The parking lot is full on a hot, sticky Saturday afternoon outside B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ, at 85th Street and Troost. Inside, middle-aged folks with tattoos drink buckets of PBR bottles. Families sit at long tables. Greasy napkins pile up in serving baskets. Onstage, a couple of shaggy-haired high school boys unplug their guitars and head back to their seats, where their parents offer smiles and encouragement. The third set of the blues jam is winding down.
"If you think you can, come on down," roars keyboard player Allen Monroe. "We say it every week." Diane "Mama" Ray, 67 years old, steps out in front of Monroe and the rest of her band, and in a sweet, husky voice, says, "These young guys! I tell you what." Then up comes another young, aspiring blues musician who has signed up to play with Mama Ray and her band.
"We enjoy having the young kids play," Mama Ray says later at her home in Independence. "That's really the whole deal. They are the musicians of tomorrow."
Mama Ray grew up a military kid. Her mother encouraged her to take singing and music lessons, and she appeared on a stage for the first time at the age of 13, in a USO show at the Eagle Club in Wiesbaden, Germany. Five years later, she came to Kansas City. She befriended Betty Able, a performer at the Horseshoe Lounge on Troost, and was soon swept into the scene here.
This Saturday, Mama Ray, by now a kind of local, elder stateswoman, celebrates the 25th anniversary of her "jazz-meets-blues" jam at B.B.'s. Relocated three years ago from Harling's, the jam — every Saturday from 2 to 5:30 p.m. — is more family-friendly than it was at the midtown bar on Main Street. Mama Ray claims that people who come in from all over the world are still getting used to the venue change.
"I've had people from Australia, Germany and England come and tell me they didn't know about the new place," she says. "I even had a bagpiper from Scotland say he couldn't find the place."
Last year, then Mayor Mark Funkhouser gave Mama Ray the keys to the city and issued a proclamation acknowledging her jam as the longest-running one in the history of Kansas City.
"It would not surprise me if it were the longest-running jam session anywhere," says Jay EuDaly, a guitar instructor who has been playing with Mama Ray's band for 20 years. "I am honored to have been a part of it all these years. Honored when it's amazing, and honored when it sucks. It all comes with the territory. And the openness of the jam provides a venue for me to bring in some of my students and let them get their feet wet with real players in a performance situation."
Over the years, the jam has gained an esteemed following. Such locals as Annetta "Cotton Candy" Washington and Oscar "Lucky" Wesley (bassist for the Scamps) played at one time with Mama Ray. "This is a Kansas City event," Mama Ray says. "I don't even want to travel. I've been asked to, but we can't really take a weekend off and not do the jam. I would never not do the jam. It's just a given."
She flips through some old pictures. One of her favorites is from 1992. In it, she's clapping and smiling, kneeling beside a harmonica-playing, 8-year-old Brody Buster. "He's 6-foot-4 now," she says. "He has always been very nice to me because I was one of the first people to let him sit in. I don't discriminate between ages at the jam."