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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Duke's Bar

The Mystery Band played at Duke's Bar last night. The crowd was sparse; I guess everyone is saving their partying energy for New Year's Eve. Highway RickEY stopped by and sat in on drums for a few numbers. Big Alex also came out - he lives in the neignborhood. We had a "small world" moment - the Mystery Band's sax player, Mike Finnerty, was Big Alex's saxophone teacher in high school. Big Alex dropped the sax in favor of the harmonica.

Duke's Bar has an interesting vibe. It is a smallish joint with a long bar and a small side room where the musicians perform. This bar has been a mainstay on Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park (next to the El tracks) since 1968. In years past, Duke's was a place for hard-core drinkers and petty criminals (drug dealers, second story men, pimps and their women). In September of 2005, the joint was purchased by Neil Lifton and his wife, Mary. Neil is a New Yorker who plays a little electric guitar. He has run out the sketchy characters and Duke's is a bit more civil. I like Neil and Duke's is a solid Chicago neighborhood tavern.

I am sure this will be my last post of 2006. It has been a good year for Mr. G personally, but a very crappy year for the larger world. I'm glad to have 2006 in the rear view mirror.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Katherine Davis at Katerina's in Chicago - 12/26/06

Katherine Davis is one of Chicago's finest blues singers. Her voice is fabulous, but it the soul behind the voice that is the real story. Here is a link to Katherine's web site - check it out to get her complete back story.

Katherine was the headliner at Katerina's last Tuesday. She had a couple of major talents helping her that evening. Erwin Helfer was at the grand piano and the under-appreciated Skinny Williams was blowing the saxophone.

Katherine covers the entire history and range of blues music. She can belt out the classic post-war Chicago blues anthems; she also sings jazz and will go way back to pull out a chestnut like "The Dark Town Strutters Ball." She put her entire range on display during the set I caught at Katerina's. Her voice pours out and it is easy to hear the opera training that she received in her younger days. Her stage presence is remarkable - she connects with her audience in a very personal way. And she is back performing in spite of her grief over the recent loss of her husband, Caleb Dube (see the September 27, 2006 entry in this blog for more on Caleb). Perhaps her singing is part of her journey through the grief.

Erwin Helfer is carrying the flame of blues and boogie piano, the flame created by Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Yancy, Otis Spann, "Cripple" Clarence Lofton and Speckled Red. Erwin is a conservator, but he makes these classic styles his own through his joyful drive and variations on the old riffs and themes. He carries his rhythm section with him - his rock-steady left hand that lays down the bass and the beat better than most bass-drum combos on the planet. Erwin and Katherine have worked together often; there was a lot of affection between these two fine musicians during the performance at Katerina's.

I had never heard Skinny Willams play before last Tuesday. He is a killer tenor man! His tone reminded me of Ben Webster, but he was ripping out the R&B and funk licks like a combination of Eddie Harris and Lennie Pickett. Skinny and Erwin tossed off a great version of "Chicken Shack" during their set.

Katherine's daughter was in attendence for her mother's gig. She was with a tall, stately gentleman who was invited to the bandstand to play piano and sing. I didn't catch the guy's full name (last name was Dunlap, I believe); he is a gospel artist in Chicago and his voice was huge when he sang the blues. I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of anonymous musical talent in the great city of Chicago.

Katherine said she might show up at the Mystery Band gig at Duke's tonight. Hope she makes it....

Monday, December 25, 2006

We Lost The Godfather

James Brown crossed over at 1:45 AM this Christmas morning. I am therefore listening to old skool JB this morning instead of Christmas carols.

Some musicians change everything. James Brown was one of those musicians. He grabbed lots of people, black and white. I remember hearing him back in my junior high school when I was all of 13 years old. We had no black people at John Muir Junior High - San Leandro, California was mostly white, with some Asian and Mexican folks. There was a creek on the northern edge of town - on the other side of that creek was Oakland, and an all-black neighborhood. So I grew up in the tail-end of the segregated era (San Leandro is nicely integrated now). Occassionally, the kids on the opposite sides of the creek would mix. That is where I first heard James Brown's music. James Brown was the entry-point for me into what I consider the best parts of American culture - I explored all the Motown artists, Ray Charles, and kept heading back in time, eventually finding Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, J.J Johnson, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, B.B. King and dozens of others. I also soaked up the music generated by the "offspring of JB" - Sly Stone, Tower of Power, Kool and the Gang, Parliament/Funkadelic, and on and on.

James Brown was the wellspring. He invented so much; he is much imitated, never equaled. And he is another American success story - abandoned by his parents at the age of 4, raised (and ignored) by relatives, on the streets of Augusta GA at a very tender age - and yet, he found his talent and put it out in the world for everyone to see and hear.
In his own way, he brought people together.
"Long hair hippies and Afro blacks. They all get together across the tracks and they party. On the good foot."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mr. G and the Mystery Band - New Years Gigs

The Mystery Band is getting busy as we head into 2007! As I posted earlier this month, on Saturday December 30, Mr. G and the Mystery Band will be back at Duke's Bar in Rogers Park (6920 North Glenwood, Chicago IL, 773 764 2826). Music will start around 9:30 - NO COVER!! This version of the Mystery Band is the jazz gang - it includes Mike Finnerty on tenor sax, Andy Meecham on guitar, Mike Linn on drums and Mike Azzi on bass. As always, Mr. G will toot the harmonica and howl at the moon. Come on out for an early New Year's party!

On Friday, January 5 2007, the Mystery Band will return to Bill's Blues Bar (1029 Davis Street, Evanston IL 847-424-9800, I am still trying to line up the personnel for this gig - Twist Turner will be there, pounding on the drums. The rest of the band's make up is a Mystery (ahem). But I will post the names on this space once folks call me back to confirm.

By the way, the Mystery Band is building an official website. It isn't much to look at yet, but it will improve over time. Here is the link:

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Four Departures and a Return

It Has Been a Sad, Sad Month So Far
Homesick James Passes: Chicago blues legend Homesick James Williamson passed away Wednesday, December 13, at 11:15pm. He was in his mid-90s, but his own accounts of his age varied. He passed away resting comfortably in his home in Springfield, Missouri. Funeral arrangements will be made by his family, and the funeral will take place on Saturday, December 23 in Covington, Tennessee. Williamson was playing guitar at age ten and soon ran away from his Tennessee home to play at fish fries and dances. His travels took the him through Mississippi and North Carolina during the 1920s, where he crossed paths with Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller, and Big Joe Williams. Settling in Chicago during the 1930s, Williamson played local clubs and recorded for RCA Victor in 1937. Williamson made some of his finest recordings in 1952-53 for Art Sheridan's Chance Records (including the classic "Homesick" that gave him his enduring stage name). James also worked extensively as a sideman, backing harp great Sonny Boy Williamson in 1945 at a Chicago gin joint called the Purple Cat and during the 1950s with his cousin, slide master Elmore James (to whom Homesick is stylistically indebted). He also recorded with James during the 1950s. Homesick's own output included some singles for Colt and USA in 1962, a fine 1964 album for Prestige, and four tracks on a Vanguard anthology in 1965. He also recorded a CD for Michael Frank's Earwig Records around 1994, "Goin' Back in the Times." I think there were other CD's in the 1990's, but I don't have a full discography.

Ahmet Ertegun Passes: Ahmet Ertegun, founder and A&R man for Atlantic Records, passed in New York City on December 14 at age 83. He and his label were singlehandedly responsible for recording some of the greatest stars of the blues, such as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, and LaVern Baker. He also was a giant in the world of soul and rock, signing acts ranging from Aretha Franklin to Led Zeppelin. Here is a link to his New York Times obituary.

Tina Mayfield Passes: Word just came in that Tina Mayfield passed away this week. Tina was the wife of Percy Mayfield, and also looked after Lowell Fulson after Lowell's wife Sadie passed on. Tina was very outgoing and supportive of the blues and remained an easily accessible public figure, especially in California, until the last few years when cancer took its toll on her health.

Jay McShann Passes: Blues and jazz piano legend JayMcShann passed away on December 7, 2006. He was 90 years old. Jay was famous for hiring a young alto saxophonist to play in his Kansas City-based big band. The kid's name was Charlie Parker.

The Return of Sugar Blue: A blues crony of mine spotted a very rare sight in Chicago this past weekend. Sugar Blue (real name - James Whiting) was in attendance at Rosa's Lounge last Saturday night celebrating his birthday. He sat in with Jimmy Johnson, who was booked for the gig that night. Sugar Blue is a unique harmonica player - he is a speed demon with loads of technique. He now resides in Europe. Sugar Blue had his 15 minutes of international fame when he was a sideman for the Rolling Stones (that's Sugar blowing the harp on the Stones' tune "Miss You."). Sugar Blue is in Chicago for a week to record a new self-produced CD. To keep track of Mr. Blue's travels go to or

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mr. G and the Mystery Band December Gigs - In Chicagoland

'Tis the season for the Mystery Band Holiday Parties! We have a couple of biggies coming up!

