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Friday, April 04, 2008

Gruenling and Guyger

Joe Filisko's Monday Night Chicago Advanced Blues Harmonica class at the Old Town School of Folk Music was jammed on March 24th. Dennis Gruenling and Steve Guyger were visiting to play and promote the Little Walter Jacob tribute album "I Just Keep Lovin' Him," assembled and produced by Dennis (Mr. Gruenling also performed on most of the tracks). Steve and Dennis are a study in contrasts - Guyger is a craggy, broad-shouldered, compact man well into his 50's; Dennis is a tall, slender guy in his 30's with very long hair. They are united by their devotion to blues harmonica generally and Little Walter Jacobs in particular.

Dennis' album is delightful, and I am very impressed with the way he is building a multi-faceted musical career - he is a performer, a recording artist, a teacher, a blues disk jockey and a harmonica microphone technician. This is a busy young fellow.

Ah, yes, the Great Little Walter.......

Harmonica players all know how important Little Walter was to the instrument. More than any other player, he inserted the blues harmonica sound into the American culture. His creativity and aggressive musicality placed him above any other player. Yes, he built on the foundation established by John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy I), but he took it far, far beyond the point that Williamson reached.

Dennis and Steve took the Monday night crowd on a tour of the world Little Walter created...from the early years through his jazzier, jump blues period. it was terrific.

The group that assembled at the Old Town School of Folk Music was amazing - lots of harmonica stars in the room - Dave Waldman, Jim Leyban, Tom Albanese, Buzz Krantz and many others. We are lucky the Chicago fire marshall didn't poke his head into the small classroom - it was filled to 3-4 times its recommended occupancy, with several people (including me) sitting on the floor at the feet of the two harmonicists.

An observation - we were celebrating the life and artistry of an African-American blues genius, who died violently in Chicago at the age of 39, cutting short a life that may have continued to produce great musical innovation. Yet there was not a single African-American in the room - all white folks of various ages and genders, with a sprinkling of Hispanic people. Is this due to a lack of outreach on the part of the organizers of the event or a lack of interest in the blues legacy by African-Americans in Chicago? Probably a combination of both factors. It would have been cool to have Bob Stroger there - he played with Little Walter - or Billy Branch. It seems strange to be celebrating an African-American artist without the participation of African-Americans.


Joe said...

There are African Americans that are interested in the history of Blues.

That event was held on a Monday night. Billy Branch was probably working at Artis's.

I live on the West Coast. Most of the harp players here are Dave Barrett students. I talk to a lot of his students. Most of them don't dig into black players aside from: Little Walter, Big Walter and Sonny Boy II.

The listen to guys like Gruenling, Jason Ricci, Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza and Musselwhite. They don't dig past the last decade or so.

It takes a special person to do their own research and dig deeply. People may be interested in the history of the music, but many people aren't willing to do the research.

Your observation is very interesting. If you look at the instructional events like masterclasses, jam camps and SPAH events, you'll find that very few Black artists are ever represented.

The only reference to the black artists is their role from a historical perspective.

Contrary to the belief of some people, black blues artists are not extinct.

Mr. G said...

Hi Joe -

You are totally correct - Billy Branch has his regular gig at Artis' Lounge. Maybe he was notified about the event and couldn't make it. But there are bunches of other black harp players in Chicago that may have had interest/insights into the topic at hand - Steve Bell, Harmonica Hinds, Lester Davenport, Little Arthur Duncan et al. These are weighty cats; would love to hang with them. I hope they were notified, too.

I agree with your take on the current crop of blues harp players. It takes dedication and effort to dig into the historic details of the blues harp. Guyger, Gruenling and Filisko are all over it; Filisko has had Billy Boy Arnold in the Monday class a couple of times. Shared passions unite people of different backgrounds; I always want to see more of that happening.

Joe said...

I couldn't agree more.

I think the main difference is that the black harp players you listed are really blues artists who use the harp as their instrument rather than harmonica players with a peripheral interest in the blues.

I would bet that the black artists you listed fly under the radar screen of the instructional guys. It's too bad, because those guys have a lot to offer.

I don't attend these harp events, but would be more inclined to do so, if the aforementioned artists were part of the bill.

If I had never seen guys like Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Carey Bell, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Little Willie Anderson and Little Arthur. I wouldn't be playing the harp today.

I also learned stuff from guys like Joe Charles and Scott Bradbury. They dug deep and knew about the roots.