Sitting In (2001)
Hitch me to your buggy baby, drive
me like a mule.
—Blind Lemon Jefferson,
“Rabbit Foot Blues”
As we blues harmonica players know, there’s something about our small, highly portable instrument that makes it almost uniquely well suited to the predatory musical activity known as sitting in. You can walk into any blues bar in America with a harp in your pocket and nobody knows you’re packing. (A sax player or guitarist, on the other hand, immediately announces his or her presence—and audacity—with a shoulder-slung axe.) You can check out the band, see if they’re worth your time, and inventory your anxious heart. If you decide to wimp out, the harp stays in your pocket and nobody knows the difference. If you make your big move, though—talk to the bandleader during a break, persuade him of your talent, and get called up onto the bandstand during the next set—you have now been licensed to grab which- ever vocal mike comes your way and wail. Which is to say you have suddenly been transformed, in the space of a few minutes, from an anonymous nobody into the loudest guy in the house.
If you acquit yourself properly over the next ten or fifteen minutes, you’ll almost certainly be told you’re welcome anytime, and you’ll be showered with applause and a free drink or two when you come offstage. If you acquit yourself really well, which is to say if you tear the house apart, you may even—as Jack Kerouac might say—get the girl, the pearl, everything.
If you blow it, of course, everybody will know: you’re a thunderclap fart with nowhere to hide. You’ll drag the band down to your level, too. This is why blues bands cringe inwardly when a bright-eyed Anonymous Nobody pulls out a harp and approaches the bandstand. There are many ways to blow it. I discovered most of them years ago. Painful experiences beget a yearning for useable, communicable wisdom: a set of guidelines that might smooth the novice’s humiliation-strewn path....
...#9: Never let somebody make you do something that isn’t your thing. An important corollary to item #8, this essential tip was passed along to me one night in Showman’s Cafe by a short, trim, fierce-eyed singer named Jackie Soul. I was a bit of a Harlem curiosity at that point: a twenty-something white kid with mad energy and an uncanny sound that reminded everybody—or so they told me—of what Granddaddy used to play back in Georgia. “Preacher” Robbins, seated at his keyboard, would call out “Adam’s in the house, y’all! We gone have some goddamned fun tonight!” as I walked through the front door. People would wave me over, treat me to drinks. I was lavished with attention, like a mascot or pet. I wasn’t quite real to my Harlem admirers, nor were they quite real to me.
The music was real, though, as were the demands it made on my still-developing talent. Although I could hang with the jazz combos when blues or funk was being played—“Honky Tonk,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Georgia on My Mind”—I was over my head whenever things turned toward jazz. One night the Preacher kept me up for a while, then left the stage and let me finish the set with his band. The tenor man called out “St. Thomas,” a Sonny Rollins tune I’d heard many times but didn’t really know. What did I have to lose? Be bold, I thought. After sitting out the head and biding my time while the sax did his thing, I eased into a solo. Without the Preacher’s big loud chords anchoring me, lost in a wilderness of ride cymbals, I diddled and noodled, hopelessly amateurish.
I was wincing inwardly a few minutes later as we went on break. I fell into a chair at an unoccupied table, nursing a fresh Heineken. After a moment I looked up to see Jackie Soul, who’d invited me to sit in with his band on several occasions.
“How you feelin’, brother?” he rasped, beaming.
I swallowed a mouthful, trying not to wince. “I didn’t really know that last song.”
“No need to cry about it,” he said. His smile had an edge. “You got talent. But you made a mistake. I’m talking straight now. And I’m gonna tell you something Jackie Wilson told me one time, that saved me a lot of heartache down through the years."
He tapped my hand for emphasis. “Never, and I mean never, let somebody make you do something that ain’t your thing. Stick to what you know. If blues is your thing, and somebody starts throwing jazz at you, ain’t no shame in stepping aside and letting the jazz cats blow. Hell, they can’t do what you do in a blues way on that harmonica. That’s why they running around in circles getting fancy on you.”
This was the best musical advice I’ve ever received. When I’m sitting in with a band and a song comes up that I can’t do justice to—“Little Wing,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Fly Me to the Moon”—I ease myself gracefully into the shadows, or slide off stage entirely, and let the guitar player go to town. I take pleasure and pride in the things I can do; I don’t worry much about the things I can’t.
Blues harmonica is a wonderful instrument, ideal for sitting in. On a good night, in the right situation, you’ve got the key to the kingdom in your hip pocket. But there are many other kinds of nights, and they’re all good, too. Sometimes it’s okay to just kick back and listen to the band. Thank you, Jackie Soul.
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