Mr. G and the Mystery Band will be rockin' the house at Bill's Blues Bar (1029 Davis Street, Evanston IL 847-424-9800, on Saturday December 16. Music starts at around 9 PM; the Mystery Band will be sharing the stage with Two for the Blues, another great local blues band. This version of the Mystery Band includes some of Mr. G's favorite professionals - Anthony Palmer on guitar, Twist Turner on drums, Shoji Naito on guitar and E.G. McDaniel on bass. Mr. G will blow the harp and sing. Come on out and celebrate your favorite holiday (Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Whatever!).

On Saturday December 30, Mr. G and the Mystery Band will be back at Duke's Bar in Rogers Park (6920 North Glenwood, Chicago IL, 773 764 2826). Music will start around 9:30 - NO COVER!! This version of the Mystery Band is the jazz gang - it includes Mike Finnerty on Tenor sax, Andy Meecham on guitar, Mike Linn on drums and Mike Azzi on bass. As always, Mr. G will toot the harmonica and howl at the moon. Come on out for an early New Year's party!

These will be the last Mystery Band Shows of 2006!! Don't miss 'em!!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Losses and Eroded Defenses

Hell, yes, I am aging - 52 years old now. It doesn't sound that old, and it isn't, but I can feel the small changes. I feel losses. My defenses are eroding. I am more exposed to the force of my own emotions, and to the grind of daily events.

Joe Jackson of Chicago was angry. He had apparently invented a new toilet for use in trucks - no doubt a welcome innovation for the nation's long-haul truckers. Well, Mr. Jackson felt cheated - I guess he lost a patent lawsuit, but the specifics behind his rage have not been made public. So yesterday afternoon, Mr. Jackson went to 500 W. Monroe Street, the CitiCorp Center and location of a main commuter rail station in Chicago. He held a security guard at gunpoint and went up to the 38th floor to the law offices of Wood, Phillips, Katz, Clark & Mortimer. He sought out Michael R. McKenna, a successful patent attorney. He chained the law office doors behind him. He began shooting. Mr. McKenna died; so did two other men. And the Chicago SWAT team took out Mr. Jackson. Four dead people in a calm and orderly law office in a Class A office tower just west of Chicago's Loop. The train station was shut down, the skyscraper was evacuated. There was no defense; random insanity can reach out and grab anyone. Then the station re-opened two hours after the killings, and the mundane daily grind resumed.

The past year has contained many losses. We lost two blues harmonica greats in 2006 – Sam Myers and Snooky Pryor both died. We lost several other blues greats during the year – Robert Lockwood Jr., Ruth Brown, Etta Baker, Floyd Dixon, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Willie Kent, Henry Townsend, and the great Austin TX blues club owner, Clifford Antone. If you are unfamiliar with these artists, do yourself a favor and buy some of their music.

It has been wicked cold in Chicago for the past week - in the single digits with a nasty wind. My defenses have eroded - the cold hurts a little more this year than it did last year. I sometimes get mugged by a memory and choke up. I miss people have been gone for a long time. I was never a tough guy. As I age, this fact becomes more apparent.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Buzz Kilman

Buzz Kilman is a pretty big deal around Chicago. He has carved a niche for himself as a radio personality - sort of a comic foil to people like Steve Dahl and Jonathan Brandmeier. He is also a member of the "closet blues harmonica" fraternity, and is therefore my blood brother.

Buzz played the local blues club in Evanston IL last night. He is an enthusiastic performer, and he brings out a crowd of fans. I don't think Buzz will get mad if I say that he is not channeling Little Walter. He is a pretty good harp blower who has great stage presence and audience rapport.

I have a gig tonight at Duke's Bar located on the far north side of Chicago. I am going to try to connect with the crowd the way Buzz did last night.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Curtis Salgado Gets A Liver

I posted on September 2 about Curtis Salgado, the great Portland OR harmonica player and vocalist. He is fighting liver cancer, yet still tearing up the stages up and down the West Coast. Well, good news - Curtis got his liver transplant. Here is the blurb from the Portland Oregonian:

Portland musician Curtis Salgado received a new liver Saturday evening at an Omaha, Neb., hospital from a deceased donor. He had been planning on transplant surgery this week with a liver donated by a friend who had traveled with him to Omaha.

Curtis now has a much improved prognosis. I hope he can continue to perform after his recovery is complete.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Music Inside

Good ol' HBO - they do tackle some interesting topics once in a while. I don't subscribe to the channel(we are basic cable cheapskates), and I regret it now. HBO is broadcsting what sounds like a marvelous show - "The Music In Me," a documetary about children that are passionate about music. Here is the the Wall Street Journal article on the show:

Television networks battle for our attention with an assortment of attractions, but classical music and any other kind of music beyond the commercial mainstream are hard to find outside of public television and the Ovation cable network. A rare exception: HBO Family's documentary, "The Music in Me," which debuts this Saturday (7-7:30 p.m. EDT/6:30-7 p.m. PDT; check listings for other air dates this month).

This compelling film, which maintains the high caliber of HBO's previous "Classical Baby" series of music, dance and art programs for toddlers (now on DVD), focuses welcome light on young amateur musicians around the country who march, as it were, to many different drummers. Ranging in age from 7 to 11, they represent a broad array of musical and cultural traditions -- from classical and jazz to Latin, zydeco, klezmer, good ol' country pickin' and a remarkable diversity in between. Moreover, in a time when it seems that playing CDs and iPods has replaced the invaluable tradition of amateur music-making, this film reassures us that the joy and satisfaction of actually playing and singing music are still important elements of childhood -- at least for these kids.

HBO Family's new documentary introduces us to 7-year-old Guyland, who at 2 could already play the accordion. "The Music in Me" is the brain child of its executive producer, Leslie Stifelman, a pianist and conductor who is currently the music director of the Broadway show "Chicago." She is also the creative intelligence behind her company, Symfunny Toons Inc., which develops television and interactive products for children to learn about music. "It started with a demonstration piece for HBO, for which I went around the country filming musical kids," notes Ms. Stifelman, who has been developing educational and in-school music projects for more than a decade. She says that when she embarked on the actual documentary, "We had 500 applicants from 40 states, and it was breathtaking to discover the range of musical activity going on in this country." She compares these children to blades of grass. "Some of them are nurtured by a parent, neighbor, teacher or friend. Others flourish on their own, like a weed punching through concrete."

And what's noteworthy about this film is that it documents not conservatory prodigies or "professional children" but ordinary kids in neighborhoods around the country. Some, but not all, reveal exceptional abilities. But all of them play their music because it is necessary to their existence: "I even get up extra early just so I can touch my guitar," says 11-year-old TJ of Omaha, Neb. Like many others in this show, TJ is attracted to music much older than he is: His room is plastered with photos of his idols -- Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, the Beatles -- and his own performance hearkens back two and three generations.

Alternating with fascinating vignettes selected from the 500 home-performance videos sent by applicants, the film spotlights six children, each drawn to a distinctive musical genre: First up is Nathan, 11, a classical cellist who looks uncannily like a young Yo-Yo Ma. "I think a good cellist has to feel the music and feel the true meaning," he says. And as good as his word, he not only gives an elegant performance of "The Swan," from Camille Saint-Saƫns's "Carnival of the Animals," but with remarkable acuity he discusses melodic phrases and harmonic progressions that suggest to him dramatic turns in the music's unfolding narrative.

We see tow-headed trumpeter Tyler, 10, playing George M. Cohan chestnuts with his parents, brother and sister at the family band's assorted daytime gigs around their hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. "But most of all," he says with an engaging smile, I love playing jazz, because I can improvise." And he struts his stuff jamming with a jazz combo, heating the nighttime air with some truly stylish riffs. Similarly Elena, 10, is a Puerto Rican-American flutist whose affinity for Latin jazz has made her a celebrity in the Latin music clubs around Berkeley, Calif., where she and her family live. "Jazz is not a little kid's music at all," she says against a backdrop of applause during one of her performances. "My parents say they want me just to be a kid and not play music all the time," she says. "But I am very serious about music."

"I can make music with anything," declares percussionist Qaasim, 8, of Brooklyn, N.Y. He revels in his favorite West African djembe, proudly lugging the heavy drum up a long flight of stairs to play it at the monument in Fort Greene Park with his drummer father and brother. Later, with a set of drumsticks, he sets off through his neighborhood, improvising an infectious solo concerto on everything along his way, from mailboxes and fire hydrants to park benches and storefront security gates.

