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Elwood’s Interview with Jerry Portnoy | TheBluesMobile
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Elwood’s Interview with Jerry Portnoy

If you aren’t a harmonica player, you may not know much about Jerry Portnoy. Being a harp player, Elwood knows that Jerry teaches harmonica because he’s the real thing. Jerry grew up in Chicago and has played with the best of the best. We’re talking Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton. And he didn’t just PLAY with them; he TOURED and RECORDED with them. So, when Jerry speaks; Elwood listens.

ELWOOD
Mr. Portnoy, excellent to have you here sir.

PORTNOY
Ah its great to be back with you Elwood, haven’t talked to you in awhile.

ELWOOD
Yeah what have you been up to?

PORTNOY
Well in point of fact I’m kinda semi retired. I don’t keep an agent any more. I don’t do constant touring, but if my phone rings with an attractive offer I will actually get off my couch so to speak and come out of retirement to do it.

But I’ve been active with this online teaching site and I do have some other things coming up. I’m doing a short tour of South America so I do keep my fingers in a few pies.

ELWOOD
Do you enjoy teaching?

PORTNOY
Well, I’ve taught many students over the years – private students. And, of course, in 1997 I put out my three CD instructional package which sold, and continues to sell, very well around the world. I don’t do so much private teaching any more, but ya know blues is the kind of thing it was handed down to me personally by some of the all-time greats and it is a kind of music that is passed from one generation to another. So in a sense I feel a certain responsibility to pass my own knowledge on to the next couple generations coming up.

ELWOOD
Right now the circumstances are obviously a little bit different. When you were learning the harp from some of the greats it wasn’t a classroom type situation was it?

PORTNOY
Oh no, no, no, no, no. It’s actually… its pretty strange. When I started out, there probably weren’t five guys of the Caucasian persuasion who could actually play credible blues on a harmonica. Now there are thousands and thousands all over the world and sometimes I have conflicted feelings. Because there used to be an exclusive club, and now I did a class out in Chicago last year for a great harmonica player named Joe Filisko, who teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Now, you got suburban housewives playing Little Walter and so I feel kinda conflicted about that. In a way it’s nice to spread the music, but it’s certainly become a lot more common now.

ELWOOD
And so how did you first get exposed to the harp?

PORTNOY
Well I was born in the right place at the right time. I’m from Chicago and I was born in 1943. My father had a store on Maxwell Street, which is famous in blues history. So many people got their start on Maxwell Street playing on the street for tips. And one of those people was Little Walter and he used to play just down the street from my father’s store maybe a half a block… yeah a half a block, or a block down on Maxwell Street. Little Walter would set up with his amp and guitar player and play on the street. They used to run… this is just after the Second World War… they’d run a line to plug in their amplifiers through an extension cord. They’d give some lady 25 cents or a half a buck to use her electrical outlets so that they could run the cord up to there, and then they’d play out in the streets. So that’s where I first got exposed to it and at the time, you know, I was just a kid and I didn’t pay it any particular attention. I call it the incidental soundtrack to my childhood, but when I heard the blues again 20 years later all those memories traces were still burned in there and I just went crazy for the stuff.

So that’s when I really started learning how to play and hanging out with the old masters who were still alive at the time.

ELWOOD
What was that learning process like? Was it a series of watching them and then trying to imitate it and then developing your own style? Or did they give you direct pointers and things like that?

PORTNOY
Well, course they don’t teach the way I do – with the specifics of place your tongue on this hole and do this and do that. I would go over to Big Walter’s house on the South Side. I’d pack a pint of V.O. in my overcoat pocket. He lived in a kind of a rough neighborhood and I’d have my hand on the neck of the bottle in my overcoat pocket and kind of push my pocket out like I was packing heat just so that any gang bangers hanging around might think that, well, lets wait for an easier mark, ya know.

And then I’d get up to Big Walter’s house and we’d crack the bottle and I would ask him, “hey, how do you play this?” Or “how do you play that?” And he would just pick up his harp and just play it for me. He’d just say, “well it go like this.” And then he’d play it. And hearing Big Walter acoustically in a small room was really an experience. The sound that came out of that harp was just unbelievable and so I would just have to try and capture those sounds in my mind. And sometimes I’d bring a small tape recorder down so I could hear it again. And then it was up to me to kind of reverse engineer the physics of how he was producing the sound. And so I mean I had to teach myself pretty much the technique. But the value of being around the great players was having a model of sound in my head to aim for.