Q&A with pioneer composer/musician Corky Siegel, one of the great harmonica masters, who weave blues and classical forms

"Keep bringing people together, keep making people feel good."

Corky Siegel:

The Different Voices of Chamber Blues

Corky Siegel is known internationally as one of the worlds great blues harmonica players, blues pianist, singer-songwriter, and the sole pioneer/composer of award-winning revolutionary works that weave blues and classical forms together. Co-founder of the SIEGEL-SCHWALL BAND, and Blues Hall of Fame Inductee, Corky Siegel has a catalogue of recordings on RCA, Vanguard, Alligator, and million selling blues/classical recordings on the iconic classical label Deutsche Grammophon. His close associations with the blues masters in the earlier days of Chicago blues, his essential part in the blues rock revolution, and his surprising success in bringing together blues and classical audiences make him a pivotal (though inconspicuous) figure in modern music history. 

(Corky Siegel / Photo © by Marc Hauser)

Dawnserly Records released Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues - MORE Different Voices (September 2022), one of 5 releases this year by the irrepressible harmonica master/pianist/composer.  Featuring blues harmonica vs classical string quartet, with iconic voices, the 'different voices' are; Ernie Watts (2 x Grammy winning saxophonist), Frank Orrall, Marcella Detroit, Pavel Roytman singing a Jewish chant for peace, Alligator Records' blues star Toronzo Cannon, country blues singer, Tracy Nelson (After the Fire is Gone with Willie Nelson), and bodacious diva, Lynne Jordan. The Chamber Blues ensemble members are: Jaime Gorgojo - violin, Chihsuan Yang - violin, Rose Armbrust - viola, Jocelyn Butler-Shoulders - Cello, and Kalyan “Johnny Bongo” Pathak - Tabla. Corky Siegel’s MORE Different Voices is more different than anything you might imagine and for more different reasons than what you might conjure. Always pushing boundaries, Siegel's Chamber Blues experiment continues the compositional interweaving of blues and classical in the form of his blues sonata and concerto adventures. But again, he reaches across the musical spectrum to explore the joyful diversity of other genres.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Corky Siegel & Karen Leipziger/KL Productions

Chamber Blues Band - How did this project come about?

In 1966 Seiji Ozawa wanted to see the spark of the blues brought to the classical symphonic stage. He insisted I pursue this. It pursued me and after years of performing with just symphony orchestra I began writing for chamber in 1983 and Chamber Blues was born.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

Probably 1963 or 64.

Who were your first idols? What have been some of your musical influences?

Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Jimmy Reed..

What were the first songs you learned?

"Going to New York" by Jimmy Reed.

Which artists have you worked with?

Produced Joni Mitchell's "Circle Game" and a couple others for her last demo recording before she hit it big.

Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best?

They are all the best. They all have something at least a little special to offer.

Which was the best moment of your career, and which was the worst?

Really, it's a chain of best moments and a chain of doing the best to meet challenges and allowing the human spirit to rise above it all.

What does the BLUES mean to you?

On one hand it's a very beautiful and unique mode of folk music. The way it is traditionally performed is an example of uninhibited physical expression in music. There is also the historical definition which has to do with the race of people who created the music. The blues is many things and how we talk about it is mostly semantics.

"Extremely close if you look at what music really is "The play of the musical elements". If you look at the mode or flavor, blues tends to be melodic and only coincidently harmonic. Classical uses a different scale and is purposefully harmonic. The more difference you can find in the mode of two forms the more fun it is to hear them together." (Siegel-Schwall band with Howlin Wolf, 1967 / Photo © by Todd)

What do you think were the reasons for the blues boom at the sixties?

Money and power behind some projects.

How was your relationship with the other bands from ‘60s?

I didn't use drugs or drink. So, I didn't socialize in that way with those that did. But I loved all my associates. I used to meet Butterfield for dinner, but he wanted to drink. We met a number of times but never did have dinner. Howlin' Wolf used to knock on my door in the morning when we were on the road together. We took long walks together every day. So it depends on what their interests were. But I loved them all.

Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?

The younger generation is interested in "cool". Whatever is cool to them is what they are interested in.

Which of your work would you consider to be the best?

Early Siegel-Schwall, Middle Siegel-Schwall, Late Siegel-Schwall, Solo, Chamber Blues, Symphonic Blues. Each approach has a repertoire of diverse material that covers a lot of territory, and each offering (with some exceptions) are the best for one reason or another.

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of the sixties?

It really depends completely on how one defines the "blues". If it's defined as a musical mode, then the similarity of blues and what we call rock might be clear.

Really, how close is BLUES & CLASSICAL music?

Extremely close if you look at what music really is "The play of the musical elements". If you look at the mode or flavor, blues tends to be melodic and only coincidently harmonic. Classical uses a different scale and is purposefully harmonic. The more difference you can find in the mode of two forms the more fun it is to hear them together.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about the story of “White Blues Gang” of Chicago, like Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Barry Goldberg, Steve Miller, Mike Bloomfield & Siegel -Schwall.

