Distinguished Alumni Award

Jay Sieleman 75BA, 78JD

2015 Service Award

Jay Sieleman, 75BA, 78JD, is credited with skillfully and almost single-handedly saving the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, and, in the process, reviving blues music itself—an art form at the heart of the nation's cultural heritage.

Thanks to his tireless leadership, the once-flailing Blues Foundation is now the largest and most renowned blues organization in the world. Since arriving there in 2003, Sieleman has grown the foundation's net worth by millions and tripled membership to 4,500 individuals, plus 200 affiliated blues societies representing another 50,000 fans around the globe.

"Blues takes away the blues. The university honors blues music when it honors me."

Sieleman grew up in Oelwein, Iowa, around a music-loving family. A free spirit of the 1960s, he initially had no plans to attend college, but eventually enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1973. At the UI, Sieleman developed the critical thinking skills, work ethic, and professionalism that prepared him for a law career that took him from Polk County, Iowa, to Panama.

While working as an attorney for the Panama Canal Commission, Sieleman began serving as a volunteer nonprofit law advisor to the Blues Foundation. He'd also ignited a passion for blues and had become familiar with the organization's mission to preserve the music, celebrate recording and performance excellence, support blues education, and strengthen the future of a music profoundly important to American history. But he soon discovered financial and administrative mismanagement had left the foundation teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and irrelevancy. Blues Foundation board members noted Sieleman's dedication and knowledge and invited him to join the staff permanently, hoping he could make a difference.

"The blues is played by incredibly talented musicians who are very giving people and engaged with their fans," says Sieleman, now the foundation's president and CEO, who has thrilled at working with his musical heroes over the years. "Blues takes away the blues. The university honors blues music when it honors me."

Among Sieleman's achievements at the Blues Foundation, he reinvigorated the highly visible Blues Music Awards and the International Blues Challenge performance programs. He also developed initiatives to extend community outreach, provide medical and health support to musicians, and grant educational and scholarship opportunities for the next generation of blues players. Says Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dion DiMucci, "It would have been easy for Jay to maintain an organization that was essentially a fan club…an echo chamber or a perpetual nostalgia trip. Now, thanks to Jay, the blues has assumed its rightful place as an ambassador for American music."

This past May, Sieleman attended the grand opening of a capstone project—the $3 million, 12,000-square-foot Blues Hall of Fame in downtown Memphis. When he steps down from his post in September, Jay Sieleman can take pride in knowing he's left behind a legacy of attention and recognition for the blues.

Sieleman is a life member of the UI Alumni Association.

Career Highlights
  • Assistant county attorney and the state’s first full-time juvenile prosecutor, Polk County Attorney’s Office, Des Moines, 1978-1982
  • Provincial legal advisor, Peace Corps, Solomon Islands, South Pacific, 1983-85
  • Assistant regional attorney, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta, 1986-87
  • Assistant general counsel for the Panama Canal Commission, 1987-2000
  • Blues Foundation advisory board volunteer, 1999-2003
  • Director of administration, Blues Foundation, 2003-05
  • Executive director, Blues Foundation, 2005-12
  • President and chief executive officer, Blues Foundation, 2012-present

About Distinguished Alumni Awards

Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.

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With the start of a new year upon us, it's time to look back at your favorite University of Iowa stories from 2018. Here are Iowa Magazine's top 10 most-read articles of the year: The Nomadic Life (spring 2018) Hawkeye football favorite Paki O'Meara (10BA) finds ultimate freedom in backpacking around the world, taking photos that inspire a sense of wonder. PHOTO COURTESY PAKI O'MEARA Kinnick at 100 (summer 2018) This past summer marked two historically significant dates for Hawkeye fans: the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nile Kinnick (40BA), and the 75th anniversary of his tragic death. In memory of Iowa's favorite son, scholar, and Ironman, we look back on his life and legacy. Ahead of the Game (spring 2018) The Iowa football team becomes the first in the nation to equip the majority of its players with a state-of-the-art new helmet designed to improve player safety. PHOTO: MARK STASTNY Hollywood U (fall 2018) Alumni success in TV and film shines the spotlight on Iowa's? flourishing screenwriting program. ILLUSTRATION: FABIEN GILBERT / ARTISTIQUE INTERNATIONAL Mountain Roots (spring 2018) Nearly 80 years ago, an unlikely UI mountain-climbing club emerged from the cornfields of Iowa to become one of the most active in the world. Now the next generation of outdoorsmen continue in their Hawkeye family's footsteps. PHOTO COURTESY EBERT FAMILY The Secrets of Sleep (fall 2018) UI doctors and researchers work to shine light on the third of our lives we spend in the dark. Illustration: John Emigh Fry's Dream Team (fall 2018) FRYFest honors Hayden Fry's legendary 1983 coaching tree. PHOTO: UI ATHLETICS Going the Distance (spring 2018) UI-trained dentist Deb Carneol (92DDS) completes seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. PHOTO: MARK CONLON/WORLDMARATHONCHALLENGE.COM At 105, Our Oldest Hawkeye? (spring 2018) Catherine Shaw Shors (35BSC), who earned her business degree from Iowa more than eight decades ago, celebrated a milestone birthday in May. 1936 HAWKEYE YEARBOOK A Heroic Homecoming (spring 2018) Avengers: Infinity War director Joe Russo (92BA) receives a superhero's welcome at his alma mater. PHOTOS: Justin Torner

Read stories of Hawkeyes making a difference in Iowa and around the world.

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