Every time a list of the world's best living harp players comes out, West Coast harpist Mark Hummel makes the top five. Incorporating jazz and swing into a blues format, Hummel has developed a style that, while sounding laid back, is loaded with improvisational virtuosity.
Hummel grew up in East L.A., but was first captivated by the Chicago blues sound. "When I first started, I wasn't hip to the real guys," Hummell said by phone from his Bay area home. "I was kind of more into the rock blues from the '60s. I'd listen to Cream, and I'd hear Jack Bruce and John Mayall blowing the harmonica. Then all of a sudden I'd heard Little Walter and Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite and Sonny Boy and James Cotton and people like that, and I said, 'Whoa, this is way more advanced than what these other guys over here are doing.' So once I got into that, I just kinda went, 'This is really the stuff.'"
Hummel found an outlet for his interest close at hand. His father was a Methodist minister who had accepted a posting in an East L.A. ghetto, and Hummel was the only white boy in his school till he was 12. When he was 15, he started playing with a Mexican band called the Del Gatos that played blues-rock.
But once the young harpist heard the real thing, he wanted more of it. He visited Chicago briefly, but eventually drifted back to the West Coast to the Bay area, incorporating the horns he heard in big bands with his version of the blues. "For about 15 years I've been listening to horn players in jump bands, everything from Artie Shaw to Wynonie Harris, from Louis Jordan to Lester Young."
West Coast swing exploded across the country a few years back, reviving an interest in big band music and jump blues. Hummel has been playing swing dances for many years, and is still a favorite among swing dance societies because of his willingness to tailor his material for the swing dancers. Not only is it highly unusual for a musician of his caliber to tailor the tempo of his material, but also to trim the length of the songs to suit the swingers. "Most musicians don't," Hummel says bluntly, "and I think part of it is that most musicians like to play 10 minute songs. To be honest with you, I kind of like having to rein in the length of solos. Part of that is some kind of '60s throwback." He explains that in those bygone days, everybody played five-minute songs and nowadays, everybody plays 10 to 15 minute songs. The harpist says that when he plays swing dances, it's more like playing like he would at a recording session "because when I record, I tend to keep my songs under five minutes. It's fun to do 'em because it kind of forces us to do something else."
Hummel says that when you're doing both West Coast and East Coast swing it's a little easier to play the shows because you can break it up tempo-wise a little more. "I used to do some West Coast dances out here in California, and when I was doing those, you'd get stuck doing one tempo all night long, or in a restricted range, so it's a little easier when you go out East because they like to do both."
His versatility makes him popular not only with swing dancers but with blues fans all over the world. His latest release, Electro-Fi Records' Golden State Blues, has him working in a variety of styles from the slow shuffle on "Honey do Woman" to the Jimmy Reed-flavored rocker "Please," revitalizing the old blues chestnut "Linda Lu" with a rockabilly tempo and closing with the rollicking blues rocker "Stockholm Train."
But for all the versatility he exhibits, the harpist believes that a good harp player has to temper it with restraint. "But also a certain kind of push and drive in what you do. I guess you could call it kind of a paradoxical explanation. In one sense, you've got to be committed to whatever it is you're playing, and one of the problems that most harmonica players have is to play everything they know in the first four bars and have nothing after that."
That's a lesson that Hummel learned from some of the older black players who mentored him. And there was another lesson to be learned as well--although he believes that the blues has no color, he was always made to feel more welcome in the company of black musicians. "I think black players have always been a lot more embracing than a lot of the white players. White musicians are weird, man," he laughs. "So many of 'em just get wrapped up in trips. And I don't know what it is, but I think a lot of it is youth, and I think a lot of it is just the white rock world. It's very wrapped up in egos, and personas, and just a lot of bullshit."
Hummel says that he got into blues when it was so unpopular and so far underground that probably one of the main things that appealed to him about the blues was that it was so unpopular. "I dug it because it was great, soulful music, and I also dug it because I think I related. It's kind of a weird thing, a white guy saying he thinks he related to these old black guys from the South, but there was something in there. I think it was the feeling of feeling out of place in the world. Somewhere in your psyche, that's got to be there--feeling like a stranger in a strange land type of thing." That's why they call it the blues, and why musicians like Mark Hummel are its best representatives.