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.