All about the Blues: An Interview with Larry Hoffman, a multitalented artist, educator, author and more

"I think it’s entirely probable that the blues will go on as a musical genre —to an extent, worldwide, because it is infectious, relatively easy to play at an introductory level, and embraces such a rich body of previous work."

Larry Hoffman: Blues Other Dimensions

Larry Hoffman is a multitalented artist, folksinger, guitarist, songwriter, educator, administrator, composer, historian, author and many more. He started his musical career in his teens as a self-taught folk singer/ guitarist / songwriter, playing open mikes in his hometown of Baltimore, MD, with a repertoire that included traditional folk, old-timey, bluegrass, ragtime, blues, and originals. He landed his first professional gig at the Blues Bag in Provincetown, MA, opening for artists such as John Hammond, The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Tom Rush, Doc Watson, and blues legend Skip James. In 1966, he moved to San Francisco, where he gigged regularly at many clubs, while jamming around with such artists as harp legend Sonny Terry, Loudon Wainright III, Charlie Musselwhite, and acclaimed sideman, pianist Alberto Gianquinto.  After returning to the East Coast, he undertook intensive jazz studies in Philadelphia with legendary jazz educator Dennis Sandole, the teacher of John Coltrane, while working jazz and blues bands in Baltimore.

Larry was Grammy-nominated for his notes to Mean Old World: The Blues From 1940-1994 which he compiled and co-produced for the Smithsonian Institution Press. Most recently, he was the chief liner- note -writer for the double Grammy-winning collection, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. He was named Living Blues Magazine's "Liner Note Writer Of The Year," and "Best Compiler Of A Historical Compilation."

He began producing blues records in the early 1990's and was named Living Blues' "Producer Of The Year" in 1997, most notably for the first Alligator CDs of 2008 MacArthur Fellow Corey Harris, whom Hoffman discovered and recorded in 1994. Fish Ain't Bitin', his second effort with Harris, won nearly ten awards, and was named "Acoustic Blues Record Of The Year," garnering artist and producer a W.C. Handy Award. Other of Hoffman's productions includes CD's by Chico Banks, Freddie Roulette, Reggie Wayne Morris, and John Weston. Since 1998, Larry has devoted himself entirely to composing, concentrating mostly on works based on original blues music composed for orchestral instruments and combined with his original contemporary voice which he calls “lyrical atonality.”  His compositions have been performed across the USA and in Sweden, and found airplay thanks to his critically -acclaimed CD, “Works Of Larry Hoffman / Contemporary American Music.” (DBK 701). 

Interview by Michael Limnios  /  Photos by © Michael G. Stewart

What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz & Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

I learned that the Blues is a primary expression of the African-American culture as it developed in America in the early twentieth century. Meeting so many of the authentic, original blues artists taught me that I could certainly enjoy playing this music for myself and others,  but could never truly BE a Bluesman-- that it was as much a cultural language and heritage as a musical one.

How do you describe Larry Hoffman’s sound and progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

It was and is a primary mission of mine to compose a music based on the powerful sound and classic nuance of the Blues, embodied in an authentic “serious contemporary concert music.”  Being a composer, my ”unique voice”  has developed at the same time, and the challenge is always wedding my personal technique to this American folk music that I love so much, and to which I have dedicated much of my life and career.

The greatest…saddest... difference between those “old days,” as you put it, and days current, is the fact that in those “old days” many of the greatest exponents of those musics were still alive, playing as well as they ever did.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career? Which is the most interesting period in your life?

I feel fortunate in saying that I have enjoyed many “best moments.”  Certainly the recording of my “Blues for Harp, Oboe, and Violoncello” was among the greatest. It was I believe the first ever work to be written for that ensemble, and - most importantly - was recorded and performed by great classical musicians.

They were playing the blues the way I developed it classically and that was unheard of in 1983.  I proved to myself that it could be done... and that it could be accepted - even embraced - by legitimate classical artists.  It is important to me that this music becomes a part of world culture on the concert stage.  This has been accomplished for jazz many times over, but blues has always been a maligned musical stepchild unworthy of serious attention.

I have been trying to change all that.

Two other great highlights were opening for Skip James for an entire week, playing duets with him onstage, and being invited to play with him —and solo— at the Newport Folk Festival (an honor I declined, not feeling it was right to share the stage with all those great bluesmen). Another was playing “Candy Man” for Mississippi John Hurt on his guitar at a club in Washington, D.C. when I was a teenager.  I had spent hours getting it just right, and he beamed after I was done… the approving, iconic smile and shaking of his head was so great to see and feel. We were friendly for years after.

The worst moment was perhaps discovering that giving myself up to this music totally was going to be a struggle, both musically and financially!  But that put me in the same category of many of the bluesmen I was with--so, in a sense, we were in that way “in the same boat!”

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Again, I have been fortunate to have met and worked with many people of great talent who have affected and changed my life.  Two of whom I of course never met were Johannes Brahms and Bela Bartok, composers who made great use of folk music in their work. They were not the first to accomplish this, but they were and are personal favorites and heroes of mine, who proved to me that it was possible.

Dennis Sandole, my jazz teacher, who had taught many of the world’s greatest jazzmen and guitarists including John Coltrane and Jim Hall was a tremendous influence. He was my first teacher; I had been gigging for nearly ten years, but was self-taught; so having a teacher was new.  He was a great man.

In addition, while at Peabody Conservatory as student and faculty, I was able to spend time and get lessons with many Pulitzer Prize composers whom I greatly admired, including George Crumb, Karel Husa, and Jacob Druckman. 

Of course the bluesmen that I met and played with, off and on stage were a great influence--artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Robert Lockwood, Jr.  Others, whom I interviewed, like Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown; and those that I hung out with at times, such as Big Jack Johnson, Booba Barnes, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough and those that I produced, like Freddie Roulette, Chico Banks, and John Weston-- were among the intense musicians who taught me blues essence.

Although my parents were not supportive of my musical life, my mother once said, “follow your heart..”  That had an enduring effect.

The Bluesman is emblematic of the Black American’s survival and triumph over a common suffering.  And musically, there are telling, technical “imperfections” that arose from this suffering coupled with a very personal inventiveness. 

Are there any memories Sonny Terry and Charlie Musselwhite which you’d like to share with us?

When I was playing folk clubs in San Francisco in the 1960’s, I had occasion to visit with the great East Coast harp player Sonny Terry when he was in town playing a series of gigs.  That day I  had the great pleasure and  honor of jamming with him all day, along with my musical partner, harp player Robin Cohn, who was gigging with both Elvin Bishop (then of the Paul Butterfield Band) and myself. Sonny, Robin, and I went to Robin’ s record store-- which he owned.  Sonny made a phone call to his long-time musical partner, Brownie McGhee, and said that he would like to go to Los Angeles and make a record with me as his guitarist/ co-singer.  Brownie said “absolutely not!” and that ended the conversation.  As that famous duo was not known for their off-stage friendship, I am not sure what might have been behind all of that, but it was the first and last time I ever got to spend time with the great Sonny Terry.

Robin and I were playing gigs regularly at various local clubs, and one night - when we were playing at some storefront club on Haight Street - some guy wandered in and - in the middle of a tune - whispered in my ear, “Hey man, can I sit in and blow some with you?”  I said, “Lemme hear if you can play first, man.’  He then blew some quiet, fantastic harp in my left ear, and I asked Robin to sit out for a bit while I played with this unknown harpster.  After he accused me of “blowing a change” (which we joke about to this day), he sat in for a tune or two and then left— just as mysteriously and anonymously as he had entered.

It wasn’t until after he left that someone in the audience said, “Hey did you know that was Charlie Musselwhite?”  I said, “Hell no!”  But it was the 60’s in San Francisco, and things like that were likely to happen at any time.

Some twenty years later, I went to hear Charlie play a gig in Washington, DC, about an hour from my apartment.  On a break, when he was meandering through the crowd, I said, “Hey man,  you remember sitting in with me one night years ago.”  He replied, “I sat in with YOU?”  I recalled the setting to him and he said . ”Oh YEA, man, it was a storefront gig on Haight, and you blew a change!”  We both started laughing.  I’ve run into Charlie numerous times throughout my blues career and have found him to be one of the nicest, most sincere people in the blues world, as well as an excellent musician. We are still friendly to this day.  (By the way, NO WAY I blew that change!)

