Jeff Pittson “What Kind of Fool Am I”

May 7th 2020, Congratulations to Jeff - our May Harmonica Studio Legend!

His playing over the jazz standard "What Kind of Foul am I" is stunning!! 

Jeff is also a pro jazz pianist based in New York City. Check out his last solo piano record The Dietrich Variations.

Give him some support in a comment:)

INTERVIEW WITH JEFF

What Harmonica models do you play?

It seems that I keep coming back to the the basic harmonica that I started with, the Hohner 270.  I have a 270 a Toots Mellotone and a 270 Deluxe as well as a Hohner CX-12 Jazz.  I also have a prewar (WWII) Hohner 280 4 octave, a Swan 4 octave,and a Suzuki SCX 56 14 hole chromatic. The great Dick Gardner rebuilt all of them except the the Suzuki and Swan.  There are so many harmonicas I would like to try out that I could have another 40 or 50 instruments at least, maybe even twice that number! But my needs are comparatively few and you can only practice on one instrument at a time so….

When did you start learning harmonica?

I think I had a chromatic in the late 90’s but hardly ever played it or, if I did, I then put it down for long periods of time out of frustration.  I had to change my mindset and say that it was possible to get better on it,  that it is possible to improve even though at times this little instrument seemed incomprehensible.  Of course the potential for expression, the heartfelt, plaintive, very vulnerable and profoundly human sound was there and I held on  to that ideal in my mind. That sound is what compelled me to begin eventually.  Come to think of it I think I may have even picked one up after I saw Toots play in Berkeley CA in 87, but, in retrospect, I was bitten by the harmonica virus even before that when I heard Toots and Bill Evans on Affinity around 1978.  It was life changing but it took me years to actually act on it. I got another 270 in 2004 and in 2005 took about 4 or 5 lessons with Winslow Yerxa in San Francisco before we moved to New York in the fall of that year. I started practicing more in 2015 and started practicing daily since becoming a member of Harmonica Studio late in September 2017.  So you can see I am still a beginner. I have found the key to improving is consistency, actually picking up the instrument everyday. The method to accomplish this task is quite simple.  I tell myself that If I don’t practice today, I will hate myself and, because I don’t like that feeling, I go practice!! Some days are better, others not,  but I try not to anticipate what will happen and just show up. 

What are your top 3 favorite songs to play?

That’s really a difficult question…I know a lot of standards as a jazz pianist…on harmonica I really like Days of Wine and Roses, What Kind of Fool am I,  Blue and Green.  Also Straight no Chaser, Tenor Madness, Killer Joe, Scrapple from the Apple, Three-In One. Just three is almost impossible!:)

What are some of your musical goals?

To play gigs on the chromatic on the level of a proper professional chromatic harmonica player and  To do a record (or records!) playing jazz. To earn a certficate in Jazz Harmonica from Harmonica Studio. With the chromatic harmonica I want to accomplish on that instrument what Wayne Shorter said regarding music, life, creativity and the big picture: “Play for what you wish for.  Play for what you wish the world to be."

How long have you been a Harmonica Studio member?

September 24, 2017 and a lifetime member since late 2018.

Where are your favorite courses/lessons on Harmonica Studio?

There is so much variety of content on the site that if a person wants to do all of it, in depth, in a manner that is not just superficial and with attention to the music in general, you can spend years and not get to the bottom of it.  Plus all of the new lessons that are being added constantly are all challenging.  If you are honest with yourself, you have to embrace the process of doing your best, just showing up and plugging along, with as much material as you can handle, knowing full well that you can always improve on your scales, patterns, tone, repertoire….it’s literally endless.  You have to embrace the process and chip away at it a little each day…one section at a time in the way that HS is presented. The sheer amount of material that is present on the site is a reason to practice. I could repeat all the lessons on the site using tongue blocking which is a totally different embouchure and has it’s advantages. I started as a pucker player, but I am trying to learn tongue blocking now. The Monthly Challenges may be the most challenging venue as they really force you to focus in on a specific tune, or solo and try to present it to others.  Those challenges compel you to practice and get better asap. There is nothing like having to play for other people, (especially fellow students) that will get you to focus and that makes its my favorite feature on the site…sometimes I hate it but I get a lot out of it and so I try to persevere. Being a pianist for many years I know that we can never learn everything. Musicians are always in the business of filling in the gaps in their musicianship and it is impossible to comprehend and absorb everything. My friend, drummer extraordinaire  Wally Schnalle says  "Enjoy the ride” which, in our case, is the process of learning, without envying others, or asking the usually fatal question “How long is it going to take before I get really good?"  As Nichiren said, “It is like the case of a poor man who spends night and day counting his neightbors wealth but gains not even half a coin.” It’s my opinion that HS is designed to facilitate process oriented learning and, as such, is a great school. It has been said that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of work-play-effort to achieve mastery in any given area. Even that figure is a mere beginning, a prelude, if you will, if we are to believe what the Indian classical musicians say when they assert that there is enough content in music,  so much to absorb and present and teach, that it would require three lifetimes of activity.  

Thank you for the opportunity to share with all of my fellow Harmonica Studio brothers and sisters. May you all find fulfillment, bringing happiness to the world, in your music.

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Responses

  1. Jeff, this is beautiful! I have heard your submissions, and you are an inspiration to us all. Well done!
    Mauny

  2. Beautiful rich tone and smooth lyrical lines. Really enjoyed and learned from your rendition. I really appreciate your full rounded tonality…reminds me of what I’m striving for …similar to Toot’s timbre! Thanks much.

  3. to Jan, John, Mauny and Burton…thanks for all your kind words.
    Re Jan’s question; I find that trying to get a round tone on every note is a challenge…long tones really help just like a sax or trumpet and changing the internal shape or cavity of your mouth to maximize the tone you are after does help to get the most out of every note on the instrument. It is a good thing to combine with long tones. I think tone starts first in your head-imagination and you have to imagine what you would like to sound like…I think that is the first step. Secondly I try not to ever blow too hard: just enough to get a tone that speaks clearly but no more than that. As my friend and great Harmonica player and tech extraordinaire Dick Gardner recently] told me and I will quote directly:

    ” Blowing hard only drops the pitch and strains the reed, calling
    up a shorter playing life, and certainly not sounding well, strident is
    not pretty! A direct quote from Richard Hayman, Conductor, performer and
    supreme commander of the harmonica.. I repaired his A 270’s for years up
    til his passing a few years back. Not once, did I ever replace a reed in
    any of the many harmonicas I ”Gardnerized” for him. I think he came up
    with that description of his harps after I attended to them! He was a
    strong player, the best throat vibrato ever, but never enough to strain a
    reed ..same for Toots Thielemans…they played from the heart, not the
    bellows..(lungs).”

    So there it is from a former Harmonicat and great player himself! I hope that helps!
    Cheers!
    Jeff

  4. Re tone on the chromatic I just thought of something else; keeping your lips relaxed and the harmonica deep in your mouth will make for a bigger tone/sound. If the harp is not in your mouth sufficiently the tone will be thin and or distract sounding. If your lips are tense the tone will not be as full either. Something to try and be aware of.