Dennis Willmott grew up with music.
His mother sang many genres, but the music that really resonated for him was the blues.
“When I was 14, I started playing guitar,” Willmott said. “In the years that I was supposed to be in high school I was running the streets with my friends and playing music.” Marriage, children and a career in architecture put Willmott’s musical dreams on hold, but when his wife bought him an electric guitar in the early 1990s, his interest was rekindled.
New guitar in hand, Willmott sought out others to play music with and ended up joining the Vermont Blues Society. It was there that he met blues musicians Dan Whalen and Dwight Richter, who became major influences in his life. “I listened and tried to hone my skills and began to learn how to work with an electric ensemble,” he recalled.
In 1997, he formed the group Left Eye Jump and they have been playing together ever since. Willmott notes that interest in the blues ebbs and flows in Vermont. In the late 90s, it was popular but around 2002 interest waned. Now however, things have picked up. “The last five years for me have been ballistic,” Willmott said. This month will mark a full year of shows by Left Eye Jump every Saturday afternoon at Red Square in Burlington.
Willmott and his wife moved to Hinesburg and built their house in 1974. Five years earlier, he had started as an apprentice carpenter in Tunbridge and subsequently began a design/build business, which he left in 1989. From there he went to Turner Brooks and stayed for five years until the firm moved to Connecticut. He was unemployed for all of three days before being offered a job by architect Tom Cullins. “I was treated like a king at both firms,” Willmott said, “but by the late 90s I was firmly rooted in the Blues Society and running jams from my house and it became clear to me that it was time to retire from architecture.”
Now 72, Willmott believes there is no age limit in music. “I worked with Big Joe Burrell during the last three years of his life,” he said. “He was physically deteriorating, but he never lost his musical mastery. They say that music is one of the things that can keep people from dementia.”
That said, Willmott is excited to see a new generation of Vermonters discovering the blues and in furtherance of that effort he is on the board of a group trying to revive the Vermont Blues Society.
“It’s being organized as we speak,” he said. “The mission is to promote blues music in the state and create a platform for up-and-coming and established blues bands to have their schedules published.”
The hope is that Vermont could become home to a blues festival and might even produce a band good enough to travel to the Blues Music Awards in Memphis. “We have an enormous talent pool in the state,” Willmott said.
Willmott may be part of the reason for that talent pool, having organized a number of blues jams including sessions in Richmond and Middlebury. “I got to meet the local blues community and it made me a stronger player. In the past nine years, I’ve seen a resurgence of the blues and new bands started by members of the younger generation,” he said. “I feel encouraged that the blues have a future here.”