What do you miss most nowadays from the old days of music? How has the jazz & blues changed over the years?

The old days of music! 

My involvement with music began at age four or five listening to singers like Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett,  and then to the early greats of rock and roll and rock-a-billy (Bill Haley; Elvis; Carl Perkins) and rhythm and blues (Fats Domino, Laverne Baker, Little Richard). I later fell in love with “old-timey music” (Skillet Lickers) and their contemporary counterparts (New Lost City Ramblers) and was always into folk music (Bob Dylan; Weavers), and bluegrass (Bill Monroe; Stanley Brothers), and later the greats from the Rock revolution (Beatles; Stones; Kinks). 

My first year in college my brother gave me two records: the first John Hammond LP and one by Mose Allison — and that was my beginning in the blues!  Reading the back of the John Hammond record  (who I had the pleasure of opening for just a few years later at age 19), I learned the name Robert Johnson, and in 1963 soon discovered the first Columbia LP  at  a store in walking distance from my dorm. 

From that point on, I was hooked.  I bought as many blues recordings of the authentic, original bluesmen as I could afford, played the records constantly, learning their styles and techniques as best as I could.

My second year at college a roommate brought some “strange sounding” records with him.  “Whats that!?” I asked.  “John Coltrane,” he responded.  It was his iconic recording of “My Favorite Things”.  From then on, Jazz became yet another language that was to amaze and captivate me.  Ironically, some seven years later I was studying jazz with Coltrane’s former teacher, Dennis Sandole, in Philadelphia!

It wasn’t until years after that that I fell in love with the music of Brahms, and the great composers of the world….which led me to studies at the Peabody Conservatory and my beginnings as a composer….. which is where I am today.

But - to your question (finally) - the greatest…saddest... difference between those “old days,” as you put it, and days current, is the fact that in those “old days” many of the greatest exponents of those musics were still alive, playing as well as they ever did.

I met and played with Skip James, and for Mississippi John Hurt. I met and heard live Son House, Reverend Gary Davis; the three Kings: BB, Freddie, and Albert (I once heard the three of them back-to-back-to-back at a concert at the Fillmore Ballroom in San Francisco).  I saw Albert Collins so many times I felt like we were best friends.  As a teenager I heard Bob Dylan at Newport when he first went electric, backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band….and so many others I couldn’t possibly list here: the Stanley Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, Ray Charles, Otis Rush, Bobby Bland. And later, as I started to visit Mississippi—writing articles and producing blues records, I saw and heard so many bluesmen at the juke joints there, including all of the original Fat Possum artists, (R.L. Burnside, Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough)—many of whom became my friends—all of whom I heard so many times in Mississippi, Chicago, and at blues festivals all over the USA.

That music was alive and well, and the gigs and players were accessible to everyone who was interested enough to hunt them up. Sadly, most of them are gone.  Happily, we have their recordings and interviews, as well as dedicated historians and preservationists who are making sure that their great artistic contributions will be forever remembered and treasured.

Although my parents were not supportive of my musical life, my mother once said, “follow your heart...” That had an enduring effect.

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be Bluesman?

I think in every field there are artists who will “be there” forever.  Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan are just a few of the iconic headliners that I believe will forever be listened to by devotees of  those particular genres and therefore “with us.”

As to “what is a bluesman?” — this question has been debated since the blues moved out of the black community and into the world’s greater consciousness toward the end of the 1950’s.  I believe the blues to be a cultural music— created, developed, and perfected by the Black American, as he progressed from slave, to sharecropper, to factory worker, etc..—through the castes of American society.  A subculture that was maligned even by its own people in the American South of the 1920’s, those people— earmarked by dark skin and an unspeakable common heritage of abuse, took solace in bonding with a common culture all their own.  A crucial part of that culture was their music, and a deep part of that music was the blues. 

