Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Harping On: Jerry Portnoy
A rather broad question but, in brief, simply a dream come true to claim a place among the great harmonica players who preceded me in that most prestigious position. It was a thrill every night to stand there and answer his voice with my harp.
2. What first led you to play harmonica?
I picked one up off a friend's mantel piece and immediately had the feeling that I could make sense out of how to play it.
3. Did you have any difficulty learning?
I grew up around blues in Chicago and learned from hanging out with Big Walter Horton, listening to other great players playing live around town, as well as spending endless hours wearing the grooves down on the classic blues harmonica records. Six years later I was playing with Muddy.
4. What is your harp of choice?
I play customized Marine Bands by Joe Filisko and Mauro Pionzio and Marine Band DeLuxes right out of the box.
5. Your CD set, Blues Harmonica Masterclass, is considered to be one of the best learning sources out there. What do you think makes it stand out?
Probably my ability to explain the physicality of sound production and the use of phonetics.
6. How did you first get the idea for the CD set?
I was doing a lot of private instruction and one of my students brought me a shopping bag full of harmonica instruction materials (books, tapes, and CDs) that he had purchased. I was appalled at the quality of the instruction and realized there should be a good market for a product that really explained and clearly demonstrated the method of producing a professional sound.
7. Your playing in Eric Clapton's "From the Cradle" was what made me want to be a harp player. How did you end up playing with Clapton?
I met Clapton when Muddy's band opened up for him on a European tour in 1978. We followed that up with a three month tour of the U.S. in 1979. Frequently, at the end of his show, he would bring Muddy and me out to play a number with him. I saw him a time or two over the intervening years and, once, he called me out of the audience in Buffalo, NY to join him onstage. In 1990 I got a call that he wanted me to come to England to play the blues nights for his 24 night stand at the Royal Albert Hall in 1991. Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Jimmie Vaughn, Robert Cray and Johnnie Johnson were the other special guests. I got a call to return in 1993 and became a regular member of his band when he did a largely blues based show for the next several years.
8. Your website says you played harmonica for Sesame Street. What did you do for that show?
That is Toots Thielemans playing the iconic theme song. I did one segment about the letter "Z" and made up a little harmonica riff as the music for it.
9. Which current harmonica players do you admire the most?
There are a number of good harmonica players out there now - many, many more than when I began my career and some of them have told me that hearing me with Muddy or the Legendary Blues Band or Clapton was what turned them on and made them want to play. That's a very satisfying compliment and affirmation. Among current players my top guys would have to be Kim Wilson for blues/diatonic and Mike Turk for jazz/chromatic. Stevie Wonder relegates the harmonica to the back burner but he is an awesome virtuoso on the chromatic.
10. What harmonica playing habits would you have have members of HOOT get into, and which would you have them avoid?
Learn how to use space and concentrate on the sound of one note. See what you can do with it. Attack it different ways - staccato and legato, make it swell and diminish in volume, try different vibratos and other effects. The "sound" of the note is what carries the emotion. Become the note! Avoid eating peanuts just before playing.