Blues jams bring together players of varying skills – professionals who make a living playing music and teaching, accomplished musicians who chose other careers and new players who have little experience performing in front of a live audience.
With the support of a host band, musicians and vocalists who’ve never performed together can create an exciting event playing the music that gave birth to rock ’n’ roll, as they did recently at a new blues jam in midtown Toronto.
At the “harmonica hangout” at the Alleycatz at Yonge and Eglinton, some nine jammers – vocalists, guitarists and harp players – performed Mississippi Delta blues standards such as Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City, Robert Johnson’s Dust My Broom and Sonny Boy Williamson’s Help Me for an enthusiastic crowd.
One of the performers, Earl Tucker, took up the blues harp about 35 years ago while he was attending the University of British Columbia. “I spent a summer hitchhiking through Europe and I brought my harmonica with me and played with people when I travelled,” he said.
He ended up taking a hiatus from the instrument, but about eight years ago, Tucker, a Montreal native, got hooked on the music again when his brother-in-law, Brian Venis, shared his blues music recordings with him and bought him tickets for the Toronto Blues Society’s annual Women’s Blues Revue.
Tucker picked up his harmonica again and then went on to become a promoter. Two years ago, he helped to bring the virtuoso Israeli blues guitarist Lazer Lloyd to Ontario and got him a gig at Aish Thornhill. Tucker, who joined Lloyd on stage, said he contacted several shuls, hoping they would book Lloyd, but was turned down by all of them, except Aish Thornhill. The synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Avram Rothman, “was blown away that I was involved with Lazer,” Tucker said. “He has been a really good support for music in the Jewish community.”
While looking for gigs for Lloyd, Tucker came across Alleycatz. Lloyd never did perform at Alleycatz, but Tucker thought the venue could be put to good use for an open-mic harmonica jam that would also welcome other instrumentalists and vocalists. He asked harp player, vocalist and drummer Mark (Bird) Stafford to host the jam, and Stafford brought in another harp player, singer and guitarist Ken Yoshioka, as his co-host.
Yoshioka and Stafford perform a 45-minute set at the start of the jam and then back up other musicians for the rest of the evening.
Blues has a significant baby-boomer audience, and Tucker, a member of the board of the Toronto Blues Society since last December, said he’s “working on expanding the demographic so we get more younger people who enjoy the blues and play the blues.”
Tucker helped to bring blues musician/broadcaster Danny Marks to Jewish Music Week this year and he’s planning to present more blues in the Jewish community.
The jam at Alleycatz is on from 7 to 10 p.m on Wednesdays until the third week of August, and resumes again in September. If you want to play, you’re welcome to drop by, but Stafford would prefer that people contact him first (at [email protected]) to discuss the tunes they wish to play. “I would tell them to be prepared, understand you’re sharing the stage with other musicians and know your stuff,” Stafford said. He added that he welcomes professional musicians who wish to support up-and-coming players and the event.