It is ironic that I am being interviewed by a Greek blues organization, because I usually point out that a very interesting anomaly was the multi-talented Greek West Coast  bluesman Johnny Otis (born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes), who embraced the life of the black American to the point where he was for all practical purposes one of them.  He became one of the greatest historical and musical forces in the blues and rhythm-and-blues through his roles as artist, producer, arranger, composer, author, and talent scout.

So, in my opinion, philosophically, the Bluesman is emblematic of the Black American’s survival and triumph over a common suffering.  And musically, there are telling, technical “imperfections” that arose from this suffering coupled with a very personal inventiveness.  Many of the early bluesmen had to make their own instruments from wires strung across the porch, to cheese box guitars and flute-like cane reeds. Cheap instruments produced a certain “funkiness”….percussive Africanisms gave rise to the bottleneck style, etc. These elements were imitated and manufactured by corporate entities who sold them largely to affluent young whites who aspired to sound like the bluesmen.

I asked Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf’s original guitarist, how he was able to get that great muffled distortion out of his amp. He told me that on the way to the Sun Studios in Memphis, his amp fell of the top of the car and tore the speaker.

Larry Hoffman and the late bluesman David "Honeyboy" Edwards

Which memory from Freddie Roulette, Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Lockwood, Jr. makes you smile?

Freddie is a trip… a genius.  There were so many smiles, but the biggest came when I was producing the second CD I did with him in California (still unreleased).  He went on a tirade in the middle of the session, and asked to talk to me while I was in the booth.  He went on for about ten minutes yelling and pointing, and I kept saying, “You’re right, man!,,,,I hear ya Freddie!” etc…after he was done, the engineer—who heard everything— looked at me, puzzled, and said what was that about? I told him I had no clue, didn’t understand a word Freddie said.  And then the session went on as if nothing had happened.  Then there was the first CD I did with him in Chicago, when his amp started to pick up AM radio signals. He was not happy about that.

As to Honeyboy, through a friendship with his partner/manager Michael Frank, I got to spend time with the Honeyman and was privileged to get to know such a talented, humble, and honest artist. My favorite moment was seeing the eighty-some year old bluesman strutting down Cherry Street at the King Biscuit Festival with a pretty young girl on each arm— all three beaming. Another, when he sat down with me at a restaurant one morning and said, “Let me buy you breakfast, Mr. Man!”

As to Robert, it was the irascible, sometimes cantankerous side that was the most remarkable—and somehow enjoyable, as it was in direct contrast to the gentle, humble side that was at his core. After hearing a great set of his band at the Chicago Blues Festival, I went up to him —I had spent a week in Cleveland, Ohio living with him and his wife Annie while writing a cover story on him for Living Blues, so I knew him— and raved about how the added piano was just the right “glue” to hold the sound together, and went on about that. After letting me rant on for a while, he looked at me and said calmly, “Why the fuck do you think I put him in there?”  That was Robert.

Why did you think that the Jazz & Blues Culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think the true audience that really “gets it” — that hears into the depth of this music embraces it so as to protect it.  It is fragile stuff because its inner meaning is rather elusive, it becomes a secret to be shared by others who also hear what is there, many of whom go to great lengths to try and preserve and extend its existence and viability.

Larry and Paul OIiver at Buddy Guy's Legends, Chicago, 1999 Photo by © Robert Barclay

What's the legacy of Blues in the world culture and civilization? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

To paraphrase the great and original blues historian, Paul Oliver, if we lose the blues because Black people in America have risen to positions of respectability and equality in society, it will be a small price to pay.  A dangerous sign to me as to the future of the blues is that most of its great exponents have died and are not being replaced. Who has taken the place of Little Walter, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles— the last generation of Greats?  Unlike the field of professional sports, for example, new truly great talents have not come to the fore.

I think it’s entirely probable that the blues will go on as a musical genre —to an extent, worldwide, because it is infectious, relatively easy to play at an introductory level, and embraces such a rich body of previous work. It will not be the same, however, and will be subject to even more bizarre commercial treatment than we have already seen and heard.

