"The harmonica would seem to have promise as a jazz instrument; it is a free-reed instrument capable of producing a wide range of voice-like timbres and is the most important reed instrument used in the blues. In fact it has been of little importance in jazz..." So writes Barry Kernfield in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Kernfield then goes on to mention Toots Thielemans and Larry Adler (both players of the chromatic harmonica), Sonny Terry (certainly not my idea of a jazz musician), Buddy Lucas (not really my idea of a harp player!) and Malachi Favors of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (a bass player who played harp as something of an afterthought). Even if Kernfield had heard of diatonic harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy, I don't think it would have changed his opinion. But although the harp has not had much of an impact on jazz, many harp players have been influenced by jazz. Blues harp players such as Blues Birdhead (alias James Simons)1 and Rhythm Willie2 showed a definite Louis Armstrong influence, both in their style of playing and their choice of material and an otherwise straight New Orleans jazz session by John Hyman in 1927 featured white harp player Alvin Gautreaux3.
If you're looking for jazz influenced blues harp, then one of the most rewarding areas is that Twilight Zone where jazz, ragtime, blues and vaudeville meet. Here we find such players as Herbert Leonard and Robert Cooksey. These two players have a lot in common. For a start, little seems to be known about either of them. Herbert Leonard holds the distinction of being the first blues harp player to have been recorded, appearing on Clara Smith's "My Doggone Lazy Man"4 made on January 31st 1924, a couple of months before the harp and guitar-playing songsters Daddy Stovepipe and Stovepipe No.1 made their first recordings. He also backed Louise Ross and recorded with ukulele/banjo player Harry 'Ukelele' Mays in March 1925 under the name 'The Two Of Spades'5. Robert Cooksey also backed several female classic blues singers and worked in a variety of line-ups with banjo/guitarist Bobby Leecan. Both Leonard and Cooksey were based in New York and although both were familiar with cross harp styles, they seemed to prefer cleanly played, upper register straight harp. On hearing Jimmy "Skeeter" Hinton6, another New York player from that period, I had visions of a local school of jazz-influenced harmonica players, unfortunately, even by that time, their style was starting to sound rather dated and none of them recorded after 1930.
I have transcribed the first chorus to "Dirty Guitar Blues"7 by Leecan and Cooksey. Recorded in New York in September 1926, this is a good introduction to Cooksey's style. Played in first position on a C harp, this should present few difficulties. Notice the clean tone and the almost "corny" hand vibrato and the way the harp outlines the chords of the piece. Get into practice with this piece and we'll look at something jazzier next time.
1. His two solo sides are reissued on Great Harp Players 1927-36 (Document DOCD-5100). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
2. His entire 1940 session is reissued on Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos (RST Records JPCD-1505-2). Click Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
These recordings are also available on Harmonica Blues 1929 - 1940 (Wolf Records WSE106). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
3. Reissued on The Owls Hoot (Frog Records DFG2). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
4. Reissued on Clara Smith Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (Document DOCD-5365). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
5. Reissued on Hokum Blues 1924 - 1929 (Document DOCD-5370). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
6. His half dozen tracks with Chicken Wilson are reissued on Ragtime Blues Guitar 1927-1930 (Document DOCD-5062). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
7. Reissued on Leecan and Cooksey Vol 1 (Document DOCD-5279). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
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