I’m writing this from Denver airport on a layover on my trip back to Idaho from Dallas. Last night at SPAH ended with a series of jams. I played a few tunes at the bluegrass jam run by Cara Cooke, where I found the general level of playing to be strong. One guy in particular, a heavyset guy with short-cut light brown hair and a goatee whose name I probably should know (because he was on the main stage earlier playing a tribute to the Lone Star state–maybe it was Lonnie Joe Howell?), played a lot of terrific stuff: sharp lines with a real country flavor and solid attention to the chord changes, fast and melodic with a clear tone that cut through the mix. (He didn’t know me either, so we both need introductions sometime.) I had fun trading off with him and listening to the other players, who included a banjoist, a guitarist playing rack harp, Highway Ricky Trankle, Cara Cooke on harp and guitar, and a few other harp players, including two chromatic players (David Naiditch and another guy I didn’t know, though I didn’t actually hear David play). It was a fun jam, and the group as a whole had a big sound, helped in part by multiple stringed instruments.

Before and after that jam, I dropped by a session run by Jimi Lee, which included a nice mix of pros, novices, and players in-between. Filip Jers was quietly sitting and listening, which tells you something about the level of playing going on in that session–he told me later that it just sounded so good to him that all he wanted to do was listen. Others in the jam included Scott Albert Johnson, Jellyroll Johnson (no relation, of course), Brandon Bailey, Jay Gaunt, Gino Bambino, Sam Friedman, Rupert Oysler, Tim Moyer, and others whose names I didn’t know. Jimi is the ideal accompanist for jams like this–he knows a lot of ways to play the blues, from country to gutbucket to jazz, and every song has a distinct, solid groove. Because Jimi throws changeups from song to song, the jams always feel fresh.

Jellyroll played one perfectly formed note and line after another, Jay played with an emotional maturity I hadn’t heard in his playing before, Brandon played dead-on downhome blues, Scott and Gino played very personal styles that added up in all the right ways, Tim played sweet, jazz-inflected lines up and down the harp–what can I say? I enjoyed playing in that jam on both diatonic and chromatic harps, and I learned a lot listening to everyone in the room. I picked up a new (for me) technique for vibrato–using the right hand to move the harmonica in and out against the lips–which works very well up and down the range of the instrument, and is extremely easy to control. (Earlier that night, Stan Harper showed me how he gets a buzzing “harmon mute” sound from the harp–basically, with a kind of “gargling” sound in his throat–and later on, Dave Barrett showed me a “pull slap” on the chromatic. That’s three techniques in one night. I’m not even counting the wicked stuff Paul Davies showed me on his circular-tuned harps, which was cool enough to make me consider a circular harp for real–apparently Seydel offers that tuning as a standard option on the Blues Session, which puts me that much closer to throwing down the cash. Speaking of Seydel harps, I absolutely loved the sound and playability of the 1847 in Eb and the Session Steel in A that I picked up at this show.)

I spent a fair amount of time with Jimmy Gordon, whose courage and determined joyfulness in the face of MS is deeply moving and inspiring. Jimmy and I go back about 30 years, and he grew up in the same neighborhood as my wife, who used to work in Jimmy’s father’s restaurant. Jimmy helped to save my wife’s life when she was about an inch from dying ten years ago, too. It was great to see him having so much fun at this show. I got a look at Jimmy’s “MS Blows” CD, which is loaded with cuts from killer harp players, and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up a copy yet. I’ll fix that this week. Regarding hang time, it was great as always to hang with Buzz Krantz, whose spirits seem always to be good, and whose insights into human nature are worth waiting for.

Attendance at this show was down from the last one I attended, in Sacramento (2010), and the demographic still skews heavily towards 40s and up and male. That’s disappointing, especially considering what Tony Eyers wrote to harp-L last week about the very recent 2012 Asian Harmonica Festival, which drew over 2000 players, half male and half female, with a much younger overall demographic. I’ve written before about the inevitable conclusion that SPAH’s demographics point to unless something changes; perhaps Winslow Yerxa, the new President of SPAH, will begin to take this on, and the sooner the better.

That said, I was cheered at this SPAH by the generally high level of playing that I heard from lots of players. There is absolutely no question that harmonica players in every style are getting better and better at a much faster rate than ever before. I don’t think the convention is what’s driving that–the convention is where you see the results. The driver, in my opinion, is the Internet, and especially Youtube. In a conversation with Sam Friedman, I remembered that when I started playing in 1967, there was exactly one other guy in my high school (total population 1100) who played harp, and he talked a much better game than he played. (By the time I graduated, my friend Tom Koloski was playing too; but even though that represented a 50% increase in the number of players in the school, it didn’t vastly increase our shared knowledge on the topic.) In other words, it was years before I found someone I could really learn from–everything else I picked up came from records, where I could hear what was being done, but had to guess at how it was done. Novices now can find tremendous amounts of profusely detailed information on playing, and gear, and everything else related to harp from the likes of Adam Gussow and Michael Rubin within a few minutes of firing up their computers, and man it shows. Sam confirmed to me that when he got interested in harp, the first place he went was Youtube, and he found more than enough there to get him started in the right direction.

Speaking of Michael Rubin, I forgot to mention in my previous posts the fine performance he put in with the Kalu James band from Austin TX at this show. This band reminds me a little of Paul Messinger’s excellent band Climbing Jacob’s Ladder; they play roots-inflected pop with a strong beat and relatively lightweight instrumentation, and the sound is bouncy, fun, and easy to like. (And speaking of Paul, it was great to hang out with him at this show, though I didn’t get to hear him play. Wazzupwiddat…)

In short, this SPAH reminded me why I make a point of dropping in at SPAH every couple of years: it’s where I go to share the love for the instrument that has been a powerful force in my life. What I heard at SPAH this year tells me that harmonica players are moving forward with their various arts, even as the instrument seems to be declining in terms of public prominence. The first trend, if it continues, will sooner or later reverse the second.