Harmonica virtuoso Mike Turk talks about Jazz & Blues, Lowel Fulsom, Toots Thielmans, and Greenwich Village

"Today, most music is what is referred to as 'cookie cutter'. One after the other, all the same...same shit, different day! Also, taste and subtlety has been thrown out like the baby with the bath water."

Mike Turk: New England's Tin Sandwich

Bronx-born, Mike Turk began playing harmonica in 1967 at age 14. Mike’s father, Dick Richards –member local 802 AFM in NYC, was a busy, working Jazz bassist and vocalist from 1940’s to 1970’s. Despite all that, Mike first found the harmonica and gravitated to the sounds of Chicago Blues music, Rhythm & Blues and even the Folk Blues that was surging from the depths of New York’s Greenwich Village night clubs at that time. He was profoundly influenced by the playing of Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, James Cotton and Little Walter Jacobs. By the early 1970’s he had developed his technique on the “blues” or diatonic harmonica and found his way to Boston where he soon became a local figure in the vibrant music scene that was happening there. Turk performed or “sat in” with performers such as Bonnie Raitt, Lowel Fulsom, Hound Dog Taylor, Charlie Musselwhite Band and even Dave Van Ronk and Steve Goodman.

Eventually, Turk landed in the prominent New England Country & Western band of John Lincoln Wright & The Sourmash Boys. It was this period in the 70’s that Turk began to explore the possibilities of the chromatic or “Jazz” harmonica. He left Wright’s band after about 1 year, after which, he spent the period from 1978 –1980 at the Berklee College of Music. Turk’s influences would come from a virtual textbook of Bebop and Modern Jazz written by the likes of Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Dextor Gordon, Cannonball Adderly, Lee Morgan, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Milt Jackson, Bill Evans, Lucky Thompson, Hank Mobley…many more, East Coast Bop & West Coast Cool! In the 1980’s & 1990’s Turk remained in Boston as a working Jazz harmonicist performing in concerts, clubs and as an “on call” studio musician. Mike Turk’s American jazz influences played on the chromatic harmonica are exemplified throughout his recording career: “Harmonica Salad” (1992), “Turk’s Works” (1996), “The Nature Of Things” (2008), and Turk’s foray into the history of Bossa Nova with “The Bossa 5”. The recent CD release “The Italian Job” (2010) is a collage of jazz tunes arranged for an Italian Jazz group and recorded in Italy. Turk’s most recent release “Bluesin’ Around” (2011) is a retrospective compilation of Blues and Bluesy Jazz.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the free spirit of Jazz and what does the blues mean to you?

All I can say about the spirit of jazz is that it continues in many forms today; in forms much more so than when I first discovered jazz music being broadcast from WLIB FM radio in NYC back in the 60's. Of course, by that time, jazz had already been morphed into other offshoot genres like "jazz-rock" with the experimentations of Miles Davis leading the charge followed by players like Herbie Mann, The Buddy rich Big band, Jimmy Smith even messed around with the "back beat"; Frank Zappa is probably the grandfather of Jazz-Rock Fusion beginning in 1967. It would be a long time coming before the Grateful Dead would be classified as a jazz genre... groove jazz or acid jazz or some other contrived moniker or "music store bin". However, I loved listening to Dr. Billy Taylor and even Ed Beach from WRVR. They played the real jazz, the real spirit of jazz, the truth! What I have learned from all that, in retrospect, is that I prefer the more pure forms of jazz that require some skill and education, not to mention a healthy respect for the original creators and innovators of the gift America gave to the world known as "Jazz". So, swing, be-bop and modern jazz has really expanded my vision of playing harmonica. It got me out of wanting to aspire to sound like just one guy on the 10 hole diatonic and allowed me to think about using the blues harp more melodically and creatively.

In as far as what the blues means to me, well, blues is either a way that you feel or a philosophical way one wants to live. In music, blues is an art form that transcends written music, it's played by "ear" or memory. The blues form is used in jazz and has been so for at least 100 years by the early popular jazz groups going back to Louis Armstrong. However, in jazz it's just another vehicle for expression and does eventually wind up in written arrangements. I appreciate and even instruct beginner students with blues but, there are entire days or weeks where I don't listen to anything "blues".

"Sadly, the new wave of music being created by the so called self-proclaimed 'millennial generation' is taking giant steps backwards and undoing the great musical advancements of the last 40 years. Maybe we should just blame it on Miles Davis!" (Mike Turk/Photo by Carmen Morosan)

How do you describe Mike Turk sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Here, I feel like I fall through the cracks for most people. I'm not very much "bluesy" enough for the blues crowd while, at the same time, the harmonica is still too weird for the jazz world.