In a segment in the style of a music video, Una, an 11-year-old rock guitarist from Portland, Ore., embraces the legacy of '60s protest songs with her composition "Global Warming," using minimalist melodic repetition to underscore the serious message of her text: "Global warming, it's not just a prediction anymore. It's real."

Then there is Guyland, 7, of Frilot Cove, La. He received a toy accordion for his first Christmas -- by his second birthday he was able to play it. Now he continues the legacy of his great-grandfather Delton Broussard, a celebrated accordionist. Broussard died before Guyland was born, but Guyland says Broussard taught him in his dreams. Like any little kid, Guyland enjoys fishing and playing with his friends. But the moment he puts the accordion strap around his neck he is transformed into a musical firebrand. "Running with the big dogs" at a Louisiana club where his great-grandfather played in the 1940s, Guyland is all over the stage, his face deadpan, his body pulsing and swaying to his music. Playing in his own unique way -- accordion held upside down, treble and bass keyboards reversed -- he weaves between the adult players towering over him and brings down the house.

What's profoundly heartening about this material is how vividly it reveals what Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentaries and Films, calls a neglected area in television -- namely, "stimulating children's capacity to respond to music, both actively, through their own abilities, and emotionally by hearing it, enjoying it and dancing to it."

Thus, "The Music in Me" illuminates the passion a lot of kids have about making music today. At the same time, it shows those kids who actually play often inspiring their own peers -- if not to play themselves, then at least to admire and value what their talented friends are doing for sheer pleasure. As Qaasim observes, "You gotta find the music inside yourself; it could just come out of you without you knowing it was in you all that time."

Young people playing and singing music give hope for the eventual salvation of the human race.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Sleep Deprivation

I am a pretty good sleeper - generally crash fast and hard at night. I have also taken to using earplugs to block out noises (especially the sound of traffic - I live on a moderately busy street). I was busy last night and didn't hit the sack until 11:30 PM or so. I was heading out to O'Hare to catch a 6:10 AM flight to Atlanta in the morning, so I set the clock for 3:30 AM. I spent 30 minutes trying to forget about the short ration of sleep I was allocating to myself and finally drifted off. It seems like my alarm screamed 10 seconds later. I yanked out my earplugs and made it to O'Hare, caught my flight and sat in fairly intense business meetings all day. I have the classic symptoms of sleep deprivation - headache, cotton mouth, concentration difficulties, etc. It is a lot like being hungover without the fun misbehavior of excessive alcohol consumption during the preceding evening.

I have a pile of documents to read, but it looks too tough to tackle right now. I have to rack out now and try again tomorrow. I can function reasonably well on six hours of sleep, but I fall apart on less than 4 hours.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Quote of the Day - Nando Parrado

"I think life is simpler than we tend to think. We look for answers and more answers. But there are no answers. Things happen in life, good things and bad. People say, 'Why did it happen to me?' Well, why not? Some people win the lottery, and others die in a car crash. It happens, and there is nothing we can do about it. The universe doesn't care what happens to you."

Nando Parrado, one of the 16 survivors of the crash of an Uruguayan Air Force plane in the Andes Mountains in October 1972

Here is the link to the complete New York Times story.

I find this to be a far more reasonable philosophy than the "Everything happens for a reason" school of thought. Extremely religous people see Parrado's philosophy as blasphemous. It resonates within me as "Truth." And the Truth usually isn't about warm and fuzzy platitudes, or absolute certainty handed down from God/Allah/Buddha/Vishnu.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Caleb Dube - Rest In Peace

Caleb Dube was an unsung hero of the blues in Chicago. He died on Thursday, September 21. Caleb is in the middle in this picture, between blues harmonica player Billy Branch and the late, great jazz musician, Malachi Thompson.

Caleb was the husband of Katherine Davis, a superb blues singer. I have jammed with Katherine many times. She is a major pillar of the Chicago blues community - a big participant in the "Blues in the Schools" program and a fine performer that has lit up many a stage in Chicago and around the world. Caleb was a member of the Chicago Blues Festival committee. He was a brilliant man - PhD in Anthropology from Northwestern University in Evanston IL, an M. Phil degree in folklore, and a B.A. Honors degree in History and African Languages. He taught at DePaul University in the Department of Anthropology, and in the Department of Sociology since Fall 2002. Previously he taught at the University of Zimbabwe for eight years in the Department of African Languages and Literature. His areas of research were the production and political economy of African American and African popular culture. Caleb was in the middle of writing a new book about Chicago blues artists when he died. He taught courses in Chicago jazz and blues at DePaul University; his PhD dissertation at Northwestern was focused on the Chicago jazz and blues culture. He had a passion for the music. He was a published academic reseacher on a number of topics and was involved in many community and charitable organizations.

Caleb was politically active, too. Here is a snapshot of Caleb and Katherine with Barack Obama from a fundraiser at Rosa's Lounge on the West Side of Chicago (from 2003).

Caleb also was a member of the Zimbabwe Parliament in the mid-1980's.

Caleb came from Zimbabwe and many of his family members still live there. His funeral has been delayed to allow Caleb's Zimbabwe relatives to make the trip to Chicago. His funeral will be at 10:00 am on Saturday October 14 at Johnson's Funeral Home at 236 W. Division in Chicago. Johnson's is behind Sammy's Hot Dog stand.

This was a good man who died too soon. Hearts are broken.

Monday, September 11, 2006

These Last Five Years

"These last five years have been horrendous," said Kathy Maloney, widow of Joseph E. Maloney. Joseph was a firefighter with Ladder Company 3 in Manhattan and he died during the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Kathy was speaking about her personal reality since she lost her husband, but the statement feels like it fits for all of Western civilization. But what is really interesting about the last five years is how little daily life in the United States has changed. The economy has been pretty strong, New York is booming, our prolific consumption of goods and services proceeds apace. The largest attack of the war on civilization didn't put the U.S. on war footing. There is no rationing, no war bond rallies, no calls for sacrifice. How deeply have we felt the pain of our fellow citizens who lost loved ones on that day?

The fine young people that are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afganistan are volunteers. There is no conscription so the majority of us don't have a direct connection to our fellow citizens who are fighting. The Iraq war looks like a massive mistake; Afganistan is suffering from inattention and is backsliding. And I am beginning to wonder if the terrorist threat is being pumped up, hyped for some reason. There were no deaths from terrorist attacks in the United States in 2005. There were 43,443 people killed in U.S. automobile accidents in 2005. Why should I be more afraid of terrorists than I am of automobiles?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What if Coltrane Had Lived?

John Coltrane's birthday is coming up - September 23 was his birth date. I am spending quite a bit of time listening to Coltrane's music, and realizing that I don't have enough Coltrane music in my collection.

So If 'Trane was still alive, he would be 80 years old. He would be about as old as Oscar Peterson, Von Freeman, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, and a host of active musical octogenarians. Would he be mining the nostalgia circuit or still pushing the envelope?

John Coltrane struggled in his life, with heroin addiction, with racism, with the technical demands of the music he heard in his head. He was 40 years old when he passed - died of liver cancer, very suddenly (he checked into a hopsital one Sunday evening in 1967 and was dead the next day). His greatness had been visible since his early 20's, and I think it ould have grown if he had not been snatched away. If 'Trane had lived, I am sure the musical universe would sound different than it does today.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Featured in the New York Times

Back on May 18, 2005, I posted a message on this blog about the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. These intrepid Chicagoans have relocated to New York - the group is based in Queens now. The reporters at the NY Times have noticed, and the Hypnotic boyz hit the first page of the Labor Day arts section of the paper. Here is a link to the article.

All of these young brass players are the sons of Kelan Phil Cochran, a Chicago brass player who had a massive number of kids. I love the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and was sorry to hear that they have left their home town. Chicago's loss is New York's gain...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Don't Forget Curtis Salgado

Of course, this assumes that you know about Curtis Salgado. Unfortunately, many people do not, in spite of the role he played in creating one of the enduring pop culture icons of the late 20th Century, the Blues Brothers (more about this later).

I was visiting my brother in Portland, Oregon in early August. Portland is a fantastic city on many levels, but one thing that amazes me about the place is the depth and quality of its local blues scene. Robert Cray spent some time in Portland (he was from Spokane, I just learned). The great, unsung harmonica player and vocalist Paul deLay lives there. Stu Kinzel, Mel Solomon, Peter Dammon - the list is quite long. Most of these folks are not well-known outside of the Northwest. And perhaps at the top of the list is Curtis Salgado.

I have known about Curtis for a number of years. He inspired John Belushi to invent the Blues Brothers. Back in 1977 when Belushi was filming "Animal House" in Eugene, Oregon, he caught the 25-year old Salgado's act at some local clubs. Belushi became a fan, hung out with Curtis, and received a blues/R&B education. Many of the mannerisms and stage banter used by Belushi in the Blues Brothers schtick were lifted verbatim from Curtis. Belushi and Ackroyd made the money while Curtis toiled on in obscurity.

So I bought Curtis' most recent CD and thought it was pretty good. He has a fine, soulful voice and a great sense of phrasing. But to be honest, the CD didn't floor me. And he didn't play much harmonica - I had alway heard that he is a hot harmonica guy. But when I went out to Portland, I discovered he had a gig at the Trail's End Saloon in Oregon City (the bar is located at the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail). My brother and I decided to check him out.

Well. His live show blew the top of my head off. He sings with passion and spontaneity that is not captured on his CD's. And he played a ton of harmonica. As a harp player, I can assure you - this cat is very good. The bar was full of long-time fans (it looked a bit like a meeting of the Grey Ponytail Club). They howled and cheered and danced. Curtis knew many of them by name. It was a helluva scene, a great performance. Salgado laid it all down that night.

Now here is the kicker - Curtis has liver cancer. He announced it earlier this year. Generally speaking, the prognosis for individuals with liver cancer is not good. The best path toward survival involves a liver transplant. That is the path Curtis is trying to travel. Of course, this being the United States and Curtis being an independent musician, he is without health insurance. The cost of treatment for liver cancer (including the cost of a liver transplant) exceeds $1,000,000. So Salgado is touring while he is undergoing treatment to make money to pay for his treatment. Think about that! And I am a witness - this man is not performing like someone fighting a potentially fatal disease - he is roaring with energy and musical power. His musicial friends put on a fund-raising benefit for him, but the need is still great. If you love the blues and R&B music, buy this man's CD's, or even better, send a donation. Here is the info if you want to contribute: Mail contributions to the "Curtis Salgado Fund" US Bancorp, 2550 NW 188th Avenue, Hillsboro, OR 97124.

I'm pulling for this guy.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Good-Bye, Maynard

Maynard Ferguson is dead. Yes, he was 78 years old, which is a pretty ripe old age. But it still seems wrong for him to die. I have seen Maynard perform many times - including a few years ago when he had broken the 70-year mark. The life-force of this man was so strong. I thought he would still be blowin' those double high C's for another decade or so.

I was one of the MF Horn knuckleheads back in the '70's. I was a trombone guy, not a trumpet player, but Maynard's wild, flamboyent approach to screech trumpet haunted my musical dreams and filled me full of animal spirits. Here is a great article from the Washington Post that explains this feeling. And Maynard played a wild trombone, also (he invented an instrument with valves and a slide, dubbed the "Superbone." Snicker). I think he took up the trombone to give his trumpet chops a rest.

Maynard was the ultimate trooper. He dragged his big band to countless high school gymnasiums. He played tiny little nightclubs that didn't have a stage large enough for his band. He pumped out an amazing number of albums. During the 1970's and 1980's, he kept big band jazz alive. His sheer stamina boggled the mind. Maynard's music may not have pleased every jazz critic in the world, but every brass player understood his greatness. It is rumored that one of Maynard's fans was the famously judgemental Miles Davis. One night many years ago, Miles had a night off in New York. His piano player said, "Hey Miles - what are you going to do on your night off?" Miles replied, "I'm going down to the Vanguard to listen to Maynard blow those f---ing high notes, man."

He always staffed his band with young people. Some became relatively famous - Bobby Shew on trumpet and Don Menza on tenor sax come to mind. Many faded away, perhaps ending up as high school music teachers or lawyers that played trombone on weekends. Here is a great blog entry from "Powerline" that includes a YouTube clip of Maynard Ferguson Band from the 1970's, full of hairy young people, playing Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me."

Yeah, Maynard loved to grab those mega-hit pop songs and play the shit out of them. His biggest hit might have been his version of "Gonna Fly Now," the theme from the Rocky movie. He loved to get an audience screaming. He was a fantastic showman. AND he was Canadian! Yes, Maynard was one of Canada's biggest contribution to jazz, along with Oscar Peterson.

Maynard was unique and now he is gone. The masters all fall eventually, and some of us are bereft.

Monday, June 26, 2006


I haven't added to this blog in over two months. It is due to overload.

Overload isn't necessarily a bad thing. I have had many joyful overloads in the past 75 days. My First-Born Son came home and we celebrated his 25th birthday. My partners and I closed a deal we have been working on for almost a year and we harvested a nice success fee.

The bad side of overload - Israel is at war. Hezbollah is hiding successfully. Civilians in Lebanon and Northern Israel are dying. Iraq is a screaming catastrophe. The Bush Administration is saying "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Interest rates are up, and so are gas prices. And gas prices are going to go a lot higher. Remenber - gas prices quadrupaled in a very short period during he 1973 oil embargo. OPEC can do it again.

It's a Mystery. Why do we do the things we do?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

O-Town Schmoozing

Well, I was in Orlando a few weeks ago - good ol' O-Town. Orlando is an extremely unnatural environment. It is a family-friendly version of Vegas. Both cities are over the top and strange. Not surprisingly, both cities are major convention venues. And, not surprisingly, I was in O-Town for a convention - the Association for Corporate Growth Intergrowth Conference. The Association of Corporate Growth is the trade association for people that are in the mergers and acquisition business. The Intergrowth Conference is huge - about 5,000 attendees, all frantically networking and schmoozing over cocktails, golf, meals, and during scheduled chitchat sessions. It was speed-dating for deal guys. I passed out a couple hundred business cards and collected an equal amount in return. I am now getting spammed by all the knuckleheads that got their mitts on my business cards.

While these events are chaotic, there is a certain efficiency to the mosh-pit approach to schmoozing. It would have taken a year to meet all of these people via one-on-one visits. I met one person who might be able to help me on a deal. I built out my Roladex a little.

I also sat in with the band that was hired to entertain at one of the evening events. There is a group called the Alabama Blues Brothers, based in Huntsville, that travels the southern and eastern U.S. doing a Blues Brothers tribute schtiick (the two lead guys bear a passing resemblance to Akroyd and Belushi as Jake and Elwood Blues). The Alabama Blues Brothers band is a classic loud bar band. It was late in the evening, the crowd had thinned out, so I whipped out my CX-12 Chromatic and blew some harmonica with the band. They were expecting a lame conventioneer, so they were surprised to hear me play and sing the blues. I do admire these 'Bama guys - they are out there, fighting to make a living and seem to be keeping there heads above water.

The Blues Brothers - two white guys in suits, fedoras and shades - is the mass market image of the blues in middle class America. It isn't the "real thing," but I still like it. Akroyd and Belushi did a lot to raise awareness of this music. I wish John Belushi hadn't killed himself - we could use his nuttiness right about now...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Public Radio In Chicago Sells Out

This is a long post, because I am pretty ticked about the end of jazz and blues music on the radio in Chicago.

Here is some more evidence of bad decisionmaking on the part of people who have a responsibility to the public. WBEZ Radio in Chicago, the flagship NPR station, announced recently a change in plans. They are virtually eliminating all music from their airwaves in favor of insipid talk radio shows. WBEZ is the primary source of jazz and blues music in Chicago. There is a college radio station that broadcasts a significant amount of jazz, but its signal doesn't reach all of Chicago. It is disgusting to see this station abandon its legacy and its mission to attract the "American Idol/Reality Show" crowd with a bunch of blather from kinuckleheads that love the sound of their own voice. BAH!

I had an exchange of emails with Torey Malatia, General Manager of WBEZ. I am posting them here for everyone's enjoyment. Torey is a good guy, I think, but this decision is incredibly wrong.

Message One From Me:

Dear Mr. Jones and Mr. Malatia:

I have just received confirmation from a reliable source that you announced to your staff last week that you are eliminating jazz and blues programming. Apparently, this decision was made without the input from the on-air staff that present the fine jazz and blues shows at WBEZ. This strikes me as being a very high-handed and imperious management approach, certainly not something one expects from an "enlightened" institution such as public radio.

I am outraged that you would reach this decision - WBEZ's contribution to Chicago's musical culture has been built largely on jazz and blues and you are turning your back on your mission and your legacy. Now, I must also wonder how on earth you make decisions at WBEZ? You didn't seem to involve your professional staff. You haven't mentioned this to your listeners. Is this about money? Is this about pursuit of the
mass market? I have been sending money to your station for years - don't I get a vote? Isn't public radio supposed to broadcast material that is not presented by commercial outlets? There is plenty of news and talk shows available on the Chicago radio dial. There is very little jazz and blues. You plan to eliminate this fine music is a violation of public trust.

I hope you will reverse this terrible decision. Chicago needs more good music and less quirky chit-chat from egotistical knuckleheads.

Reply #1 From Torey:

Thanks for voicing your concerns about our evolving future plans for two public service radio outlets here in our region. Here's a summary that may help you follow the progression of our annoucements about our planning. These changes are somewhat misunderstood as an elimination of music. This is untrue, although, to be fair, we are planning a major departure from the "music format" radio style with which many are familiar in commercial and non-commercial music stations. And again, I should stress that changes will not go into effect until 2007.

In November 2004 we announced that a seminal change that would take place in the fall 2006 or winter 2007, some 24 months after that initial announcement. It was this: All music would leave 91.5 FM and the WBEZ signal would become all news and information. Meanwhile 89.5 FM would cease being a repeater of 91.5 FM and broadcast a unique stream of music, arts, culture, and public affairs. This was in the press both locally and nationally and we discussed it at our December, 2004 Community Advisory meeting/Annual Board meeting and just about every meeting ever since. The music staff heard the decision first in a private session in November 2004 before staff or board or advisory council were informed. As is true today, they were the first to be invited to participate in new designs.

Since then we have been working toward this goal, openly and agressively. Over time, and with much struggling, we've weighed two designs for 89.5. One is what is called in our industry a "needle drop" music service (a mostly ninterrupted succession of CDs played in sets throuhout the day)and the second is a highly localized mixed cultural service--always including a broad range of music (but not stressing music over other kinds of arts and culture and public affairs). Finally, a couple of weeks ago, we decided the composition of 89.5, when it splits off in winter 2007 will be a mix that leans to public affairs with music, rather than the other way around, as we had initially announced. Our orignal idea announced for 91.5 in November 2004 is still viable and will still happen as scheduled.

Again, the music staff was privy to this decision first, before any other staff or board or advisory council or the general public were informed. We have involved staff in decisions, and informed them of progress as soon as a strategic change was made, and continue to work closely with staff as they proceed with their planning for these services. We announced this change immediately, even though we are talking about a change that won't be heard on the air for a little under a year.

Our process is quite public, often a difficult posture when one knows strong public opinion is likely to be heard immediately.

I hope to hear from you and many members of the community as we continue to plan a unique local service on 89.5, a mixture of public affairs and a celebration of arts and culture throughout our region including, of course, music of every style and type. We certainly are aware that music speaks cross-culturally in ways that discussion cannot. Our goal is to bring us closer together as a community, attempting to build a better place for ourselves and our children. Change is difficult--but shaped with the community and its needs first, this is a change that will yield a major advancement in independent media for our region.

Stay well,

Torey Malatia
President and General Manager
Chicago Public Radio
WBEZ, Chicago, 91.5 FM
WBEW, Chesterton, 89.5 FM
WBEQ, Morris, 90.7 FM

Message # 2 From Me to Torey:

Dear Mr. Malatia:

Thank you for your response. It is kind of you to take the time to deal with an irate WBEZ member like me, and I am sure you are a terrific guy. Unfortunately, I remain irate.

It appears that I was not paying enough attention to the developments at WBEZ. That was a mistake on my part, and I regret the error. The first announcement of your action came to my attention on April 11, 2006 when the news hit some Internet news services that I monitor (specifically www.radioand and and Eric Zorn's blog). Those sources (and other inside sources) claimed that the programming change was news to your staff as of April 5, 2006. I would respectfully suggest that your decision was not publicized adequately last year.

I also remember clearly the promo efforts of your staff during recent pledge drives. Jazz and blues programming was cited as one of the major reasons for supporting WBEZ. I agreed wholeheartedly and sent in my check. I guess that those statements weren't true. In the commercial sector, we call this "false advertising." The FTC takes a dim view of such behavior.

Your decision to move music to 89.5FM is no replacement for the music programming at WBEZ. Chesterton is far away - it is the Indiana Dunes State Park's home town if I remember correctly. I do not receive a signal from 89.5 on my radio dial in Evanston - it is static and noise. So for those of us on the north part of Chicago and in the suburbs, your decision to move jazz and blues to the boonies is the
same as taking it off the air completely. WBEZ has the FM signal that covers the largest swath of the Chicagoland area. Your use of 89.5 as the music station is a clear attempt at heading off public outcry over the radical make-over at WBEZ. I am not taken in by this. In addition, the Chesterton and Morris stations will continue to broadcast lots of public affairs, news, and NPR syndicated stuff. So you are marginalizing jazz and blues programming on marginal stations. Even if I could get 89.5 in Evanston, I am not terribly interested in localized public affairs programming from the Indiana Dunes.

I am sad and disappointed. It sounds like this will happen as you have planned it. Congratulations to you and your staff. I am sure the majority of your listeners won't care much - talk radio is popular with most folks, I guess. I can only vote with my wallet - I am going to take the $500-1000 a year I contribute to WBEZ to another organization that supports American music. And I always have my iPod and I guess I can sign up for satellite radio. It is a shame that WBEZ is dumping its wonderful heritage in the garbage can.

I will be switching off your station for good once you make this change.

You said that "change is difficult." That is true. Sometimes, change is also wrong. I hope your new programming initiative fails and you bring jazz and blues back to the WBEZ flagship.

Here is Torey's response:

Here are some responses woven in, if that's okay. It's just a little easier. I'm out out town, doing this on dial-up, so there is no spell check and my text is going to be somewhat messy. Please bear with me.

Dear Mr. Malatia:

Thank you for your response. It is kind of you to
take the time to deal with an irate WBEZ member like
me, and I am sure you are a terrific guy.
Unfortunately, I remain irate.

It appears that I was not paying enough attention to
the developments at WBEZ. That was a mistake on my
part, and I regret the error. The first announcement
of your action came to my attention on April 11, 2006
when the news hit some Internet news services that I
monitor (specifically www.radioand and and
Eric Zorn's blog). Those sources (and other inside
sources) claimed that the programming change was news
to your staff as of April 5, 2006.

Eric's reporting is excellent, but all reporting by nature must assume a lot. Here's the story: The staff had been part of planning of the new service since November of 2004. Therefore, they were hardly surprised by the splitting of the signals issue. They WERE surprised that we had decided that a pure music format (it was nevr to be only jazz, by the way) was now off the table, and that we would be looking for a public affairs, culture, music mix.

I would respectfully suggest that your decision was not
publicized adequately last year.

Well, that may be (it was in Sun-Times, Tribune; and national press), but it could also be that as any event moves closer to its inception date, interest on behalf of readers grows. It may be just the natural scheme of things that folks are noticing more now.

I also remember clearly the promo efforts of your
staff during recent pledge drives. Jazz and blues
programming was cited as one of the major reasons for
supporting WBEZ. I agreed wholeheartedly and sent in
my check. I guess that those statements weren't true.
In the commercial sector, we call this "false
advertising." The FTC takes a dim view of such

Jazz and blues will remain on both 91.5 (in the form of specials and feature production on talk vehicles like Eight Forty-Eight) and on 89.5 FM, as segments within the array of segments. 89.5 will also feature music of styles well beyond jazz, blues, and world music--the current 91.5 FM set of stylistic offerings. Besides, our current sedrvice remains as is until just shy of a year from now (so, even if you pprefer to see your membership as only applied to music--which it isn't, of course-- if your memebrship was for what's there now, you'll certainly get your money's worth). Our announcement was an attempt to signal ahead so that folks had yet another advance warning. Clarity is something we are attempting to provide all along this process.

Your decision to move music to 89.5FM is no
replacement for the music programming at WBEZ.
Chesterton is far away - it is the Indiana Dunes State
Park's home town if I remember correctly. I do not
receive a signal from 89.5 on my radio dial in
Evanston - it is static and noise. So for those of us
on the north part of Chicago and in the suburbs, your
decision to move jazz and blues to the boonies is the
same as taking it off the air completely. WBEZ has the
FM signal that covers the largest swath of the
Chicagoland area.

This may indeed be a valid concern to which I have no satisfactory answer. But before I melt away, here are some details. First, the signal that is currently on the air at 89.5 FM in Chesterton is a non-directional 7,000 watt signal (presently, it merely repeats the signal on 91.5 FM0. By the time the new service is launched on 89.5, we will have increased its power to 50,000 watts directional (to the northwest). This will increase the population covered by the pattern from the present 400,000 listeners who can hear 89.5, to approximately 4.4 million listeners who can get it clearly--including all of the city of Chicago. Evanston may indeed still prove to be a problematic area. The signal obviously loseds energy as it heads north, so our theoreticals on this give a rather uncertain picture for Evanston. It can tell you it will NOT reach Winnetka, Glencoe, Kennilworth, Lake Forest, and up the coastline to Wisconsin.

Your use of 89.5 as the musicstation is a clear attempt at heading off public
outcry over the radical make-over at WBEZ. I am not taken in by this.

Well, if I was trying to head off outcry, the best thing would have been to stick with the original announcement that 89.5 would be a music format. By changing that, I'm certainly worthy of your derision, but I would suggest unworthy of your description of my public relations wizardry.

In addition, the Chesterton and
Morris stations will continue to broadcast lots of
public affairs, news, and NPR syndicated stuff. So
you are marginalizing jazz and blues programming on
marginal stations. Even if I could get 89.5 in
Evanston, I am not terribly interested in localized
public affairs programming from the Indiana Dunes.

Well, this would have been a problem even before. In the music format plans we had expected a good many public service aspects to the region, much of it localized, because that's what one does when one is granted the privaledge of occupying spectrum space in the non-commercial educational band. But you are correct in that now the public service component has been elevated substantially over the music element in the original design.

I am sad and disappointed. It sounds like this will
happen as you have planned it. Congratulations to you
and your staff. I am sure the majority of your
listeners won't care much - talk radio is popular with
most folks, I guess. I can only vote with my wallet -
I am going to take the $500-1000 a year I contribute
to WBEZ to another organization that supports American
music. And I always have my iPod and I guess I can
sign up for satellite radio. It is a shame that WBEZ
is dumping its wonderful heritage in the garbage can.

Chris, if not playing sets of jazz is dumping respect for the art form into the trash, then you and I have a very different view of the possiblities of broadcasting to entice, enlighten, and enrich listeners musically. Yours is certainly valid--music formats are one way to do this. Tried, true, tested. But there are many others, sometimes more alluring to listeners who would otherwise tune away from a music station that they knew wasn't offering their avowed preference. To the non-jazz fan, the thought that she/he might be captured by the embroidery in a Duke Ellington improvised solo verse of Sophisticated Lady might seem impossible in the abstract until it happens, but by accident, because the station is trying other things of interest to that listener. Perhaps we should leave it at that, that we disagree on radio's best methods to do this.

I will be switching off your station for good once you
make this change.

You said that "change is difficult." That is true.
Sometimes, change is also wrong.

Agreed. Change can be terribly wrong. Or it can be transformative in the best way. No one has a crystal.

I hope your new programming initiative fails and you
bring jazz and blues back to the WBEZ flagship.

Fair enough. We'll see how it goes. Mostly, I thank you for caring this much. I respect that, and I hope you sense that in these responses. Stay well, and please keep in touch.

Whew! You can see that Mr. Malatia has answers. I feel that this is a bad mistake, but I will never win this argument.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

More Thoughts about San Luis Potosi and Chicago

This picture was taken at the intersection of Adams and Wells in Chicago on March 18. Over 100,000 folks paraded peacefully past my office. It was the first large demonstration against HR 4437, the severe immigration bill that mandates the construction of a 700 mile wall on our southern border and converts all illegal immigrants into felons (11 million felons, to be deported - that will be an impossible task, but I am sure that our government will flush several billion dollars down the toilet trying to enforce this nutty idea if it becomes law). This law will also punish anyone that helps an illegal immigrant stay in the U.S. - presumably this targets employers, but what about schools? Doctors? Banks? This is incredibly weird and unAmerican, in my view. And this proposed legislation would be utterly unenforceable in a free society.

Many of my fellow Americans seem to be caught up in a nasty mix of insecurity, xenophobia and subtle racism. I understand the insecurity part of the mix - and our national security is compromised by the shadowy world of illegal immigrants. But making these folks more illegal won't help - it will just drive them further underground. As long as Mexico and the US retain their current contrasting economic circumstances, the people will come north.

When I was in San Luis Potosi last week, I was one of the few Caucasians in town. The graciousness of the average Mexican was startling. It was also surprising how many folks accosted me in English, telling me of there time spent in El Norte. I met one happy retired gent in a dive bar who said he spent 34 productive years in the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago. There appears to be a fairly strong San Luis Potosi/Chicago connection. Many SLP-ians have lived in Chicago or have family there. This one example of how the US and Mexico are connected at the grassroots level. Draconian laws designed to cut these connections won't work. We need laws that allow people to come north and be completely legal, and we have to face the fact that the 11 million folks that are here will not leave.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

San Luis Potosi

I have not blogged in a week because I have been on the road. My three womenfolk and I just returned from a week-long visit to San Luis Potosi ("SLP") in Mexico. SLP is a large city that is not well-known to gringos. It is the capital of the state (also called San Luis Potosi) and it is a land-locked city in roughly in the center of Mexico. The state of San Luis Potosi has a population of about 2.3 million; over 500,000 these folks are in the capital city . We spent most of the week in the city, but we did head out to el campo for a couple of days to visit family that lives on a ranch in the mountains.

SLP City is old, man. It was founded in the late 16th century by Catholic missionaries from Spain; gold and silver was discovered, so the small village ballooned into a sprawling metropolis very quickly. The main city retains a Spanish colonial feel, with plazas and parks a major factor in the urban environment. Many of the streets are made of old stone blocks. The average city building looks to be over 100 years old. Any fan of classic architecture will find SLP to be delightful.

Catholicism is everywhere in SLP - our hotel was near the Carmen Cathedral, a huge, ornate structure that was built in the 19th century; we were within walking distance of at least 5 other major cathedrals and a dozen humbler churches. Since we were in SLP during Holy Week, there were constant processions and celebrations. We saw a large, yet casual, procession of folks carrying a statue of Jesus on a pedestal several miles to a major cathedral - it was a festive event, complete with drums, bugles and fireworks. In San Luis, Catholicism is the organizing force in the lives of the people.

I might write a bit more about San Luis Potosi later.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Numbered Days

I have come to know a man that knows the approximate time of his death. He is trying to stretch the number of days that he has left - to attend his son's wedding in England, to reach 55 years of age so his pension will vest, to enjoy his wife and family for a few more weeks/months/years. D is a senior executive, working for one of the major clients of my investment banking firm. We were in New York recently, trying to generate some acquistion activity for D's employer. It was a very unusual business trip. D was very open about his impending doom ("All care that I am receiving is pallitive; a cure is just not going to happen. I am a dead man walking."). He had to leave one of our meetings to rest in his room. He said that living with cancer treatment is like waking up with a severe hangover every damn day. We had a long conversation over dinner; D told me a lot about his disease, his surgeries, his plans to put his affairs in order. I was pretty speechless - the enormity of his situation, the energy he has managed to retain in the face of this cancer was quite stunning.

I also received word that one of my ex-wife's siblings has just been diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer that is usually fatal. My two older (adult) children from my first marriage will be dealing with this.

Well, every individual is in the process of dying; everyone has numbered days. But most of us don't know how large or small that number is. My client and my former in-law have a pretty good idea of how much life they have left. I would think that many people that face this situation end up in a race against time - trying to clear all of those important matters that we defer when we think we have lots of time left (estate planning, reconciliations with estranged friends and family, etc.). I find myself hoping for a disease that will give me time to prepare for death.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

James Wheeler/Piano C. Red - Shot and Paralyzed


These young predators do things that are beyond my comprehension. James Wheeler/ Piano C. Red was attacked last week. Red is one of the real good guys. I wrote to Dawn Trice, a "human interest" columnist at the Chicago Tribune, trying to get her to take up Red's cause. I have received no response from her at all. Fortuately, our local ABC news affiliate took up Red's story. Here is my letter to Dawn Trice:

"Dear Ms. Trice:

I am writing to you because I don't know who else at the Tribune to contact about the terrible crime that was committed against James Wheeler, aka Piano C. Red, on Thursday March 23. Red is one of the top members of the senior generation of blues musicians in Chicago. Red has played for years, never making enough money to support himself through music (he has been a cab driver for a long time to pay the bills). Here is the news I received from my friends in Chicago's blues community:

Maxwell Street Blues musician and singer, Piano C. Red (real name James Wheeler), was shot Thursday evening, March 23, in a robbery on the South Side of Chicago. While he was at a filling station inside the cashier building paying for gas, two men approached him for money and wanted the keys to his car to steal it. One of men shot him in the back. Then they took his money and the keys to the car and hijacked it.

As soon as he was shot, he felt his legs go numb and then he fell to the ground. The bullet lodged in his spine and paralyzed him from the waist down. He is at St. James Hospital, 20201 South Crawford Avenue, Olympia Fields, IL 60461; phone: (708)747-4000.

Piano C. Red said, "I am in my 70s and young bullies took advantage of me. You just never know day to day what is going to happen. I have to be thankful I am still alive." Paramount on his mind is what is going to happen with his band which plays every Sunday at the New Maxwell Street Market in good weather. "I want to keep that
tradition going. Maxwell Street is where the great blues musicians played. There was a feeling there I found no place else and we want to keep that feeling at the new market. I have asked Elmore James Jr. (son of blues legend Elmore James) and our joint band members to keep the band playing at the market. Maybe with some rehab, I can get better and play again there too."

Jim Roxworthy, Red's bass player, said, "He has an indomitable spirit. When I visited him in the hospital he spoke only a little of his tragedy. He wanted to make sure the music and his band continued."

