Blues Come Alive at Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Hall of Famer Charlie Musselwhite headlines this year's fest

‘The blues is still alive and well,” says Charlie Musselwhite.

The beloved harmonica player and singer ought to know. He has lived the blues for more than 50 years, and now the Sonoma County resident and recent Blues Hall of Fame inductee appears as the guest of honor at the 16th annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival starting May 31.

Musselwhite reflected recently on his move to Sonoma County, his storied career and the creative pairings that have led to his immense success.

“I came out from Chicago. That’s a long trip—Mississippi to Memphis to Chicago to California,” recounts Musselwhite. “I came in ’67 to play some gigs and thought that I would just be going back to Chicago when I got through, but I had never been to California and didn’t know anything about it, really. And when I came out here, I just saw how wonderful it was, how nice the people were and how there was work all up and down the coast. When I got off the plane in California for the first time, it took me about 10 minutes to think, ‘I ain’t going back to Chicago.’

“It seemed like people really liked blues. They seemed to think it was something exotic, where back in the South and Chicago, it’s just an everyday thing. All the hippies were playing me on the radio. They weren’t playing me on the radio anywhere else.”

After living all around the Bay Area, Musselwhite moved to Sonoma County more than 20 years ago. “There’s just a long list of things that are wonderful about Sonoma County. Pick one of ’em,” he laughs. “I love the people, I love the food. I love the consciousness of the people. You go to the farmers market and get to buy the food you eat from the guy who grew it.”

This year, Musselwhite headlines the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which opens with the weekend-long Blues Bash. “I’m glad to see that blues will be at the festival. Seems like back in the day, all jazz festivals had a blues day or a blues stage, but somehow it dropped off,” says Musselwhite. “I’m glad to see that blues will be at the festival, ’cause jazz came from blues. If we haven’t got blues, we haven’t got jazz.”

Musselwhite launches the festival with a performance alongside guitar legend Elvin Bishop and country crooner Guy Davis. “They’re both friends of mine. I’ve known Elvin—we both lived in Chicago a long time,” recalls Musselwhite. “He came to Chicago from Tulsa and I came from Memphis; we met in Chicago way back in the early ’60s and have been friends 50 or more years. And we still look exactly the same! To be onstage playing with an old friend, that’s real special,” he says. “I mean, a lot of people we started out with are no longer here. We’re both healthy, doing good. It’s almost like a celebration of life or something.”

Following this, Musselwhite switches gears with a blues-meets-Latin-jazz performance based on his acclaimed 1999 album, Continental Drifter. Musselwhite says the album and his fascination with Cuban standards started all the way back in Memphis.

“When I was a kid in Memphis, I was really interested in blues. I was going all around to junk stores and used furniture stores—any place that had old records. And I was looking for blues records, but anything else I found that looked interesting, I’d get that too,” he says .

“Along the way there I discovered other music from around the world, like flamenco, rebetiko music from Greece, and I discovered a lot of Latin music too. I got the feeling, or the opinion, that every culture had some kind of music that was from the heart, music of lament, like blues. If you translate the lyrics from all these different styles of music from around the world, they’re all singing the same thing—’My baby left me.’ Hard times, and good times too. It’s really music from and of the people.”

He discovered a Cuban band called Cuarteto Patria and became a big fan. At a music festival in Norway, he met a promoter who also loved the band; he later invited Cuarteto Patria and Musselwhite to the following year’s festival. Musselwhite thought it would be great to sit in with the band and record it. He found a local studio to do it, and the Continental Drifter album was born.

“So now I’ll be able to recreate that [album] with the John Santos Group, and they’re great musicians, and he’s a great guy; we have a good time. We’ll have so much fun performing this, the audience can’t help but have fun.”

Musselwhite will also appear in two other performances with saxophonist Joshua Redman, sitting in with Redman’s jazz quartet and inviting Redman to sit in with his own ensemble, all while intertwining jazz and blues elements that speak in the universal language of life’s joys and laments.

In 2010, Musselwhite was honored with an induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, and earlier this year he won a Grammy for Best Blues Album for his collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Harper on Get Up!

“I met Ben a long time ago when he opened for John Lee Hooker. John Lee was an old friend, and he’d often call me up to say, ‘Come on down and play with us tonight.’ Our paths just kept crossing here and there, and we just got to know each other better and better, and then we also backed up John Lee on a recording in the studio, and that’s where we really locked in and realized how well we played together. We had a rapport musically. Even John Lee said, ‘You guys ought to do more recording together.'”

Musselwhite says there is already talk of another record with Harper.

After all these years playing the blues, Musselwhite’s love for music still burns bright, and the harmonica master still has too many irons in the fire to say for sure what’s next. In the meantime, he’s honored to be a part of the upcoming Healdsburg Jazz Festival and to share his passion with his local community.

“Don’t let the term ‘blues’ fool you,” he says. “This isn’t sad music; this gets rid of that feeling. This is uplifting music. You can dance or you can listen, and if you’re really talented, you can do both. It’s all about having a good time.”

Sonoma County Library