Jeremy Clarke

Jason Ricci is my mentor, guru and anointed one

Lately my afternoons are spent with America’s no.1 blues harmonica player and his tongue-blocking techniques

Jason Ricci is my mentor, guru and anointed one
Blues harmonica player Jason Ricci [Photo: eddie linssen / Alamy Stock Photo]
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A second week recovering in bed in this pleasant south-facing bedroom. If I sit up, my back resting against whitewashed rock, I can look out of the window across 30 miles of oak forest to the Massif Des Maures, a coastal mountain range. As the day progresses, these indistinguishable mountains are altered by the changing light until finally and dramatically the softer evening rays reveal the folds and valleys in topographical detail. The revealing doesn’t last more than five minutes and I try to remember to look out for it. Then the mountains darken and, after a last commemorative glow, vanish.

Last week there was a violent electric storm and downpour every afternoon. You could set your watch by it. It’s like living in the tropics during the monsoon here in the south of France at the moment. Wonderful to watch, though, from high up, in bed, through an open window, with an undeterred nightingale flinging his heart out against the storm.

Every day a nurse comes. There are two, alternately: one tall, one short. They ask me how I’m doing, glance at the wound, stab me in the thigh with a thin hypodermic needle and leave. The tall one I struggle to understand. When I fail altogether, she repeats the same sentence at the same speed only more vehemently. This tall one is incurious about her surroundings. Sick people’s homes no longer hold any interest for her, only what lies under our dressings. That, and her impatience with foreigners not understanding, is absolutely fine by me. I’m amazed that the French state should send anyone at all.

The short one first arrived during the afternoon monsoon and thunderstorm soaked to the skin and shrieking. When she’d towelled off and regained her composure she took in her surroundings and lost it again. ‘Oh là là!’ she said, literally reeling. Could she take photos to show her children? She tottered from room to room pointing her phone randomly at the rocky ceiling and walls.

Lately I spend the rest of the day reading Ernst Jünger and watching blues harmonica tutorials on YouTube. There are several committed blues harp teachers on there and hundreds if not thousands of lessons to be watched for free. Some teachers ask only that you subscribe to their channel to get their ratings up, others advertise personal instruction for a modest monthly fee. I dotted about between one and another of these until I happened upon this American harmonica player called Jason Ricci, whom I’ve chosen as my harmonica mentor, guru and anointed one.

You should see this guy. Number one he’s an amazing blues harmonica player. But better still he is a white man who has the blues. I’ve seen the late Muddy Waters in an interview state as cold fact that only a black man can have the blues because the system is skewed against the black man and only he suffers in that particular way and only he can give voice to his hurt in that sad and romantic way. Old Muddy admits that he isn’t opposed to a white man having the blues. No, sir. It’s just that he ain’t seen one yet. And so on and so forth.

Perhaps Muddy was right. Maybe only a black man can know and tell the difference. But even I can see that former Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson, say, has got more blues in his soul than some of those white harmonica teachers on YouTube. But Jason Ricci, he’s got it in spades.

Sometimes he makes a tutorial in which he also talks about his life. Don’t devote your life to this thing unless you are OCD and don’t mind being poor all your days like him, he says. That’s the first lesson. I must ask him what he thinks about starting at 64 with cancer.

Jason Ricci has been voted number one blues harmonica player in America. Before the pandemic he toured and played live with his band 200 nights a year. He was broke then and he’s even more broke now. When you look over his shoulder at his house you can see he’s not joking. In his tutorials he might also touch on his recurring problems with alcohol and drugs and mental illness and sexuality, and how certain US prisons don’t allow harmonicas and how he once spent a year in jail practising his technique by blowing and sucking on his fist.

And that’s how the day goes, with this totally nice guy bouncing about in his chair because he is so excited about his life now that he’s clean while taking us painstakingly through his tongue-blocking technique. Four, five hours a day sucking and blowing and tongue-blocking on my gob iron. Then a bang of thunder and I must go downstairs to disconnect the wifi. Maybe a cup of tea while I’m down there. Then it’s back up to bed for the storm and lightning show.