Jay Sieleman — 2018 Inductee
Inside his office at The Blues Foundation in Memphis hung a painting of Bonnie Raitt and a guitar signed by the late great B.B. King. It’s not every day that a person gets to work on behalf of his musical heroes, but not every person gets to be Jay Sieleman, past president and chief executive officer of The Blues Foundation.
Jay Sieleman was born and raised in Oelwein Iowa, with a penchant for hard work and a love of music. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts in political science in 1975 and a Juris Doctorate in 1978. This was followed by stints working as an attorney inside and outside the U.S.
In 1993, while at a jazz festival in New Orleans, he became aware of the Ultimate Rhythm & Blues Cruise. His first Blues Cruise was in January 1994, and it was life-changing event. Because of the cruise, Jay learned of The Blues Foundation and the Blues Music Awards, he then visited Memphis for the first time in 1996. He volunteered to help The Blues Foundation and served on its advisory board from 1999 to 2003. While living in Panama, he wrote articles for the website, and advised the foundation and blues societies on aspects of nonprofit law—even spending a month living with a friend and working in the Foundation office.
In 2003, The Blues Foundation offered Jay the position of director of administration. In 2005, he became the executive director, the title changing to president/CEO. Anyone associated with blues music will confirm that Sieleman’s work at the foundation kept the blues alive. Thanks to his tireless leadership, The Blues Foundation is now the largest and most renowned blues organization in the world—dedicated to preserving the music, celebrating performance excellence, supporting blues education, and strengthening the future of a music profoundly important to American history. Under his leadership the Foundation’s net worth grew by millions and membership tripled to 4,500 individuals, plus over 200 affiliated blues societies representing another 50,000 fans around the globe.
At that time the headquarters were housed in about 2,000 square feet at 49 Union. Visitors would come from all over the world expecting something to be there that exemplified the blues and what The Blues Foundation represented. There wasn’t. In 2010, The Blues Foundation bought a 12,000-square-foot, two-level space on the ground floor at 421 S. Main. Sieleman retired from his position as President and CEO in 2015, but not before he had helped to raise over $3 million for The Blues Foundation, and officially oversaw the opening of the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. The Blues Hall of Fame finally had a home, the world a destination where blues legends can be properly honored for their work, and Jay Sieleman a legacy of keeping the blues alive.