“I wish I could sing!” Dedry Jones repeatedly says during a phone conversation about his career. Even if he lacks that talent, however, he has another equally valuable skill that lets him engage with songs: he’s a delightful, welcoming conversationalist, and what he loves most is to talk about music.
Jones is the host and organizer of The Experience, an interview and performance show now in its fifteenth year. Four episodes of the show, filmed in front of a live audience at WTTW’s Grainger Studio, will premiere on Thursdays at 10:00 pm, beginning July 13. Since 1989, Jones has owned and operated a valued independent record store in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago (the store has moved through three different locations over the years), and The Experience grew out of his time chatting about and selling music there.
“When I was first trying to figure out what to buy for the store, a guy told me that you don’t buy what you like, because it’s not about what you like: it’s about what the consumers want,” Jones recalls. But by the early 2000s, he felt that the record labels were neglecting the tastes of an older generation in favor of rap and hip-hop – not that he doesn’t like those genres, too. “I wanted people to hear the music that I liked and thought was good, and it seemed to me that the labels weren’t marketing that music,” he says.
He organized a free event at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History with the singer and pianist Rachelle Ferrell after he felt that her label wasn’t doing enough to promote her. When some six or seven hundred people showed up, more than could fit in the room, Jones knew that, “This is what I need to do.”
As an established and respected independent retailer, he had a vast array of contacts in the music industry. “I called everybody,” he remembers. “And everybody turned me down.” But he wrote up a proposal for the show and handed it to the singer Will Downing after a concert. “My brother was a radio promotion person, and he had introduced me to Will, so I was friendly with him. Will said yes, even though his label didn’t do anything to support it other than giving me a hundred black-and-white photos.”
The event was a success, and, most importantly for the label, it sold CDs. So the label came back to Jones and asked him to repeat it with Al Jarreau. Jarreau was followed by George Duke in an even larger space – a Jaguar dealership, of all places – and The Experience became a regular series. “To this day, I credit Will,” Jones says. “Because he said yes when everybody else said no.”
Given Downing’s pivotal role in launching The Experience, it is fitting that he is a guest on one of the shows recorded at WTTW. The episode broadcast on July 27 marks Downing’s seventh appearance on The Experience. The other episodes feature funk-jazz musician Brian Culbertson, on July 13; gospel-trained R&B singer and keyboardist Avery*Sunshine on July 20; and Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca – who also serves as a tour guide to Geoffrey Baer in the upcoming WTTW national special Weekend in Havana – on August 3.
To date, Jones has presented The Experience 97 times, with guests ranging from John Legend to Earth, Wind & Fire, Common to Donna Summer. While he says each one has its highlights, three stand out as his favorites. “Ashford & Simpson are my all-time favorite group, so I was beyond excited when they said yes. Fred Hammond was such an amazing interview, and I thought nobody would ever do a better performance than he did. But then it happened! Now, I think my favorite Experience is the one I did on WTTW with Avery*Sunshine.
“I had seen her and her guitarist, Dana Johnson, perform probably six, seven times, but never with a band. It was always just keyboard and guitar. They so killed it with the band. And Avery is just so funny and so personable, but it wasn’t just for the interview, because she’s like that for real! She and Dana are two of the nicest people you’re ever going to meet. A television audience may not be familiar with her, but I know how good she is, and I know you’re not going to turn away from her once you see her.”
Trust Jones’s opinion, see for yourself, and get blown away by The Experience.