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Beyond The Blues: The Blues Harmonica In Jazz

davidking via Flickr

In the mid-1800s, a German harmonica manufacturer named Hohner started exporting his product to North America. Being relatively inexpensive, relatively easy to play and extremely portable, the harmonica (commonly called a "harp") was the perfect instrument for a nation on the move. Everybody from Abraham Lincoln to Billy the Kid had one.

Over time, its popularity has waxed and waned, and it's now heard most often in the context of blues music. But ever since Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs began playing saxophone lines on his harmonica in the late 1940s, the instrument has occasionally crossed over into the jazz world. Here, then, is a list of five great blues-harmonica players who have applied their skills and their instrument to jazz songs.

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Beyond The Blues: The Blues Harmonica In Jazz

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite were among the first harmonica players to bring the harp and blues music to rock audiences. Initially, Butterfield had the greater success — thanks in large part to his lead guitarist, Michael Bloomfield, who was to become one of the first guitar gods of the 1960s. At the time of the pair's first album release in 1965, white blues musicians were seen as something of a novelty, so the Butterfield Band's goal with that album was to establish itself as a legitimate blues act. Mission accomplished. Its second release, 1966's East-West, was much more experimental. With the title track, the two laid the groundwork — for good or ill — for long instrumental jams in a blues-rock context. They also recorded their electrified version of Nat Adderley's jazz composition "Work Song," originally performed by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. On this recording, you'll hear solos by Butterfield, Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop (guitar) and Mark Naftalin (keyboards), accompanied by Jerome Arnold on bass and Billy Davenport on drums.

Charlie Musselwhite

Charlie Musselwhite was raised on blues music. Born in Mississippi in 1944 to a musically inclined family, and raised in Memphis, he eventually moved to Chicago to learn from that city's blues-harmonica masters. Like Butterfield, Musselwhite began recording in the mid-1960s. He remained focused almost exclusively on blues music until the 1990s, when he began writing and recording music that reflected his love for Latin music, primarily the music of Brazil and Cuba. These influences first showed themselves on Musselwhite's 1999 release, Continental Drifter. On that CD, along with his blues songs, he included several tracks he'd recorded with the Cuban band Quarteto Patria. This is his version of a Cuban song that has been recorded by a number of jazz musicians: Ernesto Lecuona's beautiful "Siboney."

William Clarke

Like Little Walter and others before him, William Clarke (1951-1996) was influenced by jazz saxophonists, as well as by harmonica players. Harp players such as James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williamson (II) and Junior Wells were his initial influences. But shortly after he began studying the harmonica in earnest, he found inspiration in the bluesy jazz playing of saxophonists, primarily Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Gene Ammons, Willis Jackson and Lynn Hope. Here, Clarke applies his harmonica to a jazz classic from the heyday of the Kansas City Sound: "Moten Swing," written by Bennie and Buster Moten and immortalized by one of the masters of swing, Count Basie.

Paul Oscher

Paul Oscher, although little-known outside the hardcore blues community, is one of the living masters of the harmonica. How good is he? Well, at age 17, Oscher became the first white musician to work as a full-time player in Muddy Waters' blues band. Oscher is also an accomplished guitarist and pianist, but harmonica is his first instrument, and on this solo track, you'll get to hear him play a lot of them. Accompanied only by the tapping of his foot, Oscher plays "Alone With the Blues" on an assortment of chromatic and diatonic harps, as well as bass harp and melodica. And, though the blues gets pretty deep in this song, you'll also hear homage paid to at least two immortal jazz compositions: Erskine Hawkins' "After Hours" and Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk."

Carlos del Junco Band

Like Paul Oscher, Carlos del Junco is probably best known to blues fans. However, unlike other musicians on this list, the Cuban-born, Canadian raised harmonica player has always worked in other musical forms besides blues. In addition to his terrific blues playing, Carlos has also worked with Latin, reggae, R&B and jazz-fusion bands, and he brings a little bit of all that to every CD he makes. But in this song, del Junco gets a bit "neo-traditional" with his jazz offering. Enlisting the aid of vocalist and fellow Canadian Jane Siberry, he creates a delightful tribute to the groundbreaking Les Paul/Mary Ford recording of "How High the Moon," a song that has since been performed and recorded by countless jazz musicians around the world.

Nick began working at KNKX/Jazz24 as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX/Jazz24’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX/Jazz24’s music.
Robin Lloyd