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Jerry Portnoy

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Jerry Portnoy was born in Chicago in 1943 and brought up in the vicinity of the Maxwell Street market, where his father owned a rug store. There, among the haggling customers and traders, many of the original blues players who had drifted to Chicago from the south would set up and play for whatever loose change was dropped at their feet. Even so, it was only at the age of 25, and after failed attempts to master several other instruments, that Portnoy discovered his aptitude for playing the harmonica. Just five years after first picking up the instrument, he was off touring with Muddy Waters.

“For a harmonica player that was the top job in the world. He was a great band leader, the Duke Ellington of the blues in the sense that he turned out a lot of stars and a lot of band leaders and people who went on to make their own mark.” A supremely agile player, Portnoy has as his trademark an ability to balance passages that are light and filigreed against moments when he pushes down hard on the reed to produce a fiercely heavy tone. According to Portnoy, the popular and faintly disparaging view of the “humble” harmonica ignores the versatility of the instrument. “All musicians want to speak through their instrument which is what makes the harmonica such a valuable tool for playing the blues. Its tonal capabilities are unique, so that you can make it sing, speak, talk, moan, cry, bark, growl, beg for mercy or just about anything else.”

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