Mark Hummel put on his first Blues Harmonica Blowout at Ashkenaz in Berkeley in 1991. It featured local harmonica players, like Rick Estrin from Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and Doug Jay, of the Bob Margolan Blues Band.
“I borrowed the concept from Tom Mazzolini, who started the San Francisco Blues Festival,” Hummel said. “He had a Battle of the Blues Harmonicas at the festivals, with a couple of harp-based blues bands like Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers on the bill. I changed the format and had my band backing up the guest harp players. That made it possible to go out and tour with the show, but the first one was going to be a one-off. There was no intention of creating a franchise. The next year, I added gigs in Santa Cruz, Chico and Sacramento, and the number of cities and towns we’d play has grown every time. Over the years, we’ve taken the Blowout all over America, Canada and Europe.”
The blues captivated Hummel when he was still young. “I grew up in East L.A. We lived in the Black community, so my babysitters played Black music on the radio—R&B, blues, soul. When I was younger, I thought it was all R&B,” he said. “In high school I listened to rock, but saw names like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon on my albums. That got me curious, so I bought Willie Dixon’s I Am the Blues, with Big Walter on harmonica. I stopped listening to rock and got into the blues. I wanted to be in a band, but I was a terrible guitar player. Since nobody I knew played harp, I got some older guys to give me lessons and never looked back.”
“When I started the Blues Blowout, I never would have guessed it would be going strong 30 years later,” Hummel said. “Putting it together every year is a combination of thrilling and nerve-wracking, especially this year, with Covid still in the air. We’re day by day at this point. I haven’t heard anything from the venues, but they’re all serious about vax cards and masks. We’ll all be vigilant and wear masks when we’re not on stage.”
This year’s Blowout is a tribute to Big Walter “Shakey” Horton, one of the harp players who inspired Hummel to begin playing music. “He was a huge influence on me, since I started playing,” he said. “The first guy I heard was Sonny Terry, and I couldn’t even comprehend what he was doing when I was 15, but I studied James Cotton, Junior Wells and other harp guys. I bought every record I could find and took apart every song that grabbed me, learning it note for note. Big Walter was one of the guys I studied. I saw him play twice and tried to talk to him after a gig about tongue blocking and other techniques he used. He waved me off, if I recall properly, but he knocked me out.”
Several harmonica players on the Little Walter Blowout saw the legend play live. Hummel said Sugar Ray Norcia, Gary Smith and Curtis Salgado all saw Big Walter when he was in his prime, but that’s not the only reason they’re on this year’s bill. “I pick people I enjoy playing with and that have some name recognition,” he said. “I’ve known Curtis since I came to the Bay Area. He inspired John Belushi to create the Blues Brothers. Sugar Ray played duets with Big Walter and leads Sugar Ray and the Bluetones with Ronnie Earl. Aki Kumar is from Bombay and got a tech job in Silicon Valley. He said the first time he heard blues harp was at a gig of mine, at the Ivy Room in Albany. He told me this a few years later, after he’d been taking lessons for five years. I invited him to sit in and was amazed. He knew all of Big Walter’s licks.”
He added, “Gary Smith was the first harp player to make a name for himself in San Jose, and [he] introduced a lot of people to the blues. Junior Watson and Robben Ford got started in this band. He’s also a stunning guitarist. He’s played with John Lee Hooker, Charlie Musselwhite and Luther Tucker.”
“I’ve done a lot of tours with these guys,” he said, “especially Anson, Wes, Curtis, Bob and Aki; so we all know each other pretty damn well. Everyone brings something special to the table, and they’re all a good hang. That figures prominently into all of this.”