“The saddest blues song of all,” Mike Gwinn told his audience last Saturday evening, strumming an improvised few notes on the guitar, “is the one that starts out, ‘I didn’t wake up this morning . . .’”
Gwinn’s a funny man, and a fine blues musician. With bassist and sax player John White, as the duo Blues Indigo, he was the fourth installment in a surprising, and surprisingly successful, new music series called Wrighteous Jazz, after Ouray’s Wright Opera House.
This concert/lecture, on the connections between blues and jazz, departed from its predecessors in that it was hosted by the Ouray County Performing Arts Guild at the Log Hill home of members Charlie Carson and Marsha McCall. As the sunset faded from the snowy Cimarron Range out the living-room windows, Gwinn, in his trademark porkpie hat and black Gibson guitar, and White, who is the energetic band director at Centennial Middle School in Montrose and a member of Gwinn’s Paonia-based big band, The North Fork Flyers, began at the beginning.
Gwinn started with a field holler, a call-and-response tune that might have come direct from plantation life. Alternating harmonica and dirgelike lyrics, the song told of a hanging: “another man gone...didn’t know his name.” A kind of simple African spiritual, sung to survive the work, survive the sadness – the kind of song musicologists think of as blues roots.
(Gwinn didn’t mention it, but the name Blues Indigo is apropos because blue indigo dye, clothes dyed blue by the indigo plant, signified death and mourning in numerous African cultures.)
Next the duo played three Robert Johnson tunes, culminating with “Crossroads.”
“How many of you have ever had a Cream album?” Gwinn asked, to a sea of raised arms. “Cream made this song famous, but it was Robert Johnson’s, the man Eric Clapton thought of as the greatest bluesman of all time.” Gwinn explained the myth surrounding the song, that Johnson, standing at a crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, sold his soul to the devil for blues guitar mastery. “Only it didn’t work out,” Gwinn said. “He died in 1938, at age 27, possibly poisoned with strychnine in his whiskey, by a lover or her boyfriend.”
“The blues is technically easy to play,” said White, a classically trained reed player. He went on to describe the basic three-chord blues progression and the myriad variations in 12-bar blues. “The challenge for me, the problem for me, as one of my teachers told me: ‘John, you have to have bad things happen to you to play the blues.’”
“Oh, a lot of bad things happened to me!” Gwinn interrupted his much younger bandmate. “Starting in grade school.” The line got a laugh, but the 70-year-old’s face wore its hard times, including addiction, openly.
In a section the duo called “transition – where blues and jazz entwine,” Gwinn took to the piano and sang a Mose Allison tune: “Momma told me, son, you’re just committing slow suicide, drinking and gambling and staying out all night. Living in a fool’s paradise.”
“Indeed,” Gwinn said.
The musical tour followed the Black Migration from the rural South to the city, specifically Chicago, where the blues got electrified and Jimmy Reed wrote “Bright Lights, Big City.”
The duo played a couple of Duke Ellington tunes, and Gwinn quoted the great band leader’s signature statement: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Thelonius Monk “went out of his way to be oblique,” Gwinn said.
“Yes, he did!” White concurred as they launched into “Blue Monk.” “He was probably bipolar,” Gwinn said, a genius madman, in his own world. “If you get a chance, rent the documentary Straight No Chaser. There’s a scene where Monk is walking around in circles, backwards, in an airport. Monk couldn’t handle airports.”
To represent the era of West Coast cool jazz, they did a couple of Miles Davis tunes, “Kind of Blue” and “So What.” “Blues and jazz absolutely intertwined,” Gwinn said. After White finished a blistering, Coltrane-like saxophone solo, Gwinn teased him, “Miles would probably say, ‘Don’t play so many notes, man.’”
Gwinn played another of his own compositions, “Jazz Standards Man,” in which he rhymes Lady Gaga and Indian raga.
“I needed the challenge of jazz,” Gwinn reminisced at one point. “I started my first band in 1959. We played ‘Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley’ and surf music: [playing] bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum . . . three chords and $50 a night. Same as I’m making now!
“Charlie Parker and bebop took it to a faster and more complicated realm.”
“My goal in life is to play as fast as Charlie Parker,” White said with a grin.
Blues Indigo played Parker’s “Cherokee,” riffing and scatting and soaring all over the finger and fretboards.
When the applause had died down, I heard behind me the ecstatic voice of Jorg Anghern, the instigator, with fellow Ridgwayite Anthony Gegauff, of the Wrighteous series. “The magic of improvised music! Cool,” Anghern crooned.
A fifth Wrighteous Jazz program featuring Max Wagner and his trio from Estes Park, Colo., takes the stage in Ouray, on Saturday, April 20.