Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jonny Meister Interview -The blues

Jonny Meister is WXPN's The Blues Show 's host, where he recently celebrated the program's 30th Anniversary, and a blues music Authority. I had the opportunity to interview him a few weeks ago and this is the result.

How do you see the future of blues in terms of new artists, audience...?
Well, I don't think that blues has ever been the absolutely most popular music in the world, but I think it's doing as well as it did.
Do you think there is an audience, new listeners?
Oh, definitely.
And new good artists?
There are a lot of artists. Unfortunately they don't get much attention in the mainstream media, but there are plenty of good players.
And they are reaching the same level of quality as before?
I think some of them are, but it's true of all genres of music that at this point they are not as new as they were 40 years ago and that's true for blues, jazz, rock, country and everything else that you would listen to, they are at the same point: they've been around for a while now, and they're not as new as they used to be...

If someone who's into other types of music wants to try blues, which tracks would you recommend to get them started?
I'm always careful about that because people have a different idea of what blues is. Some people think of it as blues-rock, some people think of it as old guys with acoustic guitars... If you've got a preconceived notion already then you might not like what I would pick. As, I mean, I would pick a bunch of different things going back to the 1920's: I would pick Blind Lemon Jefferson -his records are not that easy to listen to but they are very important historically, and they are the greatest influence to most of the modern players- and then I would pick Robert Johnson and some of the big known names -Muddy Waters and BB King-, but also some of the newer players, there's a lot of people.
What about Coltrane (Meister has named him as one of his favourite musicians)?
Coltrane is a jazz player. He did play some blues and he did it very well, and I love John Coltrane, but he is not primarily a blues artist. I would say that some of his work ...he did an album "John Coltrane plays the blues", which is a wonderful album. But it's saxophone and there you go, some people, right away, don't even want to hear saxophones when they hear blues while other people think it's great. There's a lot of people who like a certain section of blues and everything else they don't really consider blues. I wouldn't pick Coltrane as a representative of blues, although I would say his album "A love supreme" uses a lot of blues, it's kind of written in a blues vein, but it goes way beyond into something else.

Is blues music more a form of expression for male artists?
Well, there are more men playing blues, there are also more men playing rock, more men playing everything else, but...
Men shine more in this type of music?
Well, there's some great women. As is the case, to be honest, with all other forms of music, they tend to be singers (Koko Taylor...). Just as in country music, there are relatively few women who excel on instruments, for whatever reason, compared to the number of men. So ok, but there are some wonderful female players: Big Mama Thornton (who obviously is no longer with us), she played the harmonica and drums, and there are people like Deborah Coleman out there today who play really fine guitar.

You have some great stories, like the one about "urban legend" Eddie "One string" Jones (see it in this link ). Could you tell me the one about your friendship with some East Germany blues fans during the Iron Curtain times?
I would say it must have been in the 1970's. At some point I placed and ad in "Living blues magazine" (an American blues magazine) asking for information -pictures, recordings - about a particular blues man I was interested in (JB Lenoir) and there were 4 answers to my ad, 4 responses. All of them were from Germany: two of them were from West Germany (the FRG, which was a capitalist free country) and two of them were from behind the iron curtain, in the Communist part, the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.
And the ones in West Germany had all kinds of stuff. They had tapes of unissued recordings of JB... it was amazing. They had a lot of JB Lenoir stuff. And in the East they didn't have much, but they did have one thing that was of great interest, which was his album "Alabama blues". It had at that point gone out of print everywhere in the world except in East Germany, so you could get it through them. So we traded for a few albums that I was very interested in (you couldn't send money in or out of East Germany), and then after that they had nothing more that I really wanted but they were desperate for music, so I continued to send them things, and they'd send me whatever they could. Some of it was pretty awful, one point one of them sent me a doll that I could give to some kids...they just did their best and I felt very bad for them. Of course they're free now and one of those guys is promoting blues shows over there now, and wrote a book called "Blues today", so...
A nice story of friendship based on music...
Yes, I still trade with one of them pretty regularly, even if I can get some of the stuff, he can get it more easily for me. He recently got me a very hard to find album by a pianist named Aziza Mustafa Zadeh who lives in Germany, so we still trade, yes.
You must be a good supplier
Oh, yes. Well, I sent him a lot of good stuff, lots of country, blues, gospel music, whatever he wanted.

To what extent is blues music "universal"?
At this point it's universal, people in all countries play it. I think if you read Adam Gussow's book "Journeyman's Road", which came out last year, -he used to be in a duo called Satan and Adam, he's a harmonica player, he played on street corners, then they played at clubs and festivals and now he's a professor at the University of Mississippi and he wrote a book about it- he makes a good point about how international it is at this point. There are players in all different cultures and also a lot of interesting fusions. But yes, the blues originated obviously in the American South and there is a special quality ...
-Specially American...
I think so, I mean, nobody in the other countries sounds like them, but some of them are very intriguing in their own way...there's all different kinds of stuff, there's Chinese blues players...and I hear certain similarities in some of the music from China and Japan. It's not the same but I hear certain bending of notes and things like that that you don't hear as much in straight classical music in this country, so...
Now a few footnotes:
1. Musicians named in this interview:
Getting started on blues:
*Blind Lemon Jefferson
*Robert Johnson
*Muddy Waters
*BB King
*John Coltrane
*Koko Taylor
*Big Mama Thornton
*Deborah Coleman
*Aziza Mustafa Zadeh
*Adam Gussow (satan and Adam), "Journeyman's Road"
*J B Lenoir
2. Check out this definition of blues by Koko Taylor I found on youtube.

Huge thanks to Jonny Meister for this interview -I know how very very generous of him it was to let me interview him.

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