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Jay Mabin: Harmonica Player PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patrick Dennis   
Wednesday, 20 August 2008 10:11

JAY MABIN-1970-2008 Never A Band Member

From early on Tacoma’s Jay Mabin realized music was his life.  He lived and drove his life force through his creative musical process.  Jay has always looked on his work as distinctive art even if in a band format.  I can only see him as an individual artist. 

After the first Court C open mike in December 1969, along came this thin, shy, yet confident, fourteen year old harmonica player in early 1970.  He made a room full of dazzling notes and runs.  His father ran a record store in South Tacoma and music was a common occurrence.  “Sonny one of the workers at Court C told me about the Open Mikes at Court C and I just wandered in.  I looked like a lost kid. That first night took my breath away.  I was nervous and excited. The cool thing is we could meet up with older players and I was accepted.  I remember being introduced to authentic blues players like Dumovich, getting my first paid job referral form Court C at the Cave at PLU, and the huge influence of the jazz trio Jorgan’s Organ.”

 Jay was a regular.  He played with Dumovich, Mike Ball, Mike Kinder, myself, and others.  We booked Sonny Terry & Bownie McGhee in March of 1970.  This was life changing. “I met Sonny and Brownie before the gig and Sonny gave me a lesson.  That was really something.  At the concert they invited me up to play with them.”  Jay exploded with a rash of notes and sounds and the two old time blues players smiled.  Afterwards Sonny said something like boy he sure can play a lot of notes.  It was amazing for Jay, the audience, and even Sonny and Brownie who mentioned Jay a couple of times over a Soul Foods dinner in Tillicum late that night.  The blues were an integral part of the 70’s Court C presenting Fred McDowell, Rev Pete Williams, Johnny Shines and John Lee Hooker.  Not a bad musical environment for a teenager.

By 1973 Jay working with typical high school garage groups, got a taste of electric bass.  “Steve Kim was a bass player and he showed me the bass basics. I felt connected to the bass.  I didn’t look on the bass as background lines, but as a dark mysterious power that drove the music.  It had expression in both lead and rhythm.  A couple of local players hired me for a group Bonafide Zonafide, plus I sat in with a lot players.  During that time I fell prey to stuff that was going on.  I had both good and bad experiences that stuck for a long time.  Today I am focused and recovered from a negative life style, and have made a commitment to turn the page.  Now do things where the bad stuff is cut out that used to mess me up.  The priorities in my life make music the pure joy, like when I first started in 1970.  In a way I am thankful for the negative.  I have a better sense of what is real.” 

Jay is remarried to Jacqui and has two children from a previous marriage.  One works at the Antique Sandwich. How things go round in circles.  She called him, telling him he should get down to the historic Mikes.  He did.   “I am happier than I have ever been and just making a solid connection.”

Jay plays many styles of music and many harps from diatonic, chromatic, bass, and diatonic played as a chromatic.  And if you were at the September Ancient Victorys Open Mike he did a jazz ballad duet with Mike Nelson that was an absolute gem.  The art, creative process just flowed.   “Jazz was in house.  My dad was well versed in jazz, but also turned me on to modern things he thought I as a teenager would like.  So there was jazz at home, and then Jorgan’s Organ at Court C that really made an impression. “

Other creative highlights?  “I got to play with Bo Diddley twice, once on bass, then later on harmonica.  What an experience.  Bo was in his 70’s and still interested in music and developing, not just a tired old player. He was very vibrant and involved. I was impressed.”  Then, a friend of Jay’s was working at Jazz Alley told him the internationally acclaimed Toots Thielmans was booked, and he should call him.  Jay finally got the courage, called the motel, asked for Toots, and he answered the phone.  They talked for a while.  “Then he gave me a lesson for an hour.  He was playing guitar, and showing me chromatic.  I tried to pay him, but he said no.  Then Rick Leppamen (now Pearl Django bass player) went to see his show.  Toots came right up to the table and took me back stage.  I was thrilled.”

His same Jazz Alley friend called and said there was a harmonica player playing chromatically on diatonic.  I was skeptical.  But he talked me into getting this album of jazz harmonica and I was totally awed.  I was married to Janice at that time and we went to Chicago to visit.  I looked up Howard Levy’s name in the Jazz Directory and called him, and said I was visiting from Tacoma. I ended up out in Skokie sitting across from this musical genius.  And I don’t use that term loosely.  But I was in the presence of genius. I was awestruck and didn’t know people could think like that musically.  The diatonic harp came along in the 1800’s and here, over 150 years later, this man discovers that the instrument can be played chromatically!  All the notes were already there.  He figured out by experimenting that a squak he got, could be a note and finally developed the chromatic technique.  I got lessons on harmonica there.  I was with him just before he joined Bela Fleck and Flecktones.  Howard auditioned for the band on the phone.  He came out this way and I was doing Prosito’s every Monday and we brought him in with Marc Seales Trio.  Levy is a major influence.”

Jay spent ten years with the extraordinary blues player Tom McFarland, who was a big favorite of mine too.  Both Jay and I still have McFarland’s Arhoolie LP.  “Tom was a huge influence on my life.  We would spend hours talking about music and life.”  And playing.

Part of Jay’s life is getting interest beyond music.  “My recovery over the last seven years has made me address life, become a better person, and work on things I left back many years ago.  I address who I am and appreciate the many blessings in my life.”

You might see his name with groups but he is very clear he is not a band person, but an individual artist expressing his life in the context of a group of like minded musicians.  There is a huge difference.  Kind of like a painter belonging to a co-op or school but he is not that school, but an individual artist.
Jay has copies of a self-produced 1998 CD with half jazz and half blues.  Jay has almost completed a second CD half recorded here and half in Chicago.  Look for that soon.

“It has been wonderful to hook up with the Open Mikes.  Mike Ball and I met at a benefit for a bass player and talked about getting to the next mike.  So we came down and did the conga and harmonica duet of Donovan tunes.”  The audience could not believe what fun and how well that worked.  Then Jay joined guitarist Mike Nelson for a blues and an amazing jazz ballad.   See Jay at the next Open Mike December 11.  Every couple of months some friends in the Hipbone trio augment with Jay at the Swiss on a Monday.  He hooks up with players often.  We’ll keep you posted.  (Chris Lunn)

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