Roosevelt University Professor Steve Balkin says, "Red was one of the few Maxwell Street old timers who still played. He is a great keyboardist, singer, and dancer-strutter. He loves Maxwell Street, the old place and the new, especially to watch people dance in the street to his music. The gig at the new market is a grand jam session and folksy front porch. A lot of people from old Maxwell Street come by either to sit in or just to sit down on homemade benches to socialize and tell stories of musicians andthe characters from the market. I think it would boost Red's spirits if he got cards and letters from Blues fans. The biggest fear the old Blues guys have is that they will be forgotten. One of his dreams is to play at the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park."

I am one of Red's many fans. He will obviously have a rough time with medical bills, not to mention rehab. I am hoping that the Tribune might bring Red's situation to the public's attention. He is going to need support to get through this. Of course, this random act of violence by young men against an elderly man is unfathonable to most of us. Here is a link to some more biographical information on Piano C. Red.

Thanks for your help."

I am disappointed that the Tribune isn't covering this story.

Another blogger in the area is following Red's stuation. Check this out:

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Gorging on the blues.

I have been absent from the blogosphere for several weeks. There are many reasons for this. Real life is cutting into my time for blabbing about real life.

My two youngest daughters were on a school break in February (their school has a mid-winter vacation, which is a nice idea). My beautiful wife took the girlies to Los Angeles to visit a friend – I stayed back due to work obligations. So I was alone in the house (except for two dogs, one cat, one goldfish and a dozen hamsters). This allowed me to indulge myself and gorge on the blues.

One Saturday night, I caught Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater at Bill’s Blues Bar in Evanston IL. The Chief is 71, but his energy and enthusiasm is still high. He is an excellent singer – relaxed, musical, no fireworks, all substance. And he has a signature guitar sound. It is a tremolo that he achieves with his fingers up on the frets. He also has a very interesting custom amplifier, which I am sure adds to his sound. Eddy’s band is a crack trio – Mark Wydra on guitar, Merle (the Perkolater) Perkins on drums and my good friend Shoji Naito on bass. Eddy did several tunes from his latest CD, Rock and Roll City (he is backed by Los Straitjackets on that record ). He also did some older blues and R&B classics like “Messin’ with the Kid.”

The following Sunday evening Sunday, I got in the car and drove for over an hour to St. Charles IL, the location of Chord On Blues (“COB”). COB is a fairly large supper club. I am amazed that it survives out in the “super boonies,” but it apparently does a robust business, especially on weekends. COB books blues acts, and often will book visiting artists that don’t get much attention within the Chicago city limits. The reason for my long trip to St. Charles was Kim Wilson. This talented harmonicist and vocalist passes through Chicagoland very infrequently. Kim has a money machine called the Fabulous Thunderbirds (he is a founder and still leads this blues-y rock band). He also has “Kim Wilson’s Blues Revue” which is all old-school blues with Kim as front man. He plays a ton of harmonica with the Blues Revue – he writes songs and sings for the Fab T-birds and only plays a bit of harp. Kim’s appearance at COB was a last minute thing – a fill-in gig for his Midwest tour. A significant number of my fellow blues harp cult members attended, including our cult leader, Joe Filisko. The show was solid – Wilson is the top Chicago-style blues harmonica player/vocalist working today.

On the following Monday evening, I went to the Filisko Blues Harp Cult session at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. Our special guest was – KIM WILSON!!!! He spoke to the harmonica geeks, told some stories and played some outstanding harmonica. He had an interesting take on “white people playing the blues,” which some feel is a form of cultural thievery, another case of the white majority ripping off the African American originators of an art form. He said the white people do not have the cultural claim on the blues that black folks have as their birthright – BUT if the music is approached with the proper respect and the intent is to represent the art form to the world, white people can feel OK about performing the blues. Hey – Wynton Marsallis has played Bach. In the end, music is music.

The next February evening, I hosted a bachelor party for my friend, Shoji Naito who celebrated his marriage to fellow harmonicist “Little Laura” in early March. It was a pretty tame bachelor party. We drank beer, ate pizza and played music until 2 a.m. I also went to a new blues jam on Wednesday, at a club called the Kitty Moon. So I did musical things for five consecutive evenings. I was pooped and very glad to see my womenfolk return to Evanston.

The musical feast continued on into March. Steve Guyger, another fabulous blues harmonica guy, came to town. He played with Billy Flynn (the unsung multi-instrumentalist/vocalist from Green Bay WI) at The Smoke Daddy in Chicago. Steve and Billy also showed up at the Filisko harmonica class at the Old Town School of Folk Music the following Monday. Guyger and Flynn put on an unreal exhibition of late 1940’s through early 1960’s Chicago blues. Guyger cares passionately about the blues and he produced the fattest harmonica tone I have ever heard. He doesn’t have Kim Wilson’s voice (or his financial success), but he is the real deal. He was Jimmy Rogers harmonica player for many years, and he soaked up Jimmy’s vibe. Billy Flynn plays guitar, harmonica, bass, mandolin and he sings – awesome musician. He is known to insiders and has played with the greats – Kim Wilson, Otis Rush, Pinetop Perkins, Sunnyland Slim, Luther Allison and many others.

Also in March, Shoji Naito and Little Laura celebrated their "blues wedding" - lots of fun and lots of music. I also checked out the Thursday night jam at Zachary's on the Northwest Side of Chicago - a very eclectic session covering everything from Johnny Cash to Muddy Waters.

I am cranking up the Mystery Band again. We have two gigs in late April. All this listening has inspired me to try again.

I talk too much about music. It is sort of pointless. I agree with Steve Martin - he said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Blues Hell/Blues Heaven

The Mystery Band's recent gig at C.J. Arthur's was "blues hell." The place was nearly empty. More than half of the patrons sat at the bar with their backs to the band. There was no stage - we set up at the front of the restaurant on the floor. The sound system did not include a vocal monitor, so Mr. G could not hear himself very well. Most of the regulars in the Mystery Band had other commitments, so I back-filled with other great musicians that I know, but this version of the Mystery Band had never played together before. We were playing with a new bass player - he had never played with ol' Mr. G. He was a good player, but he was a little timid, so our time was a little bit squishy. But we didn't sound awful. Our comp was tied to C.J. Arthur's revenue during our sets, so we got paid $70 for over 3 hours of effort - I came out of pocket to make sure the guys got a decent payday. There were a few redeeming aspects of the gig - my lovely 13-year old daughter could come to the smoke-free, family-friendly venue. My business partner and his wife live in the neighborhood, so they showed up. A nice couple that I know from the Evanston Quaker Meeting also stopped by. So it wasn't a total loss, but it's not going to make the highlight reel of the Mystery Band's history.

Then I had a "blues heaven" experience last Monday night. Joe Filisko convinced the great blues harmonica pioneer, Billy Boy Arnold, to come to the blues harp class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Billy Boy learned from Sonny Boy Williamson I (the original, John Lee Williamson, who wrote "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and dozens of other blues classics). Billy Boy also was in Bo Diddley's band in the 1950's. He is a great songwriter and penned a few classics himself ("I Wish You Would" is probably his most famous hit). He shared memories and stories with us for an hour, played a tune for us, and went out for beers with us afterward. I was in starry-eyed hero worship mode. Billy Boy must be well into his 70's now, but he is still full of energy and doesn't look a day over 50. For us blues harp nuts, hanging with Billy Boy is like a bunch of dedicated weekend golfers getting a chance to hang out with Jack Nicklaus. Or a bunch of ex-high school hoops players having beers with Kareem Abdul Jabar. For members of the blues harp cult, Billy Boy Arnold is huge.

Joe Filisko is one of the "hub people." A large group of cool folks are directly connected to Joe - he is the hub of the harmonica world. When you know Joe, you are one degree of separation from every important harmonica player on the planet. Some people might say that the phrase "important harmonica player" is an oxymoron, but I would never say that....

Friday, February 10, 2006

Running the Blues Jam

Mr. G and the Mystery Band was the house band for the blues jam at Bill's Blues Bar on Tuesday, January 31. This correspondent was the host, which means I collected the names and performance capabilities of the jammers, called them up, and set them down after their time on stage was through. We had a managable number of musicians - some folks even got to play twice. There were a number of observers, and some of them were drinking hard for a Tuesday night.

The reason to run a jam is to assist in the creation of a few magical musical moments. I have been to jams where there was no magic; the combination of inadequate talent and lack of jam leadership turned the proceedings into the aural equivalent of the dry heaves - painful and unproductive. But we caught some breaks last Tuesday. There were some fine musicians in the house (including the members of the Mystery Band) and we even were graced by the presence of a minor blues celebrity - Mr. Sammy Fender.

