Bret Dale knew it would be a rough day at work.

Monday marked his first day back at the River Music Experience, or RME, after the passing of his boss, friend, mentor and father figure, Ellis Kell.

Kell died Dec. 16 from a pulmonary embolism.

For Dale, after a week of tribute concerts and Kell’s funeral, going back to work would make it real.

“He was technically my boss, but he hated that,” said Dale, who served as Kell’s programming assistant. “We did everything together, and I learned everything from him.”

But as he awaited the arrival of 20 children and teens wanting to learn about blues music, Dale didn’t have too much time to think about it.

Each time he saw a student learn a new song or guitar chord or raise their hand during a talk, he thought about Kell and smiled.

“It’s a blast to see kids learning about the blues and getting better,” Dale said. “All you can think is, ‘Ellis would’ve loved this.’”

‘Future of blues’

Winter Blues is the first program to be held at the RME since Kell's passing.

Kell founded the weeklong camp, which aims to teach students age 8-18 about blues music, in 2008. As director of programming and community outreach, it was one of many student-centered educational events he created.

But, Dale said, Winter Blues was Kell’s favorite week of the year.

"This was his thing and his brainchild,” he said. 

Kell’s goal was to preserve blues music by fostering the “future of blues,” according to Hal Reed, who has been an instructor with the program since it started.

“It was his greatest dream to take kids back to the roots of music,” Reed said. “With music, you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”

Reed said the camp can be intimidating for first-timers, but when students try it out, they typically come back year after year. And after that, many return as volunteers.

That’s the case for Noah Schneider, 19, who has been involved in Winter Blues in some capacity for five years.

“At first, you’re embarrassed. No one wants to sing in front of anyone,” he said. “The point is to take some kids that are shy and teach them to open up and let loose.”

During Winter Blues sessions, Kell would teach workshops, talk about blues history and find moments to improvise with students. And he was always “full of compliments,” vocal instructor Tony Hoeppner said.

“He would want us to give what he gave,” he said. “He was such a light and encouraged everyone. And that's what kids need." 

‘Out of the basement’

Many of the instructors wish something like Winter Blues had been around when they were teenagers. 

 “I’m a product of the ’60s when there were no places to play or meet other musicians my age," Hoeppner, 69, said. "We played in garages and living rooms and our parents’ basements and tried to figure it out.”

A program such as Winter Blues brings students “out of the basement” and gives them musical goals, he said, such as being selected to join the Winter Blues All-Star band and play at Quad-City venues throughout the year.

Get the Weekender Newsletter

Plan your weekend with our hand-picked list of the Quad Cities' best bets for entertainment.

“Many of these kids have never played with anyone else before,” Dale said. “And you learn so much when you start doing that. It’s life-changing.”

A big part of that is Friday’s open jam session, where the children and teens will put what they’ve learned to the test. They’ll perform on the Redstone Room stage. In previous years, 300 people were in the audience.

“You’re extremely nervous, but as soon as you’re done, the confidence level goes up,” Dale said.

“And it’s a big rush,” Hoeppner said. “The first time you play in a band in front of people, you want to do it again and get better and better at it.”

‘Not going anywhere’

At the RME, Dale says, “Nothing is the same” without Kell.

“And it won’t be,” he said. “It’s a loss we’re going to keep feeling.”

For him, putting on Winter Blues is the start of a new normal.

He doesn’t see Kell in his office, hear him on the phone or stand beside him while they teach students about music.

But he remembers what he learned from his mentor. He remembers to encourage students, to offer smiles and high-fives, to teach stage presence and “feeling the music,” to tell them it’s OK to make mistakes and the importance of events such as Winter Blues. 

“The important thing is that these things are not going anywhere,” he said. “This kind of thing was mine and Ellis’ mission.”

And Dale will keep that mission alive.

“He might not be here physically, but he’s here,” Dale said. “He’s all over this building.”