Jazz Gillum – Harmonica Pioneer

Jazz Gillum – (William Mc Kinley Gillum aka « Jazz ») Indianola, Mississippi, september 11 1904 – Chicago, Illinois, March 29 1966

For many years Jazz Gillum was the main and only harmonica player in the Chicago blues bands. He took part in modernizing the genre and opened the path for Little Walter and Big Walter Horton who eventually got much more famous than he ever was.

He started to play the harmonium under the wing of his uncle, a pastor. He will then switch to harmonica which is of course easier to carry. In 1918 he works at a local gas station plays in local juke joints and in a few radio shows. In 1923 he moves to Chicago where he plays on the famous Maxwell Street market and many South Side clubs where Jazz Gillum meets Big Bill Broonzy who helps him sign a contract with Bluebird. He records his first tune in 1934 that will be followed by over a 100 more showing how popular he was with the audience of that times. With so many recordings we can of course notice repetition of the form : introduction , 2 verses, harmonica solo, 1 verse and a final harmonica ending.  Some tunes stand out more than others  : Gillum’s windy blues, Sarah Jane, Don’t you scandalize my name, Look on yonder’s wall, The blues what am…

Jazz Gillum is the first to take the harmonica out of the memphis jug band style and try to adapt it in a more modern context. He doesn’t play all the time like many players do nowadays but each time he grabs the harmonica the phrases are clean and precise. He often plays in the same key as his harmonica (known as 1st position) like old timers do but in his most famous tune “Key to the Highway” he plays a 5th above (2nd position) and helped this manner to become a standard in modern harmonica blues playing.

Jazz Gillum in the 1960s

After World War II  newcomers like Little Walter push the old generation out and it becomes hard for Jazz to get any work. He retires from music and makes a short come back in the 1960s playing in a few clubs for students and recording a last album for Folkways Smithsonian. In 1966 he is shot in the head after an argument with a neighbor.
He left us many compositions that became Blues standards.

Here is a great sample of his late playing in the 1960s with Memphis Slim on piano.

this Boogie in G is played on a C harmonica
Get a C harmonica on Harmonicaland
Learn Blues harmonica from Harmonica School
Get this harmonica album by Jazz Gillum here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *