amming at bassist Pat Campbell's annual birthday bash in his back yard in Marin. The previous year a woman at the jam told me she really liked my harp playing, and I found out later she was Maria Muldaur.



hese are the first musicians I ever played with, on Royal Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Washboard Lisa on the left and Augie on the National, and often there were horn players and an upright piano on wheels. Back in those days electronic amplification wasn't allowed in the Quarter so I had to blow harmonica really loud in order to be heard over the other instruments, which improved my tone dramatically. One day I blew so hard that I actually snapped off a metal reed inside the harmonica and sucked it down my throat and swallowed it.



at in on harmonica with my friends' gospel band, Fret Not, at an outdoor church music festival in Mount Shasta. They mostly play at churches and prisons so not many people have heard them, but they're one of the best old timey bands in the Bay Area. Check them out at fretnotgospel.com



ne Sunday in early June, local rock bands Ride The Blinds and Kidd Cook (with me above) lugged a generator and PA and amps and drum kit to Dolores Park in the Mission and had an all afternoon outdoor jam. We played for four hours and were damn loud and I was kind of surprised the cops didn't show up and shut us down. We did it again about a month later and this time the cops showed up and gave us a ticket.





n Monday nights I used to jam with some guys at a bar in my neighborhood called John Barleycorn, which unfortunately closed when a new owner bought the building and refused to renew the bar's lease. The guy on the left is Dave Mason, carpenter by trade and a fine acoustic guitarist who has been known to bloody his strings due to occasional hand injuries inflicted by various power tools. The gruff but lovable individual holding the blue ESP is Parker Ralph, who was playing guitar in bars around Detroit as an underage teenager back before the Beatles ever landed on American shores. Parker is the party responsible for christening us the Bummer Blues Band. Every once in a while my buddy Shiloh Hellman would drive up from Santa Cruz and sit in on guitar. Here are a couple of MP3s of us live at the bar playing to three girlfriends, one bartender and five drunks.

blue monk.mp3          little wing.mp3





tagged along with Billy and Carolyn to a jam in Marin thrown by their friend Charlie, who owns a music store in Petaluma. Every summer Charlie drags home a PA and a bunch of amps still dangling price tags from his shop and invites over his musician buddies to play in the backyard. From Billy's enthusiastic description of jams years past, when people like Tom Waits dropped by, I thought I might run into some pro dudes, but most of the players there just hung out and ate and drank and smoked and didn't pick up an instrument. Carolyn felt like singing, though, because some members of her old band were there, and she pretty much took over the proceedings. I met one guy who told me that my harp playing was really good, and said he knew what good harp playing was because he was old friends with Norton Buffalo. I gave him my CD and told him to tell Norton Buffalo that he should send any harp gigs he didn't want my way, because I could use them.





bought a microphone specially designed for harmonica, the FireBall made by Audix, which is supposed to be good about rejecting feedback, allowing you to play at higher volumes through a PA system. I first tried it out at a jazz jam that happens on the first Sunday of every month at Amnesia, sitting in with a band called Red Light Abatement which specializes in New Orleans style Dixieland, my favorite type of jazz but one I rarely find anyone playing outside of New Orleans. The FireBall had a very clean undistorted sound that didn't change even when I cupped my hands around it, making it ideal for playing jazz and country. The levels on the PA were set by a sound guy behind the bar who kept my volume about the same as that of the horn players, who weren't using microphones, and along with the crummy monitors onstage at Amnesia, I wasn't able to get a sense of how loud I could really get with the FireBall, so I eventually took it up to North Beach and sat in with Johnny Nitro and the Doorslammers at The Saloon.



he Saloon is the oldest tavern in North Beach, maybe in San Francisco, first established in 1861 on the ground floor of the Hotel Fresno on Grant just off Columbus. The building survived the great earthquake, and Fresno Alley, which runs along one side of the bar, was once home to some of the most notoriously seedy prostitute cribs in the Barbary Coast. Nowadays The Saloon is a down and dirty blues bar, and Johnny Nitro plays there every weekend. Johnny is a cool guy and a good guitarist, and is usually up for players sitting in on Sunday night, so I dropped by and plugged the FireBall into the PA which was directly behind me on the bandstand, allowing me to tweak the levels and EQ after we started playing. Once I dialed in the settings the microphone sounded great, too clean for playing loud overdriven blues but able to keep up with the volume of the band when played through the PA, no problem. I give the FireBall a big thumbs up.





