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The Back Story

The Story Behind the West Coast Jazz Harmonica Summit of 2009

There is an organization called The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) that has been around since 1962. As an aspiring chromatic harmonica player, I first heard of SPAH in 1980 from a wonderful harmonica player and friend (Steve Watne). Unfortunately for me, I somehow managed to procrastinate and didn't get around to joining the organization until 2007. SPAH holds an absolutely fantastic annual summer convention and these conventions tend to be in the Midwest. In 2007, it was held in Milwaukee and I was fortunate enough to be invited as a featured performer. I expected that my opportunity to perform at the convention would be the highlight of my SPAH experience that year, but man was I wrong about that. In the end, the highlight turned out to be all the incredible folks I got to meet, listen to, and play with.

What I didn't realize before attending the convention was the massive wealth of harmonica talent that exists around the globe. As in so many things, our culture tends to celebrate only the celebrated while the unknowns, regardless of talent, skill, and creativity tend to stay that way. This is not to take anything away from those who have "made it" -- they do tend to be the best of the best and have worked incredibly hard to get where they are. But, coming into contact with so many terrific players that I had never even heard of before (many of them living in my own neck of the woods), it started to dawn on me that we should be doing more to promote our best local players both locally and on the world stage.

I live outside of Santa Cruz, CA, which is located on the Monterey Bay, just below the San Francisco Bay. It is very close to Silicon Valley (home to all of my employers for the last bunch of years). During the first day of the 2007 SPAH convention in Milwaukee, I was participating in an informal jazz jam in the lobby of the hotel with a number of my brand new friends when I first heard this energetic older gentleman totally tearing it up on some old jazz standard -- he was amazing. I figured this must be one of the guys I'd heard of but had never seen play before, so I asked my new friend Joe Leone who it was. I had never heard the name Pete Blasberg before that day. After a few more tunes, I introduced myself only to find out that this guy actually lives in Silicon Valley and plays at a local jazz jam every other week. How could I not have even heard of him?

It was at the same convention that I heard countless others for the first time, including Winslow Yerxa, Michael Peloquin, and Steve Malerbi -- who are all local to the San Francisco Bay Area. Although he wasn't at the convention that year, around the same time I also managed to meet and jam with Damien Masterson, an absolute powerhouse chromatic player from the Bay Area. The following year at the 2008 SPAH convention in St. Louis I had the pleasure to meet and play with a guy from Los Angeles -- an incredible be-bop style player who I had also never heard of before, Michael Polesky. Another great Bay Area player I hadn't heard of until recently is Jon Eriksen, who plays regularly a couple hours up the coast from me. This year, he will not only be at the summit, but he's also a featured performer at the 2009 SPAH convention.

Speaking of the 2009 SPAH convention, I believe it's been 20 years or so since there was one on the west coast and this year it's being held in Sacramento, starting on Tuesday, August 11. Ever since SPAH 2007 I'd been thinking how cool it would be to have some kind of local jazz harmonica summit to help spread the word about all these fantastic players of my favorite instrument. I was also thinking about how great a promotion vehicle video has become for music in the YouTube era. With the latest computer technology, high quality audio recording has finally become accessible to musicians operating on tight budgets, but video is another story with high quality video recordings being out-of-reach to most of us. Wouldn't it be cool to get a bunch of the great jazz harmonica players together on a professional soundstage and film them in front of a live audience? But finding a night when all these players would be available could be a challenge -- unless we did it on the eve of the first SPAH convention to take place on the west coast in 20 years. So, presto, I now had a date for the summit.

As for the location, the Digital Media Factory is an up-and-coming multi-media production company here in Santa Cruz. Penny and I were fortunate enough to perform there together for a fund raiser last year and we were very impressed with Marty Collins and his entire crew as well as the resulting video production. There was no question in my mind that this would be the perfect location for the summit.

When I came up with the name "West Coast Jazz Harmonica Summit" I was thinking long term. I'd like this to be the first of many such events, not all of them necessarily being in Northern California. But to keep things relatively straight forward for this first endeavor, I decided to begin my search for players locally. It turns out that not only were all the local guys available, but they are all headed to SPAH in Sacramento following the summit. This is going to be a spectacular beginning to a week-long harmonica party, and hopefully only the first in a series of swingin' jazz harmonica events here on the west coast.

- Slide Man Slim (June, 2009)

Related Links
  • SPAH
  • The Digital Media Factory