It is my hope that it continues to be played in the black enclaves that produced it, still handed down from generation-to-generation, regaining its place as an ethnic folk music.

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

To be brief (not my forte), and assuming the capsule is rather small, I would say….from the blues world, the following albums:

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues/Albert King: Born under a Bad Sign / Little Walter: Best of / Reverend Gary Davis: Harlem Street Singer / Mississippi John Hurt: Folksongs and Blues /Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years/Percy Mayfield : The Tangerine and Atlantic Sides

I would have to take music by Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Burrell & Jimmy Smith, Bill Evans, and Charlie Parker, as well as the Hot Fives and Sevens with Louis Armstrong…..as well as music of the Skillet Lickers, Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, the Stanley Brothers, and the Beatles and Stones,  and perhaps most importantly … Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and his cello sonata in e minor, as well as the unaccompanied cello suites of J.S. Bach, and the St. Matthew Passion, and would have to make room for the wind serenades of Mozart as well as his Jupiter Symphony. 

I think I will need more capsules..Books: Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues, all of the books by Paul Oliver as well as the series he has edited, Paul Henry Lang’s Music in Western Civilization.

I tend not to collect memorabilia…

Larry with  Bob Koester, Richard Shurman, Justin O'Brien, Jim O'Neal, Dawayne Gilley, Amy van Singel, Robert Pruter, Chris Strachwitz and Scott Barretta. Photo by © Robert Barclay

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Blues world?

I scour the you tubes, finding amazing performances of blues artists from all eras in their prime. What a wonderful resource. In addition, there is some wonderful research and preservation going on that further establishes the importance of this music, such as the Mississippi Blues Trail, headed up by blues giant Jim O’Neal.

What's been your experience from San Francisco 60s era? What was the relation between blues and acid culture?

I spoke of many of my San Francisco experiences previously, and they were unforgettable and life-shaping.  I don’t believe acid culture affected the  blues at all per se.  I think it DID affect how blues was to be used (Jimi Hendrix) in different ways and abused (too many to mention) in the years to come. I feel the same way about Fusion.  It did not change jazz—it created a more commercially-viable tangent that I think helped kill  the authentic strain of the music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Chicago, and let’s make that a weekend in May!

My blues-inspired works have shared the bill with Brahms, Bach, and Mozart—an honor I never felt I deserved; but still I was thrilled to see a work with “Blues” in its title included with works of the Masters.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with the Jazz and continue to Classic music and beyond?

Blues has always been at the core of much jazz, but not of all of it. My teacher used to say, “Jazz must always have color!” Early ragtime bands especially those with Louis Armstrong; some very famous big bands particularly Count Basie; bebop, especially Monk, Parker, and Diz; “neobop” as in the style  of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and most obviously the organ trios of the mid-atlantic with artists such as Jimmy Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes—all had blues at or near their core, and produced an enduring legacy of blues as an essence of jazz.

From early on, the experiments incorporating jazz in classical music found relative degrees of success, from the work of the French composer Darius Milhaud to the “Third Stream” pieces of composer/scholar Gunther Schuller. Perhaps the most successful work in this area was accomplished by Maurice Ravel, particularly in his third piano concerto. This is an ongoing effort, since now, many more jazz musicians —like Wynton Marsalis— have extensive classical backgrounds.

As to the blues, both Ravel and Copeland composed minor works or movements of works that they titled “Blues”— they were more an abstract notion of the blues, however. The marvelous works of George Gershwin struggle to find complete respectability in the classical arena, but stand as wonderful tributes to the music. 

I felt an enormous gap in American classical music based on the blues, which is why I embarked on my journey to create such a niche for the music.  I am amazed that I have received any traction at all; but, fortunately, I have, and I continue to devote much of my composition to blues-inspired works. I was honored to be commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta to compose orchestral settings for three songs of bluesman John Primer, who fronted the orchestra in two performances in Chicago. To my knowledge, this was a first. My blues-inspired works have shared the bill with Brahms, Bach, and Mozart—an honor I never felt I deserved; but still I was thrilled to see a work with “Blues” in its title included with works of the Masters.

Larry Hoffman - official website

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