Bluesman Guy King has a somewhat different life story than T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong and the other African-American musical legends he grew up revering.
For King was born and raised in Israel, inexorably gravitating to the city that helped electrify the blues in the mid-20th century and nurtured jazz long before that: Chicago.
So when the singer-guitarist headlines the fourth annual Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival, which runs Thursday through June 2, his personal narrative will reflect the nature and purpose of this remarkable event — to show the deep (though not obvious) links between roots music made in America and its offshoots on the other side of the world.
For Israel long has been a cauldron of new sounds inspired by American music, and King came under the spell of these faraway idioms as a child.
"I remember, my parents would have the radio on, and sometimes my father would play Louis Armstrong … sometimes something like Ray Charles would come on," remembers King, who performs shows May 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center and Andy's Jazz Club under the auspices of the fest.
"Then somebody showed me 'Blues Power' by Albert King," adds Guy King (no relation), referring to the influential "Live Wire/Blues Power" album. "And it hit me like a brick. It was a horn section playing for him. He was bending notes. He was pure. He was raw and orchestrated. And he really moved me."
So much so that after a brief North American tour with a vocal group when he was 16, Guy King vowed to move to the States and did so after completing compulsory military duty in Israel in 1999, at age 21.
"Twelve days after the service, I took the guitar and the suitcase, and I went to Memphis, because B.B. King and Albert King started there," explains King, who a couple of months later ventured to New Orleans for a few weeks before arriving in Chicago.
At the time, "I was not familiar with Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf," adds King, referring to icons of Chicago blues.
"Here in Chicago, I was by myself. When you're alone, things sink in. I picked up a boxed set of Ray Charles. This is not just blues; it has some elements of jazz.
"I started exploring. He talked about how much he loved Charlie Parker, and I got into Charlie Parker."
Within a year, King was playing in a band led by bassist Willie Kent, who famously had collaborated with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and other stars. In effect, King was learning at the foot of the master, playing with him until Kent's death in 2006, at age 70.
The result of that tenure and the years that followed is a musician who mixes Chicago blues with aspects of jazz, soul and more in his new album, "Truth" (Delmark Records). Energetic, muscular and staffed by some of Chicago's finest jazz musicians — including trumpeter Marques Carroll and saxophonist Brent Griffin Jr. — the recording shows how seriously King has immersed himself in the sounds of his adopted city.
"He does play a very American style of blues, with a hint of R&B or soul," says Kevin Fine, who programmed the Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival as director of cultural affairs for the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest.
In so doing, King epitomizes the festival's mission of "spreading Israeli music and culture through a city that is so centered around music," adds Fine, who also happens to be a drummer who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last year.
And though some Chicagoans may regard Israel as a remote and somewhat mysterious place, Fine believes its parallels to the United States are worth celebrating.
"Israel is similar to the U.S. because it has so many immigrants from so many countries, and it really has become a melting pot for culture on all levels," says Fine. "Jazz and blues go hand in hand with both of our societies really well."
Certainly the steadily growing popularity of the Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival, which has drawn large crowds to every event I've attended over the years, suggests that Chicago audiences have valued the opportunity to hear musicians who came of age in the Middle East. This year, the itinerary will feature Israeli blues musician Lazer Lloyd collaborating with Chicago instrumentalists Thursday at Buddy Guy's Legends and Sunday at FitzGerald's in Berwyn; the jazz-rock sounds of Chicago-based Marbin Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club; Israeli saxophonist Uri Gurvich, who now lives in New York and records on John Zorn's Tzadik label, Monday at Andy's Jazz Club; Guy King on May 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center and Andy's Jazz Club; Tal Gamlieli, a Jerusalem-based bassist, leading a trio June 1 at SPACE in Evanston; and Yemen Blues, a band that weaves Middle Eastern musical traditions with global sounds, June 2 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
These far-flung musical genres have more in common than one might think, says King, who began touring extensively in 2012 but refocused his activities in Chicago last year.
"If you really think about it, every ethnic music, every folk music — from whatever place — is the blues, will have that touch," he says.
"Ethnic music is simple music. You can add and embellish some colors, make it more beautiful, less beautiful. The feeling of the music is not that different if you are in Brazil, if you are in Africa, if you are in Chicago or in Israel. There's a raw feeling of music.
"That raw element is like the heart. The beat is the same. Maybe the accent will be different. … The raw feeling is the same."
That's a message the Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival aspires to convey, and it's one that we'll be hearing for the next several days.
Guy King plays 6:30 p.m. May 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center's Preston Bradley Hall, 78 E. Washington St.; free. Also 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10, but free with ticket from the first concert; 312-642-6805 or www.andysjazzclub.com. For the festival's complete schedule, visit bit.ly/israeli-jazzfest.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.