In 1981, when downtown San Jose resembled a cracked mosaic of dying retail and skid row environs, Ted Gehrke conspired to launch a blues festival on the campus of San Jose State University. Thirty-eight years later, that festival is still held every summer. Gehrke, who passed away last weekend at 79, was a true promotional warrior for all things music, all things San Jose and all things poetry.
He ran with the likes of Taj Mahal and Frank Zappa before he even landed with the Associated Students Program Board at SJSU, for whom he oversaw countless blues festivals and hundreds of other concerts, like U2’s now-legendary show at the SJSU Student Union Ballroom. Across decades and every possible demographic of outré spirit, he never gave up on this city. He believed in the potential of San Jose when nobody else did.
In 1997, the Blues Festival came into some financial problems and was on the verge of going under when Metro signed on as the presenting name sponsor, a partnership that lasted for more than 15 years. Over that time, Metro staff became inseparable from Gehrke and his exploits. Anytime the blues came into a conversation, a gloriously devilish grin came over his face. The blues crossed all boundaries of storytelling, and Ted could launch into a lurid, hysterical yarn from nowhere at any given moment. The blues just flowed out of him.
In his day, Gehrke promoted and booked gigs with every bluesmaster alive, bringing all the legends to San Jose. In the process, he developed an unequaled degree of gravitas around town. He held court everywhere he roamed. Everyone knew Ted. And if they didn’t, they were certainly one or two degrees from someone that did. Music-wise, he was a fixture in downtown San Jose longer than anyone. It’s hard to imagine a this city without Ted Gehrke lumbering around somewhere.
I first encountered Gehrke on the SJSU campus back in the 1990s, before I had morphed into a writer. Gehrke was like a surrogate father for any aspiring poetic troublemaker who came through school. He supported any wacko zonked-out idea, no matter how ridiculous. He was a poet and he understood the poetic side of life, he empathized with creative suffering, and he encouraged the performative aspects of the outsider’s predicament in what was then a relatively stagnant town to operate. What’s more, he reveled in the gritty underbelly of San Jose, the real San Jose, beneath the onslaught of overpriced real estate, chain restaurants and upcoming tech-worker gentrification. Until the very end, he remained a gutsy, passionate supporter of the blues. A true original, Gehrke made San Jose real because he was real. And a piece of every single one of us has now left the stage with him.
This year’s San Jose Fountain Blues & Brews Festival is Jun. 22. More info about the festival and Gehrke at fountainblues.com