Sammy Fender has been on the Chicago blues scene for years, one of the raucous West Side guitar monsters. His hair is grey now, but his energy level is still high. The volume knob on his amp and guitar are also set on "high" - he is an ear-breaking player. Sammy has carries a lot of music in his head and he can get a band of jammers into a hellacious groove.

We were also lucky to have Steve Hart in the house - a bass player, tuba player and drummer of prodigious skill. Steve has a six-string electric bass (not the typical four-string instrument). He settled in with the three other players and laid down the nastiest funk bass line you ever heard in your life. The entire club snapped into the groove, and Steve's bandmates scrambled to give him the support he needed. It worked. Steve loooks like an old lefty with his greying pony tail and wire frame glasses, but the man is way too funky.

Bill's Blues Bar is beginning to feel like a true blues dive now. It is in its third year of existence and it doesn't look new anymore. Evanston still lets folks smoke in the bars (two neighboring suburbs banned smoking, thus sending the nicotine fiends to Evanston establishments like Bill's Blues). The smell of old cigarette smoke and stale beer is beginning to permeate Bill's Blues - it isn't an unpleasant aroma, really, and it sure does fit with the down and dirty blues vibe.

The Mystery Band will play at C.J. Arthur's in Wilmette IL tonight, February 10th. C.J. Arthur's is the antithesis of Bill's Blues. It is clean, no smoking allowed, family friendly, etc. Wilmette is a pretty tony suburb - the Mystery Band has never been booked in a town like this. We might flop. Guess I will have to tone down some of my XXX-rated blues songs.......

Saturday, January 28, 2006

What to Remember and What to Forget

My business partner hung up the telephone and began to curse, but without a lot of heat behind the words. He had just chatted with a business acquaintence that had said one thing, but did something different. My partner ended his relatively calm string of epithets by saying "I have a long memory."

Is it good to have a long memory? I am notoriously forgetful - you can ask my wife if you don't believe me. I forget where I left my car keys. I forget my cousin's wife's name. I forget that my eldest daughter once suggested that I engage in an anatomically impossible sexual act. I forget that I have screwed up countless songs as a singer and harmonica player. I forget that one of my fellow officers at a major corporation saw to it that I got fired so he could continue to be employed. Sometimes I am a happier person because I have forgotten certain things.

But I remember things, too. I remember the lyrics to "Mustang Sally" (yo Wicked Pickett, I miss you, man). I remember the Christmas morning when my parents gave me a puppy. I remember when my junior high school jazz band won the grand trophy at the Reno High School Jazz Festival many, many years ago. I remember the center field bleachers at Comisky Park in the late 1970's when Harry Carey would set up his broadcast booth in the 15th row surrounded by happy (and inebriated) White Sox fans. I remember the horse-and-buggy ride with my brand new bride from the church to the reception on our wedding day. I remember crossing the finish line at the Chicago Marathon in 1992. I thank God for these, and other blessed memories that I hold somewhere in my soggy brain.

Here's a theory - when people remember bad stuff, nurture their righteous rage, vow revenge - that is when wars are born. Better to focus on remembering the lyrics of your favorite song, the sweetness of that first kiss, anything that makes you smile and calms you down. Better to forget the insults and injuries.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Harmonica Love Story

A harmonica is easy to carry. Take it out of your hip pocket, knock it against your palm to shake out the dirt and pocket fuzz and bits of tobacco. Now it's ready. You can do anything with a harmonica's thin reedy single tone, or chords, or melody with rhythm chords. You can mold the music with curved hands, making it wail and cry like bagpipes, making it full and round like an organ, making it as sharp and bitter as the reed pipes of the hills.. And you play and put it back into your pocket. It's always with you...

From “The Grapes Of Wrath,” John Steinbeck.

Several years ago, a young Japanese man came to Chicago. He was pulled to the city because he loved American blues music - the traditional, "old school" blues of Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs, Bobby Blue Bland and the rest. He was a quiet young man blessed with serious talent and great focus. He plays searing harmonica; he plays rock-steady bass guitar, his blues guitar chops are formidable. Harmonica was his first instrument, and he has a deep love for that little horn. When he arrived in Chicago, his English language skills were weak. I would think that he struggled with culture shock - Chicago is not much like Japan. He took private English lessons (often paying by giving harmonica and guitar lessons to his tutors); soon, he became fluent. He enrolled in Columbia College, the Chicago institution that has excellent programs in music, visual arts and creative writing. He was a stellar student and became a serious jazz guitarist during his student days. But he wanted to be a true bluesman. He stayed out late, drank alcohol, chain smoked Marlboros and played with every blues band that would let him sit in. He also explored the blues harmonica classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music led by Joe Filisko. Soon, he was the star harmonica student in the advanced blues harp class, and also served as the "house guitarist" for Joe Filisko's classes. He has been supporting Joe's harmonica teaching efforts for over 5 years now. A few years ago, the Japanese bluesman turned 30 years old. He quit smoking and drinking and quickly dropped some weight. He went from a slightly overweight, partying blues guy to a lean, fit, intense music machine. He gained a reputation. He now plays bass with the world-famous Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. He supports many other blues bands around Chicago with his bass, guitar and harmonica.


About three years ago, an unusual student signed up for Joe Filisko's Chicago Blues Harp class. The gang of students in Joe's class varied in many ways - age, economic status, ethnic background - but they were all the same on one dimension. All the students were male. The new student was unusual -- a young, petite "non-male." She is a nurse at Children Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She spends her working hours looking after desperately ill children, many suffering from terminal diseases. She often shows up to class in her nursing gear (stethoscope still in place). On some evenings, the sadness and horror of her work is visible in her eyes. She was a quiet young woman with musical talent. And she had the blues, big time. Her work a source of deep distress at times, and she had no "significant other" to turn to for comfort. She plays lovely harmonica, and she sings in a soft, keening voice that often causes her raucous harmonica classmates to fall into silence. As a young woman in a group of predominantly middle-aged (and married) men, Filisko’s blues harp class was not the best place for her to find her soulmate.


In hindsight, it was inevitable. In spite of the differences in culture, the Japanese bluesman and harmonica-playing nurse slowly moved toward each other. The two young people kept their relationship quiet, but their harmonica classmates picked up on it quickly. They finally came out from under their cloak of secrecy. The ring is on the nurse’s finger now, and the wedding date has been set. The members of Joe Filisko's harmonica cult shouted, "Hooray!" It is a wonderful romance, and now we know our Japanese friend won't be heading back to Japan - a very good outcome for his blues harp cronies.

This is a true story of two people that found each other through their love of the harmonica, the Mississippi Saxophone, the Tin Sandwich. Love can bloom in the strangest places....

Monday, January 16, 2006

Dead Scene in January

January is known as a wasteland in the entertainment business. After New Year's Eve, the attendance at bars and music venues drops off - the Christmas bills hit in January and inhibit the impulse to party, I guess. Mr. G and the Mystery Band tried to break through these doldrums on Friday the 13th with our first gig as headliner at the Morseland Cafe. It was a dead scene.

The Morseland is a hipster joint in the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. It is a nice room with a large stage and a huge sound system/DJ booth. The food they serve is outstanding and the servers/bartenders are all young and friendly. We hit the stage at about 10p.m.; the crowd was pretty small. It didn't get much bigger as the night progressed. We played our hearts out, but the crowd didn't respond much. It is a little deflating to play a high-energy piece through to a big finish and hear no response from the house. I guess this counts as a lesson in humility for me. We still had fun, but we could have had as much fun playing in my basement.

A night like last Friday reminds me that it is a good thing that blues harp is my hobby, not my vocation. I ended up paying the band with my own money - another night of losing money on a gig. It is close to impossible to make a living as a blues harmonica player - there might be 100 guys in the world that survive on a blues harmonica player's wages. There is an old joke - "Q: What is the difference between a blues harp player and a large pizza? A: A large pizza can feed a family of four."


Monday, January 02, 2006

Hitting the Reset Button

Yes, we have survived another year. Oh-Five was a bumpy ride; it feels good to have that section of road in the rearview mirror. Now we hit the reset button and start over.

It is the "deferred New Years Holiday," Monday January 2. Schools, government offices and the financial markets are all closed. And outside my window in E-Town Illinois, it is over forty degrees and a thunderstorm is in progress. All of the snow and cold we had in early-to-mid December has been blown away by a wet, warm system from the south. The lawns are visible again - not a good thing since all of the gross stuff that was covered by snow is now visible.

Many of the folks that read this blog may have made New Years resolutions, as have I. Here is one of my favorite pieces on resolutions, written by Mother Teresa.

People are often unreasonable and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.

If you are honest, people may cheat you.
Be honest anyway.

If you find happiness, people may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.

The good you do may be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough.
Do your best anyway.

For in the end, it is between you and God.
It was never about you and them anyway.