tyrone Davis, Willie Hutch, Pinky and the Snake Shakers, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, Pops Carter and the Funkmonsters, Denise La Salle, Floyd Taylor, Full House Blues Band, Michael Burks, Bone Daddies, Betty Lewis, Joe Jonas Band, Guitar Shorty, Latimore, Up All Night Blues Band, Miss Marcy and her Texas Sugardaddy’s, Ernie Johnson, Shadow Casters, Bobby Blue Bland, and Cookie McGee. Since the festival’s inception, organizers have worked to provide a multicultural mix of blues performers from not only Texas, but also Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans.
The Denton Black Chamber of Commerce, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting local African-American small businesses, organizes the event in cooperation with the city of Denton, the University of North Texas, the Denton Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the Greater Denton Arts Council. The festival also relies on many corporate and individual sponsors. With the help of these sponsorships, the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce is able to provide the event free to the public. A large portion of the proceeds generated by the festival benefit the Young Minority Entrepreneurs Institute, a project started by the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce that provides career training for African-American, Latino, and at-risk youths.
The festival features prominent blues musicians, but it also includes amateur blues artists in an effort to highlight up-and-coming talent. Festival organizers encourage vocalists and solo instrumentalists of all ages to compete in the Denton Blues Idol contest, providing a professional backup band for all contestants to help support those who may be performing publicly for the very first time. Winners of the amateur blues competition are allowed to perform onstage with the headliner. Past amateur winners include sixteen-year-old Jessica Munn for her Eric Clapton-influenced electric guitar performance; Lance Candler, sixteen, for his improvisational blues piano playing; and fifteen-year-old Tony Gomez from Oak Cliff, for his Stevie Ray Vaughan-style solo guitar performance. Many professional blues artists that have performed at the festival over the years believe that the Blues Idol Contest is a great opportunity for young blues performers to display their talent and gain experience playing onstage.