We fell in love with the blues. We someone is in love you don't need an explanation.  Everyone individual offered something different from their experience of the blues. We all went into the black clubs of Chicago in the early 60 and we all got our education there directly from the masters. Jim Schwall and I were fortunate to have one night every week where we were on stage from 9 PM till 4 AM at a place where all the blues masters came and sat in with us. Wow!

"On one hand it's a very beautiful and unique mode of folk music. The way it is traditionally performed is an example of uninhibited physical expression in music. There is also the historical definition which has to do with the race of people who created the music. The blues is many things and how we talk about it is mostly semantics." (Photo: Siegel Schwall Band)

What does the Blues offer you?

I owe my life to the blues masters.

What do you learn about yourself from music?

Performing music forces one to be more aware that this life passes and to experience it fully your music stays in the moment. While performing music if you are thinking about what you just did, or what you are about to do, you miss what's happening. And in music performance if you are missing what's happening, you eventually screw up! So, it teaches you how to focus.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Right now (but you knew I was going to say that).  Hey, if "now" isn't the most interesting we are sure in trouble. If you think a moment or a thing is not interesting, just look closer.

Tell me about the beginning of the band 'Chicago Blues Reunion' with Harvey Mandel, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg & Tracy Nelson. How did you get together and where did it start?

It started in California with Steve Miller. For me it started at the Chicago Blues Fest years ago.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

Learning that life is about "others". 

Why do you play HARP?

Mainly because it's easier to carry around

How do you want to be remembered?

In a way that makes people treat each other kindly.

What was the first gig you ever went to?

I think it was Josh White. Me and my two friends were the only one's in the audience.

"In 1966 Seiji Ozawa wanted to see the spark of the blues brought to the classical symphonic stage. He insisted I pursue this. It pursued me and after years of performing with just symphony orchestra I began writing for chamber in 1983 and Chamber Blues was born." (Photo: Corky Siegel with Composer William Russo, and Seiji Ozawa, 1968)

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?

A janitor

What turns you on?

Breathing - and I'm not kidding.

What do you consider the world’s biggest problem of the world?

People. People are both the world's blessing and the world's problem.

What advice would you had given to Paul Butterfield?

I asked Paul to have dinner with me as we had planned on a number of occasions. But when we would meet, he would want to drink instead of eat. My existence was advice he didn't take. He came to me two weeks before he died and made it clear to me, they he regretted the way he treated his body.

What would you give to Ludwig van Beethoven?

Beethoven would have loved the blues and he would have been best friends with the blues masters.

What mistake of music you want to correct?

The mistakes are there for a reason. But it would be nice we musicians realized fully what we hold in our hands.

What do you miss most nowadays from the ‘60s?

I love the 60s, but I don't need to go back. It was fun hanging with our friends like Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Dead, Country Joe, Jesse Colin Young, and of course the blues masters and our associates like Bloomfield, Butter, ...

Were there any places where you did especially well?

It depends on what you mean when you say "well". We had places where we had more people show up than others, but there is more to "well" than just the number of people and how they responded.

"Let," explains that is ready to soar and there is not a whole lot that is necessary to do to have that happen to have that experience. "Your," means that however you play right now, whatever genre or skill, this is about "your" music and it can soar without you changing a note. "Music," shows that this is about music. "Soar," is the experience that explains why we play music in the first place - for that soaring feeling." (Holly & Corky Siegel / Photo © by Marc Hauser)

What are some of the memorable gigs you've had?

A lot of the symphony gigs were memorable because they were ground breakers and historic. Chicago Symphony 1968, NY Philharmonic 1969, Boston, SF, Philadelphia, Belgrade, Mexico, Geneve Switzerland,

How do you describe the late great Sam Lay?

A genius who will never know how really great he was. No one played like Sam Lay. 

You've worked with the late Jim Schwall over 40 years. Is he still a key person in sound realization of your ideas?

Jim Schwall was a most amazing person and player. The answer is yes.

In which song can someone hear the best of your harp work?

Yikes.  I don't feel there is any one tune that shows off my current harp work unfortunately. I will have to fix that.

Where did you pick up your harmonica style?

From my saxophone style which came from Billie Holliday, Fat Domino, Little Richard vocals.  Now I study the tongue blocking style with Joe Filisko.

 What are your best songs, the songs you’d most like to be remembered for?

I'm really happy with a lot of the songs I've recorded. I would tend to steer people toward "Emy Lou" on my solo flight recordings. My Solo Flight recordings happened during what I call my singer-songer writer scare of the 70s. So, most of my song songs can be heard on those recordings. But I'm really happy with most of the tunes for different reasons.

Are there any songs that you've written where the lyrics are very personal for you?

I.S.P.I. Blues was about a friend who committed suicide. 

