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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.