Reviving Oakland's Jazz and Blues Scene, Virtually Can a video game restore a neighborhood's faded glory? A group of Berkeley students hopes so. They've set their sights on 7th Street in West Oakland, California — in the 1940s and 50s, the street was home to a vibrant music scene, but now it's bleak and deserted.
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Reviving Oakland's Jazz and Blues Scene, Virtually

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Reviving Oakland's Jazz and Blues Scene, Virtually

Reviving Oakland's Jazz and Blues Scene, Virtually

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When you think of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, chances are you think of music. Well, Oakland, California used to have a strip like that, too, a destination for blues musicians and fans. But changing times and bad urban planning pushed the music out. Today, there aren't many people left to even remember the blues scene in Oakland.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports on a noble way to preserve and keep the history of the Oakland blues - a video game.

LAURA SYDELL: It's bleak and deserted at the corner of 7th Street in West Oakland, California. There's a windowless liquor store and a job counseling service on one side of the street. No one here seems to recall this block being much else.

I'm wondering if you know anything about the history of 7th Street.


SYDELL: So you don't remember what this place was like?

ULYSSES FINNISTER: I just know that the naval base used to be down there, in front of the overpass, it's where the freeway went down.


SYDELL: All Julian Martinez and Ulysses Finnister ever hear on this street is a commuter train that crosses a track raised above the street. But another sound used to fill this block.


DOUGLAS: (Singing) Well, if I had money, I'll tell you what Id do. I would go downtown and buy a mercury or two. I'm crazy bout a mercury. Yes, I'm crazy bout a mercury.

SYDELL: That's K.C. Douglas singing his song "Mercury Blues." It's been covered by artists such as Steve Miller and used for a Ford commercial. Douglas is just one of the stars who played the music clubs on 7th Street in the 1940s and '50s. They were scores of big blues artists passing through recalls Bob Geddins Jr.

BOB GEDDINS JR: Lowel Fulson, Ivory Joe Herner, T-Bone Walker (unintelligible) there.

BECCA MCCLAREN: And then you had Raincoat Jones.

GEDDINS JR: Oh, yeah.

MCCLAREN: Another character. I don't if I...

GEDDINS JR: And he had all the type of gambling where he was shooting dice and stuff and that kind of thing, you know.

SYDELL: University of California journalist and student, Becca McClaren is interviewing Geddins because his father, Robert, recorded many of the artists who played on 7th Street.

For the last two years, she and other students at Berkeley have been working on a project to recreate a historical 7th Street.

MCCLAREN: It has been challenging to go to people who are maybe in their 80s or even 90s and say, can you tell me exactly what the this club looked like, and what do you remember, and really vivid detail that we need to physically make it - to make it look real.

Initially, the project was going to be a computer recreation until the class realized, that may not be very engaging for young people, says Professor Paul Grabowicz.

PAUL GRABOWICZ: But while exploring you - I mean, they just can't wander around, you have to be some element of play in this or a narrative. So we constructed a series of little - sort of we call them - quests, little things that people could do to find out information about 7th Street.

SYDELL: So now, they are making historical blues video game. As part of the research to make the game exciting, the Journalism class curriculum includes watching games like "Quake" where the player shoots at monsters from outer space.


SYDELL: In the Oakland game, you are a musician who has come to 7th Street to play music in the clubs and maybe get a record deal.


SYDELL: You have to go to the pawn shop to get money to buy fancy clothes, and you meet people who tell you how to get ahead in the music business. One of the missions is to jump on stage in a club and jam with a guitar and a saxophone.


SYDELL: Architecture students are producing the audio and designing the game. Professor Yehuda Kalay has worked on other projects recreating cities and ancient Egypt and Thailand. He says architects increasingly see the virtual world as an extension of the real one where people can shop, talk, earn.

YEHUDA KALAY: This is really the same thing as architects have been doing for the last 10,000 years or so using brick and mortar. Now, we can make environments that are not made of brick and mortar and yet function in similar ways.

SYDELL: Sometimes it's hard to be accurate. If they can't find pictures of a section of 7th Street, the designers may have to make an educated guess based on research about the buildings of the era. People's memories often vary, says journalism professor Grabowicz.

GRABOWICZ: There's a famous character on 7th Street named Raincoat Jones who was basically a loan shark, but also a patron of the clubs. But one of the questions was where did he get the nickname Raincoat? And, God, there were four or five different stories about that.

SYDELL: So, in the game, the player might have to find the origins of Raincoat Jones' name. Old-timers like Bob Geddins Jr. say even if it can't be 100 percent accurate, he's all for this game. He wants young people to understand their history.

GEDDIS JR: (Unintelligible) is also knowing if that music was the influence for Ray Charles, or it was the influence for B.B. King or right on up into today - the R. Kelly or any of them, (unintelligible) a name out there.

SYDELL: Geddins and others also hope that the game will tell people about how the music scene fell apart and help them learn to keep their own communities alive. The first version of the game, which will be online, is scheduled to come out sometime this summer.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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