“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Charlie Parker’s famous quote is especially true of musicians residing in New Orleans—something happens when you live in this city that bends the music to its will. It gets in your bones. If the strident horns, loping funk guitar and swinging piano all sound just a little different here than anywhere else, then so too does the harmonica coming out of New Orleans. While the city may not be as readily associated with harp players as somewhere like Chicago, New Orleans is home to some of the instrument’s finest contemporary exponents.
Among them is Smoky Greenwell, who moved here from Nashville in 1989 and has been a mainstay on the live music scene ever since. After getting a job playing on Bourbon Street five nights a week, Smoky admits he got schooled in the blues of New Orleans pretty quickly. “Coming from Nashville—where I’d had a band with Warren Haynes—I still had a lot of country in my playing. So while I thought I was a real bluesman when I arrived, because of my time with blues bands there, I soon realized I had a lot to learn as far as playing blues goes!” he laughs.
“The whole funk scene here is definitely in my DNA at this point too,” he adds. “I played with War for two years, which was a blues/funk band, so hopefully a lot of that rubbed off on me. There’s a great smorgasbord of music here.”
Johnny Sansone, also resident in NOLA since the mid-’80s, points out that Baton Rouge was better-known as a harmonica city, with notable players that helped shape rock ’n’ roll in subsequent decades, such as Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Raful Neal and Whispering Smith. However, some of the best players came together right here in town, something Johnny helped to promote.
“Back in the 1990s we had a small club of harp players called the Brotherhood of the Iron and we would meet once a week,” he says. “Bruce Sunpie Barnes, Benny Maygarden, J. Monque’D, Andy J. Forest, Rockin’ Jake and several more. We had a blues harmonica show that we hosted every year at Jazz Fest for over 24 years. I created a band with a few of my students called the King Biscuit Boys—we would have a regular Monday night gig at a barbecue place and I would ask the members to switch instruments so everyone in the band could not only play harp but understand how to back a harp, as well as learning to play other instruments. The band members included Greg Izor and Thomas Walker, both to this day my favorite tone players who continue to amaze me.
“There are several great harp players working locally on a regular basis, like Smoky Greenwell, Johnny Mastro, Jersey Slim. We also have the Crescent City Harmonica Club with instruction on playing, customizing and repairing harmonicas. And the latest high-water mark, supernatural harmonica bad boy Jason Ricci moved back to New Orleans.”
Virtuosic wunderkind Jason Ricci has indeed been back in town for the last three years, and says he hoped moving to New Orleans would inform his playing.
“If that’s happening and somebody else has heard that in my music since I moved here, that would be a big compliment,” says Jason. “I’ve definitely tried to make that happen. I recorded a song on my new record with JJ [Appleton] called ‘Geaux Nuts Kids,’ which is all an accordion imitation—my imitation of the stuff I hear around here. So it’s definitely affected what I’m doing—whether I’m doing it right or not, I’ll let New Orleans judge!”
Jason is also among those taking part in a unique event coming to town soon. The Harmonica Mini-Collective, at Chickie Wah Wah on November 1–3, will feature three full days of instruction from some of the best harp players in the world. Jason Ricci, Winslow Yerxa, John Nemeth, Rick Estrin and Hank Shreve will be holding workshops, with special performances in the evening. You can expect to see Smoky Greenwell and Johnny Sansone there, too.
“I think people coming to the event will naturally ascribe significance to the location, because this is a music city,” says Jason. “The last couple of times we did this it was in Indiana, so there’s a little more of a party vibe this time. I would definitely recommend people get their tickets right away—it would be really cool if we get a local following. And if we get anyone who is interested in playing harmonica coming out from New Orleans that would be great too!”