Any of the classic standard blues songs have any real personal feelings for you?

“Going to NY” cause that was the first one I learned.

What are some of your favorite blues standards?

Nostalgia is a very powerful force so the tunes I am drawn to the most are the ones I used to listen to a lot. But it's mostly the artists and not the tunes. Wolf, Muddy, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Otis Span, Willie Dixon, ...

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I'm focused on contacting myself. The more I do that the more I can't distinguish myself from the audience. When I look out, I see myself.

"Performing music forces one to be more aware that this life passes and to experience it fully your music stays in the moment. While performing music if you are thinking about what you just did, or what you are about to do, you miss what's happening. And in music performance if you are missing what's happening, you eventually screw up! So, it teaches you how to focus." (Corky Siegel & Ernie Watts / Photo © by Chuck Osgood)

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

It hasn't changed at all.  Greed rules. The internet will be used in the same way as soon as they completely figure out how to do it. Musicians get the last laugh however. We get to play the music.

Three words to describe your sound and progress?

Progress: extremely slow. Sound: different

Do you believe MUSIC takes subject from LIFE?

If you are talking about "songs and lyrics", of course. Where else can the subject come from?  It's comes from fantasy but even fantasy is based on real life. If you are talking about "music" and not "lyrics", the answer is: "Life IS music and music IS life". The difference is that music is non-verbal and therefore less thought provoking and therefore very unique and valuable. 

From the musical point of view, is there any difference between EAST & WEST?

No. East uses different modes than west. But it's still music.

Is there any difference between the SOUL of “BLUESMAN and the soul of a musician who plays other genre of music?

No. Not at all. But in classical music - for instance - there is a school of thinking that the musician should let the music do the talking. I think this is misguided and it suppresses expression (the offering up of soul). Anytime tradition becomes important and layered upon a form of music is suppresses expression. The longer a form of music is around the more susceptible it is to this. So even the blues can victim to this. Anyone with just about any skill level can express his soul fully in a performance if they want to. But there are so many social political standards that get in the way of this.

What music would you have played at your home alone?

Mostly some form of the blues because that's what I know how to play.

Let’s go back even further. What do you like about your very first sessions in Chicago?

Innocense!!

"Nostalgia is a very powerful force so the tunes I am drawn to the most are the ones I used to listen to a lot. But it's mostly the artists and not the tunes. Wolf, Muddy, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Otis Span, Willie Dixon, ..." (Photo: Siegel Schwall Band)

What’s the best band you ever played in?

Each band has it's own unique qualities. 

Happiness is……

The recognition that we are all one and we are part of nature and nature is part of us

When you get back home, what do you play besides the blues when you’re kicking back at home or just to have fun?

Again, mostly blues because that's what I know how to play. But I've been working on the Tennessee Waltz.

I think ALL your albums are GREAT. Do you have a favorite album & track?

Thank you. I sort of answered that. It's hard, because each album was made mostly for different reasons. So each one fulfills an different intention.

Why did you give the title “Let your Music Soar” of your book?

"Let," explains that is ready to soar and there is not a whole lot that is necessary to do to have that happen to have that experience.

"Your," means that however you play right now, whatever genre or skill, this is about "your" music and it can soar without you changing a note.

"Music," shows that this is about music.

"Soar," is the experience that explains why we play music in the first place - for that soaring feeling.

Basically, it frees a musician from the social superimpositions and psychological blocks that prevent soaring and then it offers extremely simply instructions of what to do to let it happen.

Has treatment made our life easier?

Not sure what you mean.

What do you think of “Ethnic music”?

I love ethnic music and all kinds of music.

"Really, it's a chain of best moments and a chain of doing the best to meet challenges and allowing the human spirit to rise above it all." (Corky Siegel / Photo © by Paul Natkin)

You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?

Geography doesn't matter. People are filled with love.

Give one wish for the music

Keep bringing people together, keep making people feel good.

Describe the ideal BAND to you?

Ok. This time I will share something substantial. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band before Bloomfield. Just Sam, Elvin, Jerome, and Paul. Not recorded unfortunately. 

What made you want to work with Ravi Shankar?

It's not really about what I want. It's entirely about what is set in front of me.

…and what with Toots Thielemans?

Brilliant!

What do you feel is the key to your success as a musician?

How one defines success is the key to success.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs?

By waiting patiently.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time?

Take walks!

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?

Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Mother Theresa

Are your music dreams fulfilled?

Beyond imagination. Yes.

When did you last laughing (and cry) and why?

Pretty much every day!

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the blues craft?

Always remember how important the music is to you. No matter what happens you will always have that.

Corky Siegel Music - Home

(Corky Siegel Chamber Blues / Photo © by Stephanie Bassos)

Photos © by Paul Natkin, Chuck Osgood, Stephanie Bassos, Todd, Marc Hauser 

Special Thanks: Corky Siegel & Karen Leipziger/KL Productions

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