nother bluegrass jam, this time in Golden Gate Park. Bluegrass folks sure love them some out of doors. Bluegrass players are always having outdoor music festivals where everyone camps out in sleeping bags and jams nonstop for two or three days. My idea of roughing it is to carry suitcases from the trunk of the car into the house, but I'm usually up for slathering on some sunscreen and spending the day in the park, as long as I get to soak in my clawfoot tub at some point before I go to bed. I don't know about an all day bluegrass jam, after an hour or two that evened out chicka-chicka beat designed to make sure everyone can stay on the one without a drummer gets pretty old.



ne weekend each summer the San Francisco Folk Music Club puts on a free festival of folk music at the Roosevelt Middle School at the corner of Geary and Arguello. Bands play all day and night in the school's main auditorium and cafeteria, workshops covering all styles of folk music and dancing are conducted in the classrooms, and there's always lots of jamming. I didn't play onstage with any of the bands this year, but I stopped by on Sunday afternoon and jammed with some friends out back in the parking lot.

hat night I walked up to North Beach to check out the Hot Club of San Francisco, a Django style swing combo I hadn't heard before, at Enrico's. As it turned out, one of the group's guitarists, Jason, was also in the Casbah Hot Club that I'd played with a couple of weeks earlier. He introduced me to the band's leader, an excellent guitarist named Paul, who was very nice and invited me to sit in on "Minor Swing" and "Nuages." It's fun watching the expressions of other musicians when they first hear me play, because they don't usually expect a harmonica player to be able to play involved single note melodies. Kenan told me that when he first asked the Casbah guys if I could sit in, they were like, oh no, not a harmonica player, but after they heard me they invited me to play their next gig with them. I told him that was a big problem with being a harmonica player, people assume you suck because most harp players do, and I have a hard time getting musicians to let me sit in when they haven't heard me play before. Sometimes I also have a hard time sitting in when they have heard me play, but that's another story.



posted a flier looking for players on a bulletin board at a rehearsal studio in the Mission called Secret Studios

and a drummer contacted me, inviting me to come by his space and jam. He was from Argentina and said he was really into blues, but he only had one groove, a straight ahead heavy hitting rock beat that didn't swing at all. I asked him to play a shuffle and he didn't know what that was. He was a nice guy and tried really hard to impress me, and I felt bad, but he wasn't someone I could play with. Situations like that are awkward, and I've almost stopped putting up ads anymore because that's almost always how things turn out.

he Bay Area isn't the easiest place to network with musicians, and I've rarely met anyone here through a musician wanted ad that I wanted to play with. The dot com gentrification boom wiped out a good part of the live music scene, not only because so many clubs switched from bands to DJs, but skyrocketing rents have priced the blue collar audience for rockabilly and blues and country music right out of the area, although the hippie scene still supports a lot of folk and bluegrass. Overall the level of musicianship doesn't compare to other cities I've lived in, like New Orleans or Austin, where most places still have live music instead of DJs and instrumentalists need the chops and the energy to keep people dancing all night long. The San Francisco music scene is fairly compartmentalized, the blues crowd plays here and the country players there and the jazz guys somewhere else, and they don't jam with each other much—you run into a lot of guys who only know changes for one kind of music. Gigging out is a part-time hobby for most Bay Area bands. I know very few players making a living at it, the exceptions being drummers and jazz guys who read and do weddings and restaurant gigs and corporate Christmas parties. Because no one is really making much money, there's not much economic incentive pushing bands to hire instrumentalists, not only because most bands don't play out that much—some clubs actually require that bands don't book any shows at other clubs within a week or two of the gig—but it would mean splitting the gig money between more players.



headed over to bluegrass night at Amnesia and checked out a band called the the Jewgrass Boys—for considerations of propriety recently renamed the Deciders—who were really uptempo and energetic. My buddy was impressed with their stand up bass player, who he had taken a few lessons from in the past. Toward the end of their set I thought I'd see if I could get onstage and waded through the crowd and stood in front of stage left blowing harmonica along with the band. Their guitarist heard me and and waved me up, so I climbed onstage and took a long solo, and when I was done the guys in the band told me to keep going, so I kept playing and traded licks with the fiddle player for a bit, and after I finished and jumped offstage I got a big ovation from the crowd. When the song ended the singer said, How about a big round of applause for that harmonica guy whose name we don't even know. Bluegrass players are the nicest, friendliest musicians you'll ever meet and more into jamming than just about any other type of musician. Blues and country players often say no if I ask them about about sitting in, but bluegrass players, man, they're the best.





or a while I was sitting in with Nagg, one of my favorite bands from the Bay Area. They played riff-heavy 70s style hard rock with lots of catchy hooks. The vocalist, Amy, is also the lead singer for AC/DShe, and she started Nagg with her husband J.T. who plays bass for the Flakes. I like cutting loose with fast amplified overdriven heavy metal harmonica, although they played so loud that it was hard for me to keep up in the volume department without my microphone feeding back. Eventually they lost their drummer, and even though they sometimes borrowed the drummer from another local band I'd like to play with, Ride The Blinds, after a while Nagg packed it in and called it a day, which was a drag for me, because they were the only group around that offered me a standing invitation to sit in with them at all their shows.



met a young jazz singer named Emily Anne through her bassist, Kenan O'Brien, who I played with once when I sat in with him and Toshio Hirano, a wonderful fellow who exclusively sings Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers tunes with a fairly thick Japanese accent. Kenan told me about a swing band called the Casbah Hot Club that he plays with on the first Wednesday of each month at Club Deluxe on Haight Street, so I went by to check it out. The singer wore a frilly black evening dress, Chuck Taylors and an army jacket, and sang really well in a high register. I sat in with them on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "All Of Me" and the band invited me back to play again next month. Emily Anne also invited me to come to her gig a couple of weeks later at the Rite Spot with her own band, the Hot Nutz, which also has Kenan on bass. I stopped by and played "All Of Me" again and "Honeysuckle Rose" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love Baby" and one of Emily Anne's originals that we all got lost on. On after Emily was a good solo acoustic singer/songwriter named Pete Bernhard who's in a band called Devil Makes Three. Even though he didn't know me, Pete threw me a couple of harmonica solos because his own harps had just been stolen.



afe International, Haight and Fillmore, the San Francisco Folk Music Club's monthly Hootenanny, playing with the folk group Ragged But Right.

ichard, the band's ukelele player, celebrated his forty sixth birthday that night, and although he's three years older, he looks younger than I do. Bastard. Later that night I played a set with a jazz guitarist named Tom Murrray. We did "All Of Me" and two Fats Waller tunes, "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin." We finished about eleven, and I hopped a cab over to Biscuits And Blues at Geary and Mason where a guitarist had invited me to stop by the club and sit in with him and the guy he was playing with, Carlos Guitarlos.

hen I first moved to San Francisco, I frequently ran across Carlos street performing on Market Street or in the Mission. He's a first rate guitarist, but in those days drank pretty heavily. I had no idea who he was and thought he was an indigent street musician who happened to be a really good player. Every once in a while I'd stop and blow a Chuck Berry tune with him. Later on I began running into him at open mics and when I sat in with blues guys like Johnny Nitro, and found out that Carlos had been big in the L.A. music scene years ago, playing with Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs and various other bands. In recent years Carlos has cleaned up his act, recorded a CD, and is out headlining clubs again.

arrived at the club about eleven thirty and played harp through one of the vocal mics into the PA. Carlos asked me what my name was and I said James. Carlos said James what? and I said Brown, which got a big laugh from the audience. I played with the band for almost an hour. The drummer complained at one point about the set running too long—they'd also played an early show that night—but Carlos told him that people were still drinking and having a good time and to keep playing. Afterward I thanked Carlos for letting me sit in and gave him my CD, and when he got back to L.A. the next day he left a message on my machine thanking me for coming by, which was cool of him.



went to a memorial for a local artist and musician, Tom Fowler, who had died unexpectedly. I met Tom through a guitarist I used to play with named Aaron, who was in a garage band that Tom put together called Tastes Like Chicken. Tom sang and played drums and wrote several clever original songs, including one called "A Hooker, A Haircut, And Some Heroin." I played with the band at their last few gigs, which were at galleries and bars where Tom was exhibiting his paintings. Here's Tom on the tambourine, me and the band at the Canvas.

om's main gig was painting, at which he made a living and was growing increasingly successful, having just finished an exhibit of his work at a gallery in New York City. He had a few different artistic motifs, and his most popular one he called Minor Obsessions, which involved writing a single word or phrase thousands of times onto a large canvas.

om had an abcessed tooth that had been bothering him for a while, but he neglected seeking medical treatment until it began causing him severe discomfort, by which time doctors discovered the infection had crept into the rest of his body. He died suddenly a couple of days later, which surprised and saddened all his friends, of which he had many. He was a very gregarious and generous person and was very well liked in the art community and in his neighborhood around Bryant and Sixteenth in the Mission.

om had nearly finished preparing an exhibit in the gallery downstairs in the building where he lived, so his art opening also became his memorial service. The guys in the band set up a PA and people took turns at the microphone reminiscing about Tom. I talked about knowing Tom mostly as a musician and blew a sad, slow chorus of "Amazing Grace," after which I said If Tom were here right now he'd say, Fuck man you're bumming me out with that gloomy shit, why don't you fucking rock out? Which made everyone laugh, because that was something they could hear him say, and then I blew a second uptempo, swinging chorus while people began to clap along, and afterward I told Tom to rock on, wherever he was.