In any case, I concentrate on my chromatic harmonica sound these days.... focusing in on the phrasings of players like Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Blue Mitchell just to cite a few. Harmonically, the great pianists of the 20th century inspire me to work within the confines of standard jazz & standard song forms....Bill Evens, Red Garland, Kenny Drew, Hank Jones. It's impossible to name them all. Ironically, when I have endeavored to write an original I almost always used the "blues" form. However, it is not an unusual thing in the world of jazz for horn players to play the shit out of non-original compositions and standard tunes and then "pen' an original simply using the 12 bar idea or the other known blues forms.

Toots Thielmans is obviously the biggest influence and musical mentor for me. His harmonic sense is immense and intense. He is an entire music school unto himself. The pianists he chose to work with are some of the most influential to all pianist let alone other chromatic harmonic players... Fred Hirsch, Kenny Werner, even Bill Evans... those are just the Americans!

My music philosophy is pretty simple.... play with people you like, play the tunes and compositions that work best for the harmonica, get a good sound, make it convincing. Above all, avoid "throw-away" gigs and music that doesn't matter unless they are paying you a great deal, otherwise, it only makes you look and sound bad and defeats the purpose of why we do this in the first place.

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Psychedelic Folk/Rock researches and experiments?

I think I partially answered this question at the beginning...anyway, it was a breakaway time, people lost their perspective, they forgot who they were and where they were. The researches and experiments were just that, like science projects that got left outside the refrigerator and simply turned moldy and rotten. As far as I'm concerned, music has made a remarkable comeback from those lost times. Sadly, the new wave of music being created by the so called self-proclaimed "millennial generation" is taking giant steps backwards and undoing the great musical advancements of the last 40 years. Maybe we should just blame it on Miles Davis!

"Blues, Jazz and Bossa Nova are iconic genres each with their own legacies. Interestingly, they share a commonality in that they are all improvisational musics with compositional ideas that allow for further expansion within their idiomatic realms." 

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

Interesting question. Interesting meetings are not always positive or something you would want to put on a resume.

On the good side, I have to say that, since 1976 I have had fantastic and meaningful meetings or even "hang-outs" with Toots. It was an incredible revelation to actually watch Toots perform back then. He was in a transitional phase in his life and career. I think this transition reached final fruition about 10 years later when he formed his group with Fred Hirsch. Anyway, it was incredibly generous of Toots to allow me to hang out with him, have dinner, lunch, watch TV in his hotel room. Sometime he would talk about a certain tune and show me the sheet music. I'd ask him about other musicians and their lives and he would say things like..."whatever you do, you have to get something out of it, even if it's isn't money" or " you get out of life what you put into it" was said when discussing the careers and lives of icons like Stan Getz & Chet Baker. There were also numerous telephone discussions. Once, back in 78' he described to me the session with Bill Evans for the "Affinity" recording where he introduced the key change arrangement for "Days Of Wine & Roses" . It goes F maj up to Ab major for the second half of the form and uses a very cleaver device to return to F major at the end of the form. Bill took that and ran with it. There's too much to include here.

On the not so good side there have been situations that I learned from. You know the mistakes we make and have to live with. The useless recording session with Joey Defrancesco which left me feeling like..." a gust ofen tuchus" which is yiddish for " the guest who came to sit on his ass"! Or the time I traveled to Los Angeles to check out the music scene and was simply made to feel like.... "nice to meet you, when are you leaving?"

Honestly, I have to say that, for me in my life and music career, good advice is a rare thing. I attended Berklee College of Music. The best advice comes from great teachers. I had some good ones and quite a few not so good ones. Advice comes in strange forms sometimes and it's up to the individual to piece it together and find value. 

Are there any memories from Lowel Fulsom, Hound Dog Taylor, and Dave Van Ronk which you’d like to share?

Those encounters are so long ago when I was a stoned out, long haired hippy kid from the Bronx. I met and sat in with Van Ronk in 1971-72. He was nice to me, I had idolized him when i was a teenager just learning about Folk Music.

Lowel Fulsom let me sit in with him when he appeared at Joe's Place in Cambridge around 1973. I was the Janitor of the place and would get free admission each night. Spider, the bartender would greet me with a tall beer spiked with Wild Turkey bourbon that he would slide down the bar at me. I respected Lowell, in spite of my weird hippy appearance, he liked me and would invite me up to play a few times during his engagement there.

Around the same time Hound Dog Taylor became a popular mainstay in Boston and at Joe's Place. So, once again using my "clout" I sat in with them to a point where they would be looking for me. One night, we were really rockin' and I was getting a nice "Little Walter" kinda sound and feeling. I was thinking, wow, maybe they're gonna make me a part of the band and I could be the token white boy (this was not uncommon in the 70's). Suddenly, in the middle of the set a calamitous bar room brawl broke out which halted the music, destroyed the club and put a few people on the hospital critical list, Dick Waterman was one of those. Unfortunately, Joe Spatafora survived! Anyway, it scared the living shit out of The House Rockers and they never returned.

"My music philosophy is pretty simple.... play with people you like, play the tunes and compositions that work best for the harmonica, get a good sound, make it convincing."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss about the music of the past is sentimentality and uniqueness or individuality. Today, most music is what is referred to as "cookie cutter". One after the other, all the same.....same shit, different day! Also, taste and subtlety has been thrown out like the baby with the bath water.

Unfortunately, I'm much too self-centered at this point in my life to think about any kind of hope or dream for the future of music. The future come like the rising tide, you can't change it, it will be what it will be. I expressed my fears earlier in this interview. To me the future is now!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think I would change the way big music schools and large "prestigious" music departments in Ivy League universities have dominated the reason for music today. To me it's a travesty that these ultra large music schools have influenced and in some cases steered the music business to justify their bloated existence.

Gone are the days when we referred to music mentors as being "a school" i.e. the school of Charlie Parker, the school of Lester Young, the school of Little Walter (he should have lived so long!). In reality, there were individual music greats that actually were sought after for their specific style and tutalaledge

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Jazz and continue to Folk and Bossa Nova music?                           Mark Turk/Artwork by Nancy Alimansky

Blues, Jazz and Bossa Nova are iconic genres each with their own legacies. Interestingly, they share a commonality in that they are all improvisational musics with compositional ideas that allow for further expansion within their idiomatic realms. There are many great style and trend setters here and all have borrowed something from the other.

By "Folk" music, I think you mean "Roots" music and/or world music created by various cultures. These musics are in another world and concept and belong to the people that invented it. Delta Blues could be considered an original World Music created within a closed culture whose richness and depth took decades to appreciate. On the other hand, modern "singer-songwriter" endeavors are also referred to as Folk Music but, for my money, these people are simply looking to eventually strike it rich commercially. I refer to this stuff as "professional Rock & Rollers" waiting for their big break. Just look at Taylor Swift...maybe you liked her when she was just starting but now, it's more bullshit than anything else. 

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the 60s Greenwich Village era?

In that period I was very confused and too young to put things in perspective. Emotionally, what touched me was discovering Paul Butterfield Blues band and the world of Blues music. It gave me something to focus on and made me want to play harmonica. That was the only thing I knew I could do fairly well and people like me for it.

So, what makes me laugh about the 60's are things like The Grateful Dead and how they continued for almost 50 years playing the same hippie shit. They have just retired, they should have retired 25 years ago. They are Mega-millionaires and their wealth is not publicly published...this makes me laugh!

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

I am not qualified to accurately answer this type of question. However, as an American being asked by someone from another country, I think I see your curiosity.

It does not look to me like Jazz & Blues is uniting our society very much, if at all. There are very few African American or truly Black performers in the Blues music world today. B.B. King just passed away this year. He was definitely a cultural bridge probably by simply being a household name but, he ran a racially mixed band to his credit.

Jazz, currently, is probably more segregated today than it has ever been. You have many "white" jazz groups, and, at the top of the jazz charts and publicly funded projects there are mainly all African American artists and band members. Jazz was way more integrated decades ago during the Be-bop and post-Bop eras. Today, at the Berklee College is a Jazz institute headed by Denillo Perez, it's unique in that it comprises students from different countries... confusingly, students from the USA are purposefully excluded from this opportunity. An integration idea but, what are the socio-cultural implications?

Blues is a white man's music today. However, so many young people of anything but African American origins identify deeply with Black migration to the North from the Delta in the post WW II era. I know it's risky to say this but, there is a strange and comical phenomenon in that Blues is now a major thing to market with all the blues outfits, paraphernalia, hats, blues microphones, hundreds of blues harmonica models, thousands of white blues bands with names that always have rough, "down in the alley" or "skid row" kind of reference; and using nicknames with Limpy, Shakey, Weepin', Snakin' or "BBQ eatin' "... It's like hobby similar to collecting electric trains.

"The blues form is used in jazz and has been so for at least 100 years by the early popular jazz groups going back to Louis Armstrong. However, in jazz it's just another vehicle for expression and does eventually wind up in written arrangements."

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

It's not fair to offer just only one day because, if there really was a Time Machine, I'd go back to the mid-20th century knowing what I know now and...I would never come back! (think Twilight Zone).

Mike Turk - Official website

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