We had an extremely packed house in B1 last night to welcome living blues legend Sugar Blue and his bass-playing wife Ilaria to class! He played, he regaled us with stories - what a terrific night!
In a backwards way, Sugar Blue has his mother to thank for his being a harmonica player - at age 15 she wouldn't let him keep his saxophone and play it in the house, so he turned to the harp! On the radio he was listening to lots of big band and sax players at the time and then eventually caught on to Stevie Wonder. When he heard Little Walter playing, he assumed he must be playing a completely different instrument than the diatonic he was holding!
Sugar Blue spent time talking about a lot of his major influences as he played in New York City first, then Chicago in the mid 70's.
- Sonny Boy Williamson for his ability to shape tone with his hand, for his fluidity switching between harp and vocals, and his profound philosophy as a songwriter.
- Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King for their fluidity and melodic moves.
- Bill Dicey, who turned him on to tongue blocking for that "fat sound".
- Victoria Spivey, who was "the sun around which the blues revolved in New York City at the time". She called herself the Black Queen of America, dressed the part, and took Sugar Blue under her wing to introduce him to the likes of Bob Dylan, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Louisiana Red, who eventually brought him to Chicago in the mid 70's.
- Once in Chicago, Blue met and learned from the greats, JR Wells, Walter Horton and James Cotton. Describing Horton, he said, "he had a tone as big as a baritone sax."
- Rhythm Willy and Charlie McCoy came to mind for Blue because of their first position playing strengths.
- Calling him the the "poet laureate of the blues", Sugar Blue spent a great deal of time reverently talking about songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon. Blue says Dixon was incredibly humble - "...you'd figure his head would be as big as his repertoire, but it was not." And for you songwriters out there, Dixon's advice was: Choose a topic that matters to you; rhyme it; and keep it simple - you can fit the world in four or five words.
Another topic that got a lot of thought from Blue last night was how jazz and blues fit together and how he sees his own influences. He stressed the Charlie Parker quote: "Jazz comes from the blues", and added, "...when you start separating into categories you have an unhappy family. Blues and jazz are all one family."
It was fun too to hear him tell the story of his nickname. Born James Whiting, he was out late at night on McDougall Street in New York City playing and disturbing the neighbors. One unhappy Italian woman yelled at him and his friends from upstairs to no avail, so she threw a large box of shellac 78's out the window at them. It missed him by inches and shattered...except for one record on the top that was still intact - Sugar Blues by Sydney Bechet. "Hey, that's me!" was Whiting's response and the name Sugar Blue was born!
Thanks to all who came out to class to support this wonderful performer's appearance. And Sugar Blue, huge thanks for graciously joining us in B1! We had a great time getting to know you!
Riddle me this - who is Nat Riddles? The name came up in class last night as we talked about New York harp players and thanks to our friend Adam Gussow, there is a great collection of live recordings of busker Nat Riddles available. Check out Gussow's site for sample videos and a link to buy the collection.
- Joe wants Rapid Recall feedback. If you've been using the techniques to practice, speak